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NFL STRIKE : Numbers Same, but Faces Aren't Those of Real Chargers

September 24, 1987|TOM FRIEND | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — "Here comes the bus! Here comes the bus! Here comes the bus!" --Striking Chargers, awaiting non-striking Chargers

First of all, this bus nearly ran over Wes Chandler and Billy Ray Smith. Secondly, this bus carried 38 players, most of whom you have probably never heard of. And finally, a sign on this bus read "San Diego Chargers."

The doors swung open in the parking lot at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, and out they walked--in uniform. Number 52 was some linebacker named Tony Caldwell.

"Hey!" said linebacker Angelo Snipes, brandishing a picket sign. "That's my number!"

Wednesday, it was ambiguous to be a San Diego Charger. On the one hand, you had the real Chargers, the ones who beat St. Louis last Sunday, the ones who held a quick little workout Wednesday morning on the UC San Diego campus, the ones who are on strike.

On the other hand, you had the non-union Chargers, the ones who were sitting around watching football last weekend, the ones who were cut during training camp, the ones who are not on strike.

Everyone knows who's better. Coach Al Saunders, who put the non-union players through two hour-long practices Wednesday, said: "I certainly wouldn't want to be playing the guys carrying the picket signs."

If this strike isn't settled soon, he'll be playing the non-union players of the Cincinnati Bengals with these guys. Maybe you have heard of Calvin Muhammad, a former wide receiver with the Raiders and Redskins. He's here. But how about Russ Jensen? Or Eric Thomson? Or Mike Kelly?

These are the new Charger quarterbacks.

As of Wednesday night, Steve Ortmayer, the Chargers' director of football operations, said he was negotiating with Tom Flick and Rick Neuheisel, quarterbacks who were here during training camp. Flick still was contemplating the Chargers' offer Wednesday night, but Neuheisel said he had definitely decided not to show up. He is attending USC Law School and is happy there.

"It was a great chance to show people I can play," Neuheisel said Wednesday evening. "At one point Tuesday night, I had decided to come. But I got up this morning and couldn't do it. It wouldn't be right. Eventually, the strike would end, and how would I be received by guys I'd worked all summer with? Sure, there would be animosity. Part of what makes me a good quarterback is my rapport with the players I line up with."

Wednesday, when the non-union players left their bus, they were taunted. Most of them were smart enough to wear their helmets. There were no punches thrown or apples or oranges thrown. Chandler, the Charger player representative, spilled some soda on their bus, and a bunch of other players let air out of the bus tires.

Basically, the Charger players just yelled insults.

"Here comes the B team!"

"The National Farce League!"

"Hey, the USFL folded!"

"You can't play!"

"Get a real job!"

An hour later, after a practice reminiscent of training camp, the non-union Chargers got back on the bus.

"You went through training camp and you failed!" Chandler screamed. "Get real, man! There are 45 jobs, and we got 'em all."

Inside the locker room, the new Chargers already were moved in. Todd Spencer, a 5-foot 11-inch running back from USC, dressed where Lionel James used to dress. Walt Harris, a safety from Stanford, dressed where Vencie Glenn used to dress.

"I'm not sure how good we'll be," Harris said. "The whole team isn't here yet. Listen, it's not going to be as bad as everyone says it is. I don't think I'm a low-rate high school player."

Linebacker Fred Jones said: "I heard them calling me names. They made me feel somewhat small. But, after all, I'm unemployed. I need money. I have to live."

Before the Chargers called, Jones said he was "procrastinating for a living."

Wednesday evening, Ortmayer said he expected to have "45 to 48 players" for today's practices.

Jensen took most of the quarterback snaps Wednesday. He's a 6-3, 215-pounder from San Francisco State who spent two training camps with the Raiders and a couple of seasons with the USFL Los Angeles Express.

Thomson, a 6-4, 210-pound left-hander, is a law student at the University of San Diego who had separate stints with the Express and the Arizona Outlaws of the USFL. Kelly (6-3, 195) played at George Tech.

Regular Charger players laughed at them.

The Bengals, who are on the Charger schedule for an Oct. 4 game, are in the same boat. Cincinnati's non-union quarterbacks are unknowns Adrian Breen of Morehead State and Dave Walter of Michigan Tech.

Speaking of quarterbacks, Dan Fouts--carrying a playbook--led 42 Chargers through an hour-long workout Wednesday morning. No coaches were there, but the players did all the drills they would normally do. Linebacker Billy Ray Smith said the defense prepared for Sunday's opponent, the Seattle Seahawks.

Of course, there was some dead time during practice, and that's when the offensive linemen challenged the defensive linemen to a game of touch football.

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