SAN DIEGO — Taped to the door of Hank Bauer's office is a little reminder of what he used to be. A 5-year-old poster shows him with a rifle slung over one shoulder, ammo belts crisscrossing an otherwise bare chest, and a stare that would freeze Rambo.
The image was appropriate in the days when Bauer reigned as the most reckless and probably the most feared special teams player in pro football. Covering kickoffs and punts with a madcap fury unmatched by few Chargers before or since, Bauer took on the most thankless job in the business, and made it almost an art.
There was a price, of course. As a companion to the savage-looking poster Bauer might well hang the X-ray showing the fracture of his fifth cervical vertebrae that forced his retirement three years ago.
It wasn't really a caveman mentality that caused Bauer to play five games after breaking his neck when a teammate jerked his facemask one day in practice in 1982. It was ignorance.
For all the advances in sports medicine, Bauer's injury somehow went undiagnosed for a year, and could have led to his being crippled or even killed. He knew he was hurt and the doctors knew he was hurt, but nobody knew just how badly.
"I got hurt on a Thursday before we were going to play the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football," Bauer said. "I was in bed for three days, and I have no memory of the game.
"The doctor said I could play as long as I could stand the pain. Man, I was getting mugged. I had no lateral vision. Guys were really ringing me up. It was amazing."
Bauer actually participated in four more games, including the AFC championship game at Miami, which was to be his last. Acting on advice from doctors, he retired during training camp in 1983. Had he put on a helmet again, he probably would be in a wheelchair now.
As it was, the pain worsened through the fall of 1983. Bauer's transition from player to assistant coach was complicated by the unrelenting pain that weakened his left side by 30%. Finally, he consulted a neurosurgeon, who had him on the operating table within four days.
Bauer is fine now. Those who know him well enough will tell you he's nearly as crazy as ever. With one difference. With the responsibility of his new job as special teams coach, Bauer has added a new, serious, totally businesslike veneer.
"You know what? It seems like forever since I played," Bauer, 31, said. "It took me until last season to really make the break. For a long time I wondered if I made the right choice (to retire). Thank God, I went right into something I loved.
"Now it seems a totally different part of my life. It's totally in the past. I get embarrassed when people come up and say they liked my style as a ballplayer. That's behind me. I want to direct myself to what I'm into now."
To the task of replacing Marv Braden as special teams coach, Bauer brings the same relentless style that characterized his playing days.
"I know every guy can't be like I was, and I accept that," he said. "I started preparing for a game on Wednesday morning, and by 1 p.m. Sunday, I was at a mental and emotional peak. After the game, I'd really kick back for two days and have a good time, partying, surfing, golfing, whatever I felt like.
"As a coach, I don't care if a guy is green, orange, black, white, tall, skinny, fat, strong or weak, I just want to know if he can make the plays. And I'll promise you this: my guys will play damn hard. Any man who doesn't, I'll do my best to run him out of here."
Bauer, naturally, promises an aggressive approach, but not one that excludes intelligence. He wants the Charger special teams to complement the high-scoring offense and the blitzing, big-play orientation that is supposed to evolve on defense.
He has some new wrinkles in mind, but in general he sees no reason to fake a punt or a field goal when the San Diego offense has more weapons. Why take a chance unless it's a gimme?
An obvious concern is the kicking game. Bauer is satisfied with punter Ralf Mojsiejenko, whom he believes will be of Pro Bowl caliber in a few years. But the field goal department is worrisome.
Rolf Benirschke still hasn't recovered from the groin injury that forced him to miss the entire 1985 season. His replacement, Bob Thomas, received a heavy dose of criticism, particularly for the ill-fated overtime field goals at Denver, but Bauer isn't excluding him from future consideration.
It's likely the Chargers will audition three or four new kickers in mini-camp and again in training camp next summer.
Aside from the kickers, Bauer said, a corps of four or five athletes is needed to make most of the hits. The Chargers have at least three such players in Derrie Nelson, Ronnie O'Bard and Lucious Smith, according to Bauer.
San Diego's punt protection and coverage were among the best in the league last year, and no drastic changes are seen. However, Bauer may prescribe more pooch punting, and no, it doesn't involve kicking his dog.