SAN DIEGO — Often, inner-city parks can be the road to trouble for American youths.
Wide receiver Timmie Ware, who is trying to make the Charger roster, frequented such a park as a youngster--but it helped keep him out of trouble.
While growing up, Ware, now 23, always was playing sports at Gonzales Park in Compton.
He remembers how that park was often visited by a couple of older kids named Ozzie Smith and Lonnie Smith, who both grew up in the area and went on to star in major league baseball. And he hasn't forgotten those Mickey Mantle League games at Compton against a team whose star player was Darryl Strawberry, now a star with the New York Mets.
"All I ever did was play sports," Ware said. "While I was growing up, there were a lot of gangs around me. I never got into them because I was always into sports."
"It was one of the few places you could go and not worry about gangs. They not only stayed away, they respected the guys playing sports."
Ware was raised in a strict Baptist environment and was taught to respect people. He credits his virtually trouble-free childhood to his parents, Jackie and Joyce.
Ware was always a source of pride to his father. From the time Timmie could walk, Jackie Ware bragged to neighbors about what his son accomplished.
Jackie Ware died when his son was 6. Joyce Ware then raised Timmie, one older sister and one younger sister by herself.
"My mom is the greatest lady I know," Ware said. "She taught me all the right things. What you see in Timmie Ware is what my mom is. She led me through life and always got the best for me. I can see her face wherever I am. She's a very special lady."
Ware always was a very special athlete.
He was a standout in football, basketball and track at Centennial High School in Compton. His mile-relay team set a national record in 1980.
Ware was recruited primarily as a track athlete, but he decided he also would play football wherever he attended college.
But deciding where to go to college wasn't easy, because several top schools were offering him scholarships.
"The last place I wanted to go was USC or UCLA," he said. "I grew up watching them and I wanted to get away from home."
Ware wanted to attend Washington, but the Huskies' coaches wanted him to play defensive back. He preferred wide receiver.
He also considered Arizona State but visited the campus and found he didn't like the atmosphere.
Only then did he reconsider USC. He finally chose the Trojans because the football coaches promised him an opportunity, not the world. They told him he would have to work to gain a starting position and Ware was impressed with their honesty.
After one year of competing in football and track at USC, Ware decided to concentrate on football.
In 1984, his senior season at USC, he made 28 catches for 425 yards and helped lead the Trojans to the Pacific 10 championship. In USC's 20-17 victory over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, Ware had three receptions for 56 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown catch.
But the pro scouts weren't impressed. The 5-foot 10-inch, 198-pound Ware wasn't drafted, and signed as a free agent with the Chargers last year.
Despite having a good exhibition season, Ware was among the team's final cuts.
Still, the Chargers invited him back for to camp in 1986, and Ware is making the most of the second chance.
In two exhibition games, Ware has caught eight passes for 142 yards and three touchdowns. He caught the touchdowns in last week's 45-38 win over Philadelphia. The second scoring catch, which covered 52 yards, came with 31 seconds to play and gave the Chargers the victory.
Part of the reason Ware has looked so good this summer is that he hasn't treated the exhibition games--or practice--lightly.
"It's not a preseason game to me," Ware said. "It's a game. Practice is like a game to me. I have to show what I can do all the time. I'm not a veteran who knows I'm going to be here."
What may decide whether Ware makes the final 45-man roster or not is how well he plays on special teams, not wide receiver.
Last year, the Chargers kept Jesse Bendross as their final receiver because Bendross performed better than Ware on special teams.
This year, the Chargers could keep Ware as a fourth receiver behind Charlie Joiner, Wes Chandler and Trumaine Johnson. Or they also could keep a third quarterback or a player at another position besides keeping Ware.
"The thing that Timmie is fighting in terms of a position is the 45-man roster, not anything else," said Al Saunders, the Chargers' assistant head coach. "The question it comes down to is whether we'll keep three or four wide receivers. Gary Anderson and Lionel James are multipurpose players who can play running back and wide receiver.
"With Timmie, it will depend on how well he can contribute to special teams, which he didn't do last year. We've had him on special teams this year, and he has done well."
But isn't Ware's performance at wide receiver, especially last week, also playing on the minds of the coaching staff.
"Timmie has shown to this point he can contribute to our offense," Saunders said. "He certainly enhanced his position the last two games. If he didn't play to that level, he wouldn't be here now. Timmie has the ability to play in the NFL."