SAN DIEGO — On game days, Jim Lachey, a 6-foot 6-inch Charger offensive tackle, covers his face mask with a dark green plastic shade. He can see you, but you can't see him.
Photographers gush. Fans point. It's absorbing. It's intimidating, It's positively science fiction . . .
"It's for my contact lenses," Lachey says, shrugging. "Do you know, I once had four contact lenses scraped out of my eyes in three games? Players always stick their fingers in there. And you can't just leave the game when it happens.
"I once had a lens pop out of my eye, caught it and had to play the rest of the series with it in my mouth. That's why I'm wearing the shade."
Here we go again. Just when you think the former first-round draft choice has wiped that smile off his prep-school face and become mean and barbaric . . . turns out he's just trying to save money at the eye doctor.
"I guess it's a good thing everybody in the league is not like me," said Lachey, 24. "Otherwise, it would be pretty boring."
And the concept of defense, as we know it, would be dead.
During a week when the emphasis is on the Chargers' shifting offensive line--they must prepare for the Cleveland Browns's AFC-best defense while adjusting to a rare substitution scheme--the focus has rested on Lachey.
"If Jim Lachey doesn't make the Pro Bowl, something is wrong," announced Coach Al Saunders earlier this week, unprompted.
A thoughtful statement, except that the Chargers have not had an offensive lineman make the Pro Bowl in seven years. And center Don Macek, considered one of the league's best centers for 12 years, has never made the Pro Bowl.
"Lachey doesn't make it, it's criminal," Saunders repeated. "You can't believe the kind of year he is having. We have had no better player on film. The guy just does no wrong. He's definitely one of the top five offensive linemen in this league."
Said Lachey: "I guess about 90% of the time on the field, I am enraged and mad. We bite and scratch and all that other stuff. But see, if the offensive line had the same mentality in real life as we had on the field, we'd all be in jail. Off the field, I'm the person my parents raised me to be."
The best explanation Lachey could figure for his success was this: "I will say that I have more confidence in my ability. When I first got here (top 1985 draft pick from Ohio State), it was, 'Who do I block?' Then it became, 'How do I block?
"Now I've eliminated the who and the how. I just go out and \o7 block\f7 ."
If Lachey has a problem, it's that he thinks too much. His career is filled with too many answers, too many reasonable explanations. There's not enough trap doors.
This summer, Charger line coach Ed White asked each of his players to devise a list of goals. Lachey did more.
He wrote the list on paper and taped it to his bathroom mirror. It is there today.
"The back bathroom," he said. "Only my close friends see it."
White suggested Lachey include one key word in his goals: \o7 Dominate\f7 .
Not only did Lachey include it, he included the definition.
"Dominate: To rule or control by superior power," Lachey explained. "At least, that's what Webster's says. That's what I think about every day. I just want to go out there and dominate."
Last season, Lachey allowed just 2 1/2 sacks. In three games this season, he has allowed one, but it was by Kansas City standout Mike Bell, and only after he had battled Bell for 160 plays in a two-game stretch and not allowed as much as a tackle.
"He just does not make any mistakes," Charger guard Sam Claphan said. "He shows a lot more maturity than his age indicates."
Said receiver Lionel James: "He has that confidence, you can see it in his eyes. In the huddle, he has that glow."
Lachey has different words to describe it: "I'll do whatever it takes."
He likes that last statement so much, he had it put on a T-shirt.
"Helps remind me," he said. "When I'm done with this game, I don't want to second-guess myself and ever think I could have done more."
It is not known whether he was wearing that T-shirt last week, when, whatever it took amounted to four days of misery on a couch.
Last week, two days after the team came back to work after the strike, Lachey started feeling funny. He didn't worry, until he couldn't swallow or breathe.
On Wednesday after practice, doctors diagnosed that he was suffering from strep throat. They told him to go home until Sunday at 1 p.m. He agreed, but wondered how he was going to learn anything.
"So we made it like a home-study course," he said. "They brought me the game films, I bundled up on the couch with my remote control. I watched, I took notes. Every night, Ed (White) called me and talked about the game plan.
"I was so sick, I couldn't eat for two days. I couldn't move. I lost 12 pounds. I just showed up for the game. I felt bad, but the adrenaline seems to push all of those bad things out of your body."
He shrugged. When talking about himself, Lachey does that a lot.
He is feeling fine this week, and it's a good thing.