Vance Mueller--rookie running back, Occidental College graduate, Los Angeles Raider--watched last Sunday as the reporters and camera crews crowded around a neighboring locker in the Coliseum dressing room.
The media favorite of the day was Napoleon McCallum--rookie running back, Navy ensign, L.A. Raider--who provided the key yardage during the Raiders' fourth-quarter, game-clinching drive that produced a 17-13 win over the San Diego Chargers.
Mueller, a starter in place of injured All-Pro Marcus Allen, dressed quietly as McCallum good-naturedly answered reporters' questions.
It could have been the other way around.
But on this day, Mueller had gained just 20 yards on nine carries and any bid for celebrity had--like his rushing statistics--come up on the short end of the yardage stick.
Mueller, 22, however, wasn't letting the attention at his neighbor's dressing stall give him a Napoleonic complex.
"They weren't looking for me to carry the whole load," Mueller said. "I think for the most part that I played a good game. They've said that they want to bring me along slowly, so I guess they'll continue to do that."
The play that he will remember most--and would like to forget--came at the start of the second quarter. The Raiders had a first down on the San Diego 20-yard line. Quarterback Marc Wilson pitched the ball to Mueller, who swept to the left. Mueller had reached the line of scrimmage when Charger linebacker Fred Robinson hit him and forced a fumble. San Diego recovered and Mueller spent the rest of the half on the sidelines and the rest of the afternoon in McCallum's shadow.
Said Raider Coach Tom Flores: "I think today was a good experience for Vance. The fumble was just one of those things. Sometimes you don't have the luxury of working a guy in as gradually as you'd like. Vance is a talented guy and he's going to come along."
Mueller rose to the top of the Raiders' depth chart last week after Allen sprained his ankle in a 14-9 loss to the New York Giants on Sept. 20.
It was as improbable as his ascent to the fourth round of the National Football League draft, which came about because of the Raiders' penchant for taking chances.
The 6-0, 210-pound Mueller had impressive credentials at Occidental, which competes in the NCAA Division III. He was twice named Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference player of the year, was all-conference four years and led the conference in rushing and scoring three times. Mueller, who is from Jackson, Calif., gained 2,981 yards during his college career. In his last three years, the Tigers were 27-5 overall and made the playoffs all three years.
The Raiders' scouting department liked what it saw. The written reports were backed up by films and a tryout that convinced Raider coaches that Mueller was for real. With three picks in the fourth round of the draft, the Raiders selected Mueller as a calculated gamble.
"It's obvious that he doesn't have the football background that a lot of the other players in the NFL have," said Ray Willsey, the Raiders' offensive backfield coach. "But he has the size and the speed to play in this league. We decided we could take a little bit of a risk with him."
The Raiders' patience worked to Mueller's advantage throughout rookie camp, training camp and the pre-season schedule. The Raiders weren't expecting instant stardom. They allowed Mueller to learn the system while making the jump from college football to the professional ranks--and the even bigger transition from a Division III program to the NFL.
"It's definitely a jump," said Mueller, who went from playing before 3,000 fans at Occidental to crowds of 65,000 at the Coliseum. "You try not to think about it. Basically, you go out there and try to learn. The main differences between college and this level is that you have to watch the defenses more and you have to run a little tougher."
He has learned in the line of duty.
"We would prefer not to be forced into the position that we found ourselves in," Willsey said. "It's hard enough for a guy like Marcus Allen to come in and play right away and he came from an extensive background at USC."
The preparation for Mueller's first NFL start was detailed. Allen, who spent the game on the sidelines dressed in street clothes, advised Mueller to worry about his assignments--blocking first, running the ball second.
"There's a lot of responsibility," Allen said. "I told him that because he was a young player, most teams were going to test him with blitzes. I just told him to watch the coverages."
Willsey spent the week before last Sunday's game tutoring Mueller, McCallum and Steve Strachan--the trio that would replace Allen in the Raiders' bid for their first win of the season.