For almost four months, Eric Yarber watched helplessly as his rookie season in the National Football League passed him by.
During the week, he was just like any other member of the Washington Redskins. He attended nearly five hours of team meetings a day, practiced for a couple of hours and lifted weights.
On game days, however, Yarber was left out. Instead of a spot on the roster, he owned one on the injured reserve list. Ostensibly, he was there for rehabilitation of his right knee, but the injury had long since healed.
In reality, Yarber was a victim of the NFL's 45-man roster limit. The only game Yarber played was the waiting game.
But Yarber, who wasn't allowed to play varsity football in high school because he was too small, never doubted that his chance would come.
"The coaches kept telling me to stay ready because I was only one play away from getting my shot," Yarber said. "That's what I kept telling myself."
Faith turned to reality three weeks ago for the former all-state wide receiver and return specialist from Valley College. The Redskins lost their top two return men in a game against the New York Giants. Ken Jenkins strained a ligament in his left knee and Clarence Verdin went out with sore ribs and a strained right shoulder.
Both were placed on injured reserve, making them unavailable for a minimum of four weeks, and it's doubtful that either will be back.
In their place, Yarber is providing Washington with many happy returns.
He fielded nine punts in the final two games of the season, averaging an astounding 15.9 yards per return. That's almost four yards more than anybody else in the NFL, although Yarber didn't return enough punts to officially rank among the league leaders.
Last week against Philadelphia, Yarber was denied the end zone only when Eagle punter John Teltschik dragged him down by the face mask after a 44-yard return. He also had a 30-yard return against Philadelphia, and a 28-yarder against Denver in his debut.
Sunday will be the biggest test yet for Yarber, as the Redskins play host to the Rams in a wild-card playoff game.
But Yarber isn't nervous--just thankful.
"A lot of other people on other teams play a whole career without going to the playoffs," Yarber said. "I just feel fortunate to have this opportunity."
Or any opportunity, for that matter.
Yarber didn't get a chance to play varsity football at Crenshaw High because he was too small under the City Section's exponent system, which combines age, height and weight. Yarber won't say how small he was, but he stands only 5-8 and weighs only 153 pounds today.
"I've always had problems putting on weight," he said. "Even when I was in Pop Warner I had trouble making the minimum weight. But when I found out I wouldn't be able to play varsity ball, tears came to my eyes.
"Actually, though, I agree now with the decision not to let me play. I was just thinking my heart alone would get me by. But heart wasn't going to stop broken bones. It just gave me more incentive to work harder."
Yarber wound up playing on the B team in his last two years at Crenshaw. After that, he followed a few friends from Crenshaw out Valley, where after sitting out a season, he asked Coach Chuck Ferrero about playing for the Monarchs.
"I have a little bit of a different philosophy with little guys," Ferrero said. "I don't make an evaluation until I see them perform. He was awfully small, but it didn't take very long to see he was destined for greatness."
But only he because he was determined to make it happen. Yarber began working on his strength and speed with Valley assistant Dave Buchanan, a former NFL and Canadian Football League running back and kick returner. For two years, they were almost inseparable.
"At the time I met him, Eric was running a 4.7 in the 40," said Buchanan, a 5-8, 173-pounder who is built much like Yarber. "But the thing I noticed about him was his phenomenal talent. He had a big heart and he wasn't afraid to catch the ball in traffic.
"Everybody would talk about how small he was, and I remembered that's what they used to say about me. When people would say that I was too small, something inside would make me want to say, 'I'll show you.' Eric had that, too."
With Buchanan's help, Yarber got his 40-yard dash time down to 4.48 seconds, and became, "pound for pound, the strongest man on the team, linemen included," according to Buchanan, who supervises Valley's weight-training program.
Finally given a chance to play with the big boys, Yarber was All-Southern California Conference in 1982, all-state in 1983 and bound for Idaho on scholarship in 1984. At Idaho, he was the Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year and an All-American as a senior.
His meteoric rise almost came to a crashing halt, however, when he ripped a medial collateral ligament in his knee in his final college game. Suddenly, his dream of a pro football career was in jeopardy.