Vance Mueller readily admits he was a bit overwhelmed by the NFL in his first season as a running back for the Los Angeles Raiders.
"My first year was really a culture shock for me in all aspects," he said. "In playing, the crowds, the politics . . . just the way the whole system works. All the things that are involved in traveling, the way we eat our meals. It was a whirlwind for me the whole year."
Who could blame him? It's not often that a player from Division III Occidental College makes it into the National Football League. With the Raiders, no less.
His first season was uncertain, at best. Used sparingly behind starter Marcus Allen and backup Napoleon McCallum, Mueller carried 13 times for 30 yards. But the fourth-round pick knew he had to pay his dues. Allen, of course, is an all-pro and former Heisman trophy winner.
Mueller? He spent more time deflecting jokes about his alma mater than he did carrying the ball.
From the sidelines, Mueller watched the Raiders go 8-8 last year. He kept everything in perspective. Next year would be different, he reasoned.
"It was time to dig down a little and really get after it," said Mueller, sitting the other day in his modest El Segundo apartment, within earshot of Los Angeles International Airport. "This year I had no surprises coming at me."
But just when he thought it was safe to return the Raiders, a few surprises popped up. Another Heisman-winning running back, Bo Jackson, was signed. The team also signed Ethan Horton, a first-round pick by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1985. And if the Navy would let them, the Raiders again would employ the services of McCallum. If that wasn't enough to discourage Mueller, the Raiders brought back fullback Kenny King, who had been cut the year before.
You would think that would be enough to send Mueller off in search of something more stable, like a job with the bomb-disposal squad.
But he stuck it out. His reward? The NFL Players Assn. went on strike. Whether the strike is settled this week, next week, or whenever, the damage has been done, making life in the NFL even tougher for underdogs such as Mueller.
"I was just getting a chance to get incorporated into the offense," he said. "I really feel like the strike was bad timing for me because I was starting to get a chance to play, kind of coming into a groove of my own."
The early results were impressive. Against the Dallas Cowboys in a scrimmage this season, Mueller had runs of 27, 15 and 17 yards. In another scrimmage he gained 30 yards on five carries. In three exhibition games, he carried 13 times for 97 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown run against Dallas. He gained 10 pounds (he's 6-0, 215) without losing his remarkable speed (4.3 in the 40). And despite the talent glut at running back, it appeared the Raiders had plans for him.
In the season opener against Green Bay, Mueller didn't see the ball much. Allen did, carrying the ball a career-high 33 times.
But in the Raiders' game preceding the strike, against Detroit, Mueller carried 7 times for 58 yards and an 8.3 average. He scored on a one-yard run and had another run of 35 yards that set up a touchdown by Allen. But the strike put Mueller's success story on hold.
"Mentally, I wasn't prepared for it," he said. "They talked about the strike and they said the strike was going to happen, but you don't really know what to expect. You come off a great game and all of a sudden you don't go to work the next day."
"On the first day you say 'it's no big deal. I can use the rest. My body is a little sore.' Then, suddenly, you realize that it is not a good situation to be in."
Mueller isn't enjoying being idle, but--for the record--he stands behind the NFLPA.
"I wasn't prepared psychologically at first," he said. "I wasn't really committed to it. But once we were out, I said 'OK, this is it.' I evaluated how I felt about it and I looked at all the issues and I felt that the issues were important. I have a chance to change it, to make it better for future players."
One of those future players, Mueller hopes, is himself. If he can only get past obstacles such as Heisman trophy-winning running backs and player strikes.
"The coaches were really nervous about giving me more responsibility," he said. "This year you can see them gradually giving me a little more. They gave just so much against Green Bay. Then against Detroit, they stepped it up quite a bit from Green Bay.
"I hope now that throughout the year, they'll keep increasing it, that in certain situations, they'll feel confident that I can handle it. And then I'll be in there.
"Because I feel I can handle it."