SAN DIEGO — The Chargers will do nearly anything to protect quarterback Dan Fouts, even if it means auditioning a former tuba player from Pittsburgh with more experience as a hospital equipment installer than as a blocker.
They don't know if he will make the team--the odds against him are prohibitive--but if he did, Chuck Rogers would become the biggest and probably the most unlikely player ever to appear in a Charger uniform.
At 6-feet 9-inches and 343 pounds, Rogers is too large to ignore, so the Chargers have assigned Ed White, offensive line coach, to try to mold him into a blocker. The most immediate problem is the lack of experience Rogers brings to his tryout.
He didn't play a down of varsity football in high school or college. A broken thumb in practice sidelined him one year and a kidney injury stopped him another time, so he joined the band. As a result, all he knows about playing football is what he picked up in semi-pro ball in Pittsburgh.
"Everybody would like to see a Cinderella story come true, but Chuck will be competing against people who have been playing a long time," White said.
"The best thing going for him is his size and the way he carries himself. When he gets all that mass moving, he's pretty darn impressive. I'd have to say he looks as quick as Washington's Joe Jacoby," who is three inches shorter and about 40 pounds lighter.
The choice of White to tutor Rogers is appropriate in several respects. White was a blocker for 17 years and played in four Pro Bowls before he retired and joined the coaching staff last season. And the Chargers never would have found Rogers, were it not for White.
One of the more improbable football tales of the year began when White bought a sailboat from a friend, Dave Epperson, last year.
About a month ago, Epperson was sitting in a Mission Valley saloon when in walked a human eclipse that blotted out the already dim light.
"My good fellow, you should go see my friend Ed White about a job," Epperson said, or words to that effect.
So Rogers, who at the time weighed 363, went to see the Chargers, who were quick to offer him a contract, although he was not listed in their extensive computer printout of prospects, suspects and rejects.
On the practice field, Ron Nay and his colleagues examined Rogers, who would have to go down as one of the most inexperienced players in pro football annals. He has worked as a steam fitter, installing equipment in hospitals, and as a bouncer at Pittsburgh nightspots, not to mention his years as a tuba player in the high school and college bands.
"This has got to be the most unusual thing that ever happened to me," Nay said. "We travel all over the country looking for talent, and here this guy just walks in our door."
The question is whether he can play. "He's got a chance to make it," Nay said. "He has some body control, agility, he can bend his knees, he seems alert and has the capacity to learn. Now, can he put all those things together and be a football player?"
When the news of Rogers' signing was first reported in San Diego, Nay was quoted as saying: "This could set back scouting about 100 years."
Rogers believes he can play in the National Football League.
"I want to strike a blow for all the ordinary guys out there with a dream," he said, smiling. "That makes my heart beat fast to think about it.
"My role model is the guy in the 'Rocky' movie. I need to go catch a flick to get some more incentive. I want to be a role model for young kids, too."
The Chargers have cautioned Rogers to tone down his public remarks, fearing that other players might resent such an untested athlete receiving so much publicity.
Rogers seems willing to oblige, not wanting to hurt his chances of sticking with the team. But he is so happy to be here, and so naturally outgoing, he seems to have a hard time keeping quiet.
"I haven't played the tuba in about two years, but I think I'll have to practice in case they want me to play on TV," he said.
"Football is a big man's game, and he is a very big man," Nay said. "We have to take the time to try to make him a player. We still don't know much about his temperament or how tough he is, but we do know he has no bad habits to break. There's nothing he has to unlearn."
Actually, there is one little thing. When he worked as a bouncer, he always preferred to sweet-talk the more obnoxious patrons rather than employ his superior mass. What the Chargers don't need is a 343-pound wimp trying to protect their fragile, 36-year-old quarterback.
There is a precedent for an inexperienced player making it in pro football, according to Nay. The late Gene (Big Daddy) Lipscomb became a star defensive lineman after having played only service ball, Nay said.
Rogers, 24, wasn't even born when Lipscomb, at 6-6 and 290, reigned as the biggest and baddest pass rusher in the NFL in the late 1950s and early '60s.