SAN DIEGO — Curtis Rouse sympathizes with "The Refrigerator."
"It's not like the guy doesn't try to lose weight," says Rouse, the Chargers' 6-foot 3-inch, 340-pound left tackle, who is as strong on the field as he is gentle off it.
"It's difficult to take off weight," added Rouse, who shares the problem with the Bears' Refrigerator, defensive lineman William Perry. "The harder I work, the more I tend to eat. You get tired, your stomach is craving something."
Rouse, a five-year National Football League veteran who was cut by the Minnesota Vikings at the end of training camp this season, has been tired, hungry and happy since he joined the Chargers' non-union team last week.
"I was scared to death when I came here," Rouse said. "I had heard how hot it was here. But it really hasn't been that difficult for me. I've been able to hang in there. I was shocked that I could play a full game Sunday."
Experience paid off for Rouse.
"Of all our offensive linemen, he was the most productive," Charger Coach Al Saunders said. "His experience showed. Curtis is a player who has not completed his career in the NFL."
Rouse started 29 games and played in 58 during his five years in Minnesota, but after being switched to center in training camp this season when the team needed to fill a gap, he was released.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Rouse, 27, was home in Minnesota, watching soap operas and evaluating his future.
"If they hadn't struck, I would have waited for about a month to see if I got picked up," Rouse said. "If I didn't, I would have retired, got my severance pay and got a 9-to-5 job."
Rouse said that when the strike hit, six or seven NFL teams contacted him, including the Vikings.
"I wanted to get away from Minnesota," he said. "It was time to make a change. They released me twice. No use beating a dead horse. I'm a quality lineman, but obviously they don't want me."
But the Chargers did.
"They bugged me the most out of all of them," Rouse said. "Why not come to San Diego? It's a good opportunity. Maybe if the rosters are increased to 49 players, they'll keep me."
Before deciding to join the Chargers, Rouse had to decide whether to cross the picket line.
"It was hard crossing the line," Rouse said. "Initially, I didn't want to play. But after a week went by, I thought this thing could go on for four or five weeks. I'm not in the kind of shape mentally and physically to stay out that long. Those are the two things that changed my mind."
Rouse weighs about 15 pounds more than the weight at which he feels comfortable.
The least he has weighed as a professional football player was 280 pounds in his rookie season with the Vikings in 1982.
"I didn't feel good at 280," said Rouse, who weighed 265 when he played on the Augusta Laney High School football team in Augusta, Ga. Also playing on the Augusta team was Chip Banks, now a Charger linebacker.
Rouse said he weighed 317 pounds after the 1982 NFL players' strike. "I haven't been that low since," he added.
But Rouse's speed is mentioned by coaches as often as his weight.
"I grew up in the projects in Augusta," said Rouse, who was taken in the 11th round of the 1982 NFL draft. "I was one of the fastest guys on the block when I was growing up."
He was a pulling guard when he was a three-year starter at Tennessee Chattanooga.
"In college, he could weigh 305 and not look like he had an ounce of fat. He was fast," said Mississippi State Coach Roy Gregory, who coached Rouse at Tennessee Chattanooga.
Rouse can still move on the football field.
Said Saunders: "Weight is an individual adaptation process. Some people feel more comfortable at a heavy weight. It didn't stop him from running and moving."
Against Cincinnati last Sunday, Rouse was one of the lead blockers on Rick Neuheisel's run for an extra point.
"I had my head on a swivel, trying to take the most dangerous guy," Rouse said. "I didn't get a clean shot at him. If I did, they'd have to come get him."
Rouse added, "I hope people think I'm the nicest guy off the field, but you have to change your personality when you go on the field."
It's not a big deal for Rouse. For him, being nice and tough is as natural as playing at 340 pounds.