SAN DIEGO — As much as Charlie Joiner will miss the life of a football player, the team for which he used to catch passes will miss him even more.
Ask Joiner if he is itching to come out of retirement, and he says, "Not so far."
But mention this to Charger Coach Al Saunders, and Saunders says, "There certainly is itching on my part. I wish he could play."
Obviously, enough is enough. When Joiner played his 18th season last year at 39, he was the oldest wide receiver in the history of the National Football League. He knew then that the time had come to call it quits, and so did Saunders.
Saunders summed up the matter when he said: "You hear how remarkable it is for Walter Payton (Chicago Bears) to be going into his 13th year as a running back, and it is. He's incredible, and such a magnificent player. But it's also tough for receivers to play a long time, because the first things that diminish are speed and quickness, and here's a guy who played 18 years at the position."
So Joiner is now one of Saunders' assistants--he coaches the Chargers' receivers--and who could be better suited for such a job than the player who caught more passes than anybody else? He closed his career last December with 750 receptions for 12,146 yards in 239 games, all NFL records.
"Charlie is the consummate professional," Saunders said. "He was one of the most thorough and hardest-working players I've ever been around. Now he has carried those qualities into the coaching profession.
"I can't think of anybody I've ever known who is better qualified to teach the ins and outs to young receivers. He had the respect of everybody around him as a player, and he commands that same respect as a coach.
"An adjustment will be necessary for him because he's coaching players who used to play alongside him. But actually, that won't be a big deal, because he was already coaching the young receivers when he was playing. Kellen Winslow is the same way. They're quality human beings."
Joiner, who will turn 40 on Oct. 14, minimized the difficulty of his transition from player to coach.
"It's a little tough, but I haven't had any headaches because of it," he said. "I seem to be adjusting to it pretty well. Each day it gets a little easier.
"I just have to learn coaching techniques. I picked up a lot along the way in my 18 years as a player, but it's a different ballgame, and I'm learning."
Does Joiner aspire to be a head coach some day? There has not been a black head coach in the National Football League for 61 years. The first was Fritz Pollard, also the league's first black star, who was player-coach of the Akron Pros, Milwaukee Badgers and Hammond Pros from 1920, the league's initial season, through 1926.
"I haven't developed an ambition for that yet," Joiner said. "I haven't been in coaching long enough to see how I like it. That will take time."
Joiner was quick to admit that he had lost a step long before he decided to put away his uniform.
"I might have realized that 10 years ago," he said. "When I looked at films, I saw things I used to be able to do, but couldn't do anymore. But I'd like to think I got smarter over the years. Every year, I picked up new stuff based on what the defenses were doing. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have lasted so long."
Joiner has been the NFL's all-time receiving leader since 1984, when he broke Charlie Taylor's record of 649, but his reign is likely to end this season. Steve Largent of the Seattle Seahawks is only 56 catches behind, and he hasn't had fewer than 66 in a full season since 1977. He will be 33 on Sept. 28.
Coincidentally, both Joiner and Largent entered the league as fourth-round draft choices of the Houston Oilers. Joiner joined the Oilers after playing for Grambling State University in 1969, was traded to the Cincinnati Bengals during the 1972 season and came to San Diego in 1976. Largent joined the Oilers from the University of Tulsa in 1976 and was traded to the Seahawks before that season began.
Another similarity is that Joiner and Largent, who are both 5-feet 11-inches and in the 185-pound range, were thought to be too small for full-time duty. Largent also was considered too slow by the Oilers, who received only an eighth-round draft pick for a player who almost certainly will wind up in the Hall of Fame.
"That just goes to show what a man can do by using his smarts and adapting to defensive schemes," Joiner said. "What Steve lacks in speed, he makes up in smartness.
"It's good that he's going to break the record. I hate to see the same guys on top all the time. Records are made to be broken, and nobody is more deserving than Steve Largent. He's a great receiver and a great guy."
The achievements of Joiner and Largent loom even larger when one considers that they have been relatively small receivers at a time when the emphasis has been on tall, rangy types.