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Rams : Left Cornerback Becomes Gray's Neighborhood

August 22, 1986|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

Steve Shafer stopped Jerry Gray in a hallway at Rams Park late Thursday morning.

Shafer firmly placed both hands on Gray's shoulders in the manner your father used when you left the tools in the driveway for the fourth time in a week.

" . . . and I'm going to keep yelling at you until you get it through your head," Shafer said softly to Gray.

Shafer is the Rams' secondary coach. Gray is the starting left cornerback.

Together, they are going to try filling the void left by All-Pro cornerback Gary Green, who was forced into retirement this week because of a disc injury.

Together, Shafer and Gray will try to pick up the pieces and hope no one notices the difference.

Together, they will meet in hallways and film rooms and on practice fields until it all begins to make some sense to Gray.

"He's still got a lot of growing to do," Shafer said.

Playing cornerback in the National Football League is tough enough. Gray is being introduced to the position much the way a lamb is introduced to a wolf.

Gray was a two-time All-American at the University of Texas, but his position then was safety, where there is some comfort in the very word.

Cornerback, though, is a position at which careers live or die.

"It's tough," Gray said. "This is my second year playing corner--ever. I've got to get the attitude. I've got to compete against guys I used to see on TV."

It's the attitude that makes the player at this position. The Rams drafted Gray in the first round of 1985 with the idea that he would be a cornerback some day.

Well, some day is here. And Gray has been force-fed the playbook and shoved hurriedly to the front.

There are no questions about his physical ability. At 6 feet and 185 pounds, Gray has the strength and speed to stay with most receivers. He even played cornerback last season in the Rams' nickel defense.

Still, it is a wearing, mental war that awaits Gray. It can get awfully lonely out on the wing, where the line between failure and glory is practically indistinguishable.

"What you need to play the corner is a killer instinct," Gray said. "I noticed the way Gary played. He wanted to challenge the receiver. I know I have to get that. You can be a nice guy off the field but on the field I have to be ruthless and mean. You have to say 'Hey, there's a guy who's going to try to embarrass you.' "

By now, every quarterback in the NFL has heard about the new kid at the corner for the Rams. Every receiver and offensive coordinator, too.

Word spreads quickly about such things. The Rams have a crack in their armor, a break in the seam.

With LeRoy Irvin, a Pro Bowl player, at the right corner for the Rams, opposing teams are going to hit Gray with every thing they can throw at him.

Saturday night, in an exhibition game against the San Diego Chargers, Gray will be back-pedaling against the arm of quarterback Dan Fouts.

"This week, I'll be going against the best offense," Gray said. "Next week, it's Denver (and quarterback, John Elway). That's a lot of learning for me. Fouts, you know he'll come my way 20 or 30 times."

A few years ago, when Green was the star and Irvin the upstart, opposing teams gave Irvin so much action that he eventually played his way into the Pro Bowl.

Shafer is hoping that the same will happen with Gray.

"He's not a very polished player right now," Shafer said. "But we expect him to be very, very good. We're just hoping this will make him that much better faster."

Gray knows he's hanging his career on the line. At safety, he drew comfort in knowing that he would not be exposed to one-on-one coverage every play.

You could always blame someone else at safety. You could call it a blown assignment and forget about it.

But nothing looks worse on film Monday morning than a receiver blowing by you down the sideline. Excuses aren't accepted at cornerback.

"It's you against the world," Shafer said. "And when something bad happens, everyone sees it."

But with the gamble comes the chance to be one of pro football's conquering heroes. Great cornerbacks are revered and admired. Great cornerbacks, too, get reputations.

"The margin of error in being a great player or not is not that great," Gray said. "It's all confidence in yourself. You have to be the guy. You have to think that if a play is going to be made, it's going to be made by you. Because mentally, this position can wreck you."

And although the Rams have been in the market for cornerbacks since Green's injury, they have made it clear that the position is Gray's to lose.

In the meantime, Gray and Shafer will be meeting in hallways.

Ram Notes

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