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Benirschke and Johnson Are Traded

September 01, 1987|TOM FRIEND | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — Two more Chargers, one sad and one glad, were traded Monday.

In the morning, the Chargers sent third-year wide receiver Trumaine Johnson--he of the big United States Football League statistics and big NFL contract--to the Buffalo Bills for rookie linebacker David Brandon and an undisclosed 1988 draft pick.

In the afternoon, the Chargers sent Rolf Benirschke, a kicker who had been with the team since 1977 and who is its all-time leading scorer, to the Dallas Cowboys for another undisclosed draft choice.

According to Wayne Sevier, Charger special teams coach, free agent Vince Abbott clearly beat Benirschke out of a job. And when the Cowboys desperately needed someone to replace Rafael Septien, they called the Chargers.

Johnson was owner Alex Spanos' first big catch from the USFL, but Johnson, who had 171 receptions in two years in the other league, caught only 34 balls in two seasons as a Charger.

In Johnson's case, he couldn't wait to get to Buffalo Monday, where he'll have a chance to work with quarterback Jim Kelly. Johnson was the choice of John Butler, a former Charger scout who is now Buffalo's director of college scouting. Butler and Johnson go way back to 1983 when both were with the USFL's Chicago Blitz.

"I called (the Chargers) to inquire about Trumaine," Butler said Monday. "I like Trumaine very much--as a player and as a person."

But Johnson didn't like the Charger offense much and says he can't understand why he didn't have more thrown his way.

"I feel that I was the best receiver the Chargers had," Johnson said Monday. "I just didn't have the opportunity to prove it."

In Benirschke's case, he says he didn't have much of an opportunity to keep his job, either. Benirschke never tried a field goal in the exhibition season and made five of the six extra-point attempts he did get to kick. Though Sevier and Coach Al Saunders said that Benirschke was given a fair chance, Benirschke said: "I have no idea what I could've done (to win the job). When I didn't get a chance in the games, it was fairly clear that I wasn't going to win my job. Yeah, I might have gotten my job by default, only if the other kickers messed up."

Abbott made three of his four attempts during the exhibition season, including two off the infield dirt, which impressed Sevier. Septien had been the Dallas kicker since 1978, but he was waived in the off-season. The Cowboys have had five kickers in camp this summer, but inquired about Benirschke as long ago as Aug. 5 when the Chargers scrimmaged the Cowboys in Thousand Oaks.

Benirschke didn't leave for Dallas right away. First of all, he had to call the San Diego Zoo, for which he initiated a "Kicks For Critters" program in 1979. For every field goal he made, he donated $50 to zoo functions, and people throughout the community made similar pledges. Monday, though, Benirschke had to cancel the program.

"The first thing going through my head is the memories," said Benirschke, who has scored 766 career points and has won five games with kicks in the final two minutes.

"The support I received for the things I've done and--especially during my illness--was wonderful."

Back in 1979, Benirschke nearly died of surgical complications while he had ulcerative colitis. Later that year, some 50 pounds lighter, he was honored at midfield as an honorary team captain. He said that's the moment he'll remember most.

So in Charger training camp alone, Steve Ortmayer, director of football operations, has made four trades. And of the four, Monday's deals brought the most meaningful questions.

For instance, why couldn't Johnson make a successful jump to the NFL? When he arrived in 1985, Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler were well-entrenched, but Johnson was expected to make waves last year and again this year when Joiner retired.

He caught 30 of his passes last season, but scored one touchdown. In the USFL, he had scored 23 career touchdowns and brought raves from USFL coaches such as George Allen. Spanos remembered Monday what it was like trying to sign Johnson.

"Oh, I can't tell you how hard of a task it was getting him out of that league," Spanos said. "He was the first guy I brought in and it was a real coup."

Quarterback coach Roger Theder, who also coached in the USFL, said: "In the other league, it looked like Trumaine and Greg Landry did whatever they wanted. He wasn't in a disciplined system. He hadn't really had a good camp with us this year. He was having trouble beating (bump and run coverages) off the line of scrimmage. At this point, he was having a trouble keeping his job."

Joiner, the new receivers coach who had his records at Grambling University broken by Johnson, said: "You can't feature one guy here in our offense. And that's what he was looking for. In the USFL, he was featured. And it was free-lance."

Johnson, who will earn $350,000 this season, is expected to be Buffalo's third receiver, behind Chris Burkett and Andre Reed. Butler said the Bills run what Johnson loves--a free-lance offense.

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