OXNARD — The battle for the Raiders' last wide receiver spot is warming up.
Last weekend, one contender, Rod Barksdale, scored on a 60-yard pass play from Marc Wilson. It was the equivalent of rolling a boulder off a cliff toward your opponent's head, the way Wile E. Coyote used to do to the Roadrunner in the cartoons.
The other contender, Mark Pattison, shrugged it off, though, and within the hour scored on a bomb of his own, a 56-yard strike from Rusty Hilger. Tune in Friday night's exhibition against the New England Patriots to see what they'll come up with next.
It's a match made in defiance of the laws of probability. Pattison, the University of Washington's 10th-leading receiver, was a seventh-round draft pick a year ago, spent most of the season on injured reserve, was released in December, passed through waivers and was re-signed.
And Pattison is the short-odds choice.
Barksdale did not play football at Compton High School. He didn't play at Arizona, either. He ran track instead.
How did the Raiders find him?
"You want a good story or do you want the truth?" personnel director Ron Wolf asked.
Talk about your hard choices.
"He wrote us a letter," Wolf said.
And how many other guys write letters each year?
"Maybe 10,000," Wolf said. "Maybe that's an exaggeration. Say, 5,000."
And how many of the 5,000 get tryouts?
"Say, 50," Wolf said.
How did he get such a late start?
"I just concentrated on track at Compton," Barksdale said. "I thought I was a little too small for football. I was 5-10, 149. Our receivers were 160-something, 170-something. Danny Greene, who played with the Seattle Seahawks, was one.
"We'd play pickup games in the neighborhood. But then basketball season would come around and we'd play basketball. We were just seasonal-type guys."
At Arizona, Barksdale became an All-American--in track. He ran a 10.2-second 100 meters, a 20.3 200 and got as far as the Olympic Trials semifinals in 1984.
He also filled out. He is now 6-1, 185.
Eighteen months ago, Barksdale, then working in construction, began writing to pro football teams. He contacted the Rams, who didn't get back to him.
He also wrote the Raiders, who did.
Was he excited?
"I was like, 'Now what?' " Barksdale said.
Next came the tryout at El Segundo--a bunch of guys who had never seen one another before, in sweats, running patterns for some important-looking people with whistles and clipboards.
The other candidates had at least played college football. Was Barksdale intimidated?
Well, only a little.
"I was nervous but I was trying to cover it up," he said. "Like, 'Oh, it's nothing, just a tryout. If they like me, they like me.'
"But I was nervous. I can't imagine anybody who was in my shoes not being nervous, trying out for something you've never done before, taking a stab at making one of the best teams in football.
"That was the first time I'd ever worn football cleats. They were kind of heavy. I was thinking, 'These guys run around for three hours in these? I was used to track shoes, which are the lightest weight possible."
He remembers dropping only one pass in the tryout. He can't be off too far, since he was invited back to training camp, where more challenges awaited.
Like figuring out how to put on his equipment.
"The first time I put on pads was at the regular camp last year," he said. "They felt kind of funny."
How did he figure out how to put them on?
"I was kind of looking at the other guys," he said, laughing. "Was this strap too tight? Was this one too loose?"
From this modest beginning, he went on to show something. He, too, spent last season on injured reserve, learning the wide receiver's trade. This season, the Raiders began to give him a real look.
In fewer than two weeks, they will stop looking and cut the squad to 45. They are down to five receivers now. They may keep five, in which case Barksdale and Pattison are in.
Or they may keep four. So what goes through Rod Barksdale's mind as he watches Pattison trot into the end zone?
"I try to encourage him when me makes a good catch," Barksdale said. "I hear him yelling for me. That's the good thing about a situation like this: It brings out the best in both of us. I push him, and he pushes me."