SAN DIEGO — It's hard to be a starter in the Charger backfield and go unnoticed, but Tim Spencer, through no fault of his own, has nearly accomplished that trick.
Spencer, a 227-pound fullback, is the last line of protection for quarterback Dan Fouts. His primary role is that of blocker. He's a capable runner, but the Chargers have others who are at least his equal. Besides, this team's primary mode of transportation is air, not surface.
Spencer's assignment--picking up blitzing linebackers--makes him integral to the success of Air Coryell. But only the most discerning observers are aware of his specialty. He's like a baseball umpire in that he mostly gets noticed when he flubs a play.
Coach Don Coryell, however, appreciates his talents. Coryell has called Spencer the best all-around back he has ever coached.
And assistant head coach Al Saunders said Spencer is the most versatile member of the San Diego backfield.
"What we look for in our backs is running ability, receiving ability and blocking ability," Saunders said. "Tim is so valuable to us because he does all three things well. The ultimate back is one with those capabilities."
Spencer's blocking talents will be spotlighted in Sunday's game with the New York Giants, whose linebacker corps is arguably football's best. When the Giants assign either of their outside backers, Lawrence Taylor or Carl Banks, to blitz Fouts, it will be Spencer's task to keep the quarterback from harm.
"Their linebackers are all big and strong," Spencer said, "but I'm always up for a challenge. I'm about as strong as any linebacker, and I'm more compact.
"I learned good blocking technique when I was at Ohio State, and I've always had the tenacity a blocker needs. Since I've been here, I've learned more about using my hands (to hold) like a lineman."
Spencer, who is 6-feet 1-inch, is more squarely built than many linebackers, as he noted. He has a weightlifter's arms and shoulders, which help him deal with pass rushers who may outweigh him by 20 or 30 pounds.
Although his foremost task is blocking, Spencer said that role doesn't detract from his desire or ability to run. Blocking can be taxing work--he admitted he got winded in the course of last Sunday's game--but he had sufficient pickup remaining to rush for 59 yards on 10 carries.
He ran from the line of scrimmage only 124 times last year, an average of fewer than 10 carries per game. He produced 478 yards and 10 touchdowns.
In three seasons in the United States Football League, Spencer proved he was a gifted runner, twice gaining more than 1,000 yards. His best year was with Arizona in 1984, when he rushed for 1,212 yards, a 5.3-yard average and 17 touchdowns. He also caught 46 passes for 589 yards.
Spencer became a free agent in 1985 and signed with the Chargers. He said he has no regrets about his time in the USFL.
"It worked out well for me, financially and as a player," he said. "There were a lot of great athletes in the USFL, but it never had the fan appeal it needed. If the fans don't care, there's not much hope for a league."
He is unlikely to become a high-profile presence in Air Coryell, but Spencer seems reconciled.
"There's no question (about being underrated)," he said, "but I believe people in football know what I am capable of. I hope I will get the chance to run more and be more productive here, but I have no complaints.
"I think I can catch the ball, and I'd like it if Dan would dump the ball off to me, but I know we have wide receivers coming out of the ears. I would never want to cloud Dan's mind by asking him to look for me."
Spencer knows Fouts will be looking for all the protection he can get at Giants Stadium. After losing to Dallas, 31-28, in their season opener, the Giants likely will be in an aggressive frame of mind.
"They'll pin their ears back and come after Dan," Spencer predicted. "We know they'll be really up for us.
"The Giants don't play the same type of defense as Miami, so we may do some things differently against them. I don't know how often we'll run, but I think we need to average at least four yards a carry (they averaged five against the Dolphins). Last week was real confidence-builder for us, and it makes me hungry to do even better this week."
Self-improvement is a strain that runs through other areas of Spencer's life.
He is working on a degree in economics and plans to become a financial consultant after his retirement from football.
Meanwhile, his wife, Gilda, will be pursuing a law degree at the University of San Diego, where she will enroll next fall.
Defensive back John Hendy, recuperating from a knee injury, is not expected to play an important role against the Giants. He has been sidelined for more than a month. . . . The Chargers, after working out this morning, will depart early this afternoon for New York. They will practice Saturday afternoon at Giants Stadium. . . . The Chargers were one of only three teams that did not commit a turnover in the season's first game. It was the first time since a game at Green Bay on Oct. 6, 1984, that the Chargers had not committed a turnover. Under Coach Don Coryell, they are 12-4 in turnover-free games. . . . The game will be played on artificial turf, which Coryell considers a handicap for the Chargers, who practice on grass. "You can fall on your face or stub your toe just by jogging on it," Coryell said.