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Jim Murray

Farfetched as It Might Seem, His Story Is True, Nonetheless

September 05, 1986|JIM MURRAY

The sports fan loves the story of the nobody from nowhere who comes in and stands the world of games on its ear.

In fact, so does history in general. The tale of a simple peasant girl without military experience leading the armies of France to victory in battle has made the legend of Joan of Arc sure-fire dramatic fare throughout the ages.

An unknown winning a golf open, a 100-1 shot winning the Derby, a ballplayer climbing down from a hay wagon to pitch the Cardinals to a pennant have been staple sports page and cinematic scenarios for generations.

The story of the Gipper, which helped put a man in the White House, begins with the student crossing the practice field and casually kicking the ball back to the star kicker higher, longer and more accurately than it came to him. The appeal of the Rocky movies is nothing more nor less than this well-worn plot.

So, how would you like the story of the guy who never played a down of football in his life, who never threw or caught a pass, laid a block or took a snap, who walks in off the street, gets a uniform--and goes out and plays his first game against the San Francisco 49ers, who are only the defending Super Bowl champions at the time?

How about a guy who in his third game catches a 61-yard touchdown pass against the Dallas Cowboys? And in the next game catches three passes for 132 yards, one for 71 yards and a touchdown to beat the--get this!--Cleveland Browns?

What do we have here--Joe Hardy? Roy Hobbs? The legend of Faust in football? Do we have a real galloping ghost here?

What we have here is the legend of Rod Barksdale, wide receiver.

He looks innocent enough, and that may be just the trouble. Maybe the league should shake him down to see if he has cloven hoofs for feet or little horns growing out of his forehead, see if he can light a cigarette just snapping his fingers. Does he disappear after midnight? Is there a smell of sulfur in the air when he departs?

Look at the evidence: Football players in the NFL begin playing the game as soon as they can walk. They come up through Pop Warner leagues, grade school, high school, prep school, junior college. Then, they go to Notre Dame or USC for four years and they play with and against fields-full of All-Staters.

They play in bowl games in front of 100,000 fans. They hone their skills in a hundred practice sessions. They study blackboards, sleep with playbooks.

You don't walk in off the street and start catching 70-yard touchdown passes against the flower of the NFL defenses. Not even Frank Merriwell could get away with that.

Rod Barksdale did. He may be the only guy in the NFL--with the possible exception of Renaldo Nehemiah--who never hankered to be there. Rod Barksdale wanted to be Carl Lewis, not Lynn Swann. He wanted a gold medal, not a diamond ring.

That dream came to a shuddering stop in the Olympic trials at Los Angeles in 1984. Barksdale, a 200-meter man from Arizona, made it easily to the semifinals, qualifying with heats of 20.3 and 20.5. He was cruising along nicely in Lane 8, his favorite, when suddenly a muscle in his left leg gave out.

Barksdale had actually enrolled at Arizona as a quarter-miler as well as dash man. He ran a 46.1, but one day the coach clocked him at 20.1 for the 200 in practice, and that was the end of his quarter-mile days.

If you're going to play football, you may as well go right to the top. If you're going to sing opera, you ring up La Scala. If you play the piano, you try Carnegie Hall first.

Rod Barksdale didn't go to the Yellow Pages. He didn't scout around for minor league franchises. He didn't contact the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the New Orleans Saints. He dropped a line to the Los Angeles Raiders, only the most successful franchise in the history of the game.

"I had this friend, Phil Freeman, who plays for Tampa, and he encouraged me to try to play," Barksdale says. "I told him, 'Hey, those guys are pretty big and they played a long time.' But I decided to give it a try. I wrote a letter to the Raiders first, and they said to come ahead."

The Raiders are less a team than a state of mind. Managing General Partner Al Davis is a disciple of the blitzkrieg school of football attack. Al likes the 10-second touchdown. A longtime admirer of the great tacticians of World War II like Patton and Von Rundstedt, Davis despises trench warfare football.

So, when Barksdale ran the 40-yard test in 40.3 seconds, the Raiders were interested. Barksdale could certainly run under the long bomb.

He would have to learn how to get the defenses to let him. He injured his ankle trying in 1985, but the Raiders were still intrigued, enough so that they put him on the injured reserve list rather than release him.

To the layman, speed is speed. To the football mind, straight-ahead sprinter's speed is like a fastball that doesn't move. Hittable and stoppable. The art calls for speed in a slalom.

"You need strength as well as velocity," says Jim Bush, UCLA's track coach for 26 years and now the Raiders' conditioning coach. "Rod has it because he was a quarter-miler. The 400 runner needs strength more than the pure sprinter."

Barksdale may be the only guy in the world to start out at the top without having to marry the boss' daughter. He has yet to play in a regular-season football game for anybody. But he has already made highlight film footage.

If he makes it, it'll be like bringing in a range mustang to win a Kentucky Derby, like a stock Pontiac lapping the field in the Indy 500. It'll make "Rocky IV" look like a documentary.

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