SAN DIEGO — In real life, the safest place is usually in the middle. In football, though, it's probably the most dangerous--particularly for a pass receiver.
Some of the most poetic, daring and painful feats in pro football occur when a wide receiver comes slanting into the middle of the field, leaves his feet and stretches for a high spiral, exposing ribs, kidneys and other vital organs to prowling linebackers and defensive backs.
It looks scary enough in slow-motion highlight films. Take it from Wes Chandler, going over the middle in pursuit of a Dan Fouts pass is every bit as nerve-racking as it appears from a safe distance.
Entering his ninth season, and sixth with the Chargers, Chandler said he still experiences a certain fear when venturing into the middle.
But it's a fear he can live with and use to his advantage. His 460 career catches and four Pro Bowl appearances attest to his ability to cope with fear.
"The fear is there, but knowing I can withstand it gives me a competitive edge," he said. "Sometimes it takes a tremendous shot to get me flowing. I need a stiff lick over the middle to make me want to get it on.
"Most of what I do is just what comes naturally, and I need extra adrenaline to get going in some games."
Essentially, Chandler is using reverse psychology. He refuses to be intimidated, even if he's hurting from his head to his Achilles' tendon.
"You have to show that DB (defensive back), 'Hey, I'll be back. If it takes four quarters, I'll be back,' " Chandler said. "That's what separates you from the rest of the pack. The ability to go over the middle, take that shot and hold on. You know it'll happen, but you can't let it faze you."
Ernie Zampese, Charger offensive coordinator, said he finds it hard to determine how much fear a given receiver may feel. He doesn't think Chandler shows any.
"Unless a guy just stops or falls to the ground, you can't be sure if he's scared," Zampese said. "Hell, nobody wants to run in there and jump for the ball while completely exposed to punishment, but there are times you have to do it. It may not be enjoyable, but you wouldn't be out there if you had a lot of fear.
"The concentration on the ball has to be total. If the mind is on something else--like fear--the ball doesn't get caught. I don't know, maybe it helps block out the pain if you're not thinking about getting hit."
Injuries, and the accompanying pain and self-doubt they bring, have shaped Chandler's career.
He has enjoyed three seasons of more than 1,000 yards receiving. The first was in 1979 with the New Orleans Saints. A 1981 trade brought him to San Diego, and in the strike-shortened 1982 season he caught 49 passes for 1,032 yards, an average of 129 per game, best in National Football League history.
Beset by injuries in 1983 and 1984, Chandler's statistics and self-esteem suffered. While battling a foot sprain, an ankle injury, broken teeth, a kidney injury and the flu, he was unable to meet his own standards of productivity. When he got down on himself, his productivity declined further.
Chandler's health and mood were sound last season, when he made 67 catches for a career-high 1,199 yards and 10 touchdowns, earning him a Pro Bowl trip.
"He reached a level of maturity in performance and temperament last year," said Al Saunders, who doubles as assistant head coach and receivers coach. "It's better for Wes and the team as a whole when he stays on an even keel, as he did last season.
"He's just so competitive and proud (that) when he can't meet his own standards he gets down. He's been healthy so far this summer, and he's doing physical things that I've never seen from him on the practice field. He's still at the peak of his ability, still developing his skills, and there's no reason he can't have another Pro Bowl year."
Chandler agreed with Saunders' assessment of his mental approach.
He always has been his own biggest critic, and the only person he tries to impress is himself, Chandler said.
"I have to be hard on myself in order to get better," he said. "I know better than anybody else what I should be accomplishing. I get disoriented if I make a mistake on a route. I've been in this offense long enough to know what I am supposed to do."
The years have taken a toll on his speed but not his quickness, Chandler said.
He's still honing his raw talent, but he doesn't rely on it to beat younger defensive backs.
"I use my experience and the tricks I've picked up," he said. "I have a strong desire not to get beaten by a young defensive back.
"Don't get me wrong, though. I respect those youngsters. It'll come back to haunt you in a hurry if you don't show 'em respect."
Chandler, who turns 30 next Friday, said he cannot envision playing another decade, which would put him in the neighborhood of teammate Charlie Joiner.