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NO SLACK FOR NEW INCUMBENT : Rusty Hilger, Still the Starting Raider Quarterback, Shoulders Added Burden

September 17, 1987|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

It's another week, another challenge for 25-year-old Russell (Rusty) Hilger, who, in the latest Raider Quarterback Controversy, plays the part of the Controversee.

His bruised left shoulder is mending, he's still taking snaps with the first team and if his prospects are being debated, he's still No. 1.

Of course, if you want a sense of what kind of a tiger it is he's riding, and of how much players want to look up to their quarterback, and what happens when they can't, this is Raider safety Vann McElroy at Wednesday's press breakfast, talking about last season and the last days of Marc Wilson's incumbency:

"There wasn't a lot of finger-pointing, but you could tell. There was just a feeling in the lockerroom. Hey, when you start losing, it's just not a good feeling all around. People start blaming different people and you start talking.

"It wouldn't be a matter of putting it out publicly or to the media (Raider players did that, too, the season before but in 1986 were told to stop), but in our circles, you could feel the animosity a little bit and the pressure a little bit.

"It wouldn't be said face-to-face with the quarterback but I'm sure the quarterbacks got the feeling if everybody was sort of looking at you, or walking away. The thing that's good this season, the guys have sorta accepted the idea that the coaches are going with Rusty Hilger. Whatever Rusty does, we're not going to worry about that.

"(Reporters) ask questions about the quarterback position and (players) make comments but it's tough enough just worrying about your position. The head coaches can't even figure out the quarterback position sometimes, or a lot of times (laughter), and here I am, a player. I've got a tough enough time worrying about Vann McElroy."

In quarterbacks' careers, what goes around comes around and quickly, too. Hilger, then the fans' darling, is now the incumbent, coming off a difficult exhibition season, a bruised shoulder and a 2-for-7, 6-net-yards passing debut at Green Bay. Wilson, his backup, played well. The Raiders, in answer to questions from everywhere, said Rusty was still their man.

In the exhibition season, Hilger asked to meet adversity head-on so he could figure out how to handle it.

His wish is at hand.

"There's always going to be adversity, everybody knows that," Hilger said Wednesday, sitting in a stairwell at the Raiders' El Segundo practice facility. "As far as dealing with it, one thing's going to happen that I'm still waiting on to happen, and that's that it's going to start becoming natural to do it.

"Now, I have another adversity. My shoulder is very sore. I tried playing with it sore at Green Bay. Now, I have an external factor as well as internal factors."

What does one call this, fun, torture or both?

"It's been fun. Obviously it's hard work. It's always going to be hard work but the fun is still there. I'm enjoying the opportunity but it is very difficult. Sometimes it's tougher than other times."

Is it a hard burden to carry?

"Of course not," he said. "That's why we have 10 other guys on the offense. People look at numbers, evaluations, but the bottom line is winning. Obviously, we won our first game, and did it in a struggle. We had a lot of problems and the problems weren't always quarterbacks' problems. Some things happen out there every play that I think--excuse me for saying this--the press is dumb towards."

Before the opener, Hilger said on the Raider pre-game show that he cancelled his subscription to The Times, but that it was still being delivered anyway and was piling up on his doorstep. To his other problems, add having to climb out his door each morning.

Of course, there are other ways to keep the heat off a young quarterback that are unavailable to Hilger, such as those demonstrated by Detroit Lions' Coach Darryl Rogers Wednesday.

Said Rogers, whose team plays the Raiders Sunday at the Coliseum, of his own young quarterback, Chuck Long: "He's no different than Hilger right now. We all know most quarterbacks don't do it in their first playing year. Right now he's going to struggle like all young quarterbacks. We think Chuck is going to be a bright star for us, but somewhere down the road."

The Raiders don't cut anyone, young or old, that much slack. They expect to win, too, placing the greatest possible pressure on Hilger's development but then, everybody knew that going in.

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