SAN DIEGO — When Les Miller first heard from the Chargers, he had clocked out at the Gott cooler factory. He had just lifted weights in the basement of the Arkansas City, Kan., Recreation Center, where membership costs $10 a month, which is not bad, considering that they just painted the walls.
He was walking out the door of his parents' house, where he occupies a room on the back porch, to go noodling.
You know, noodling.
"Fishing with your bare hands," explained Miller. "You jump in the creek, hold your breath and quietly feel around and pet the fish.
"Just when they're your friends, you grab them by the mouth, let 'em clamp down on you, and pull them out. I caught a 43-pounder like that last year. Big ol' mouth."
The Chargers wanted the 6-foot 7-inch, 310-pound Miller to play defensive end on their strikeball team.
Scraps of paper with phone numbers of eight other interested teams were pasted with tiny magnets on his parent's refrigerator. There was no more room and there were no more magnets.
"So what the heck," Miller said. "San Diego it was."
And here he has stayed, rising from a reserve replacement to the starting defensive end for the team with the best record in the AFC. He is the only defensive lineman on the Chargers to have scored a touchdown, having pounced on an end zone fumble in the victory over Kansas City. He also has forced a fumble.
And it's his first time even traveling west of Colorado. It's his first time living in a town of more than 13,000 people.
He loves to stand on the beach and act as if he's the last person on this continent to see the sun set. He loves to sit over the freeway during rush hour and watch the cars. Of course, San Diego does have its limits.
"This place is nice and all," Miller said, "but no way am I sticking my hands in none of these fishing holes."
When Joe Phillips first heard from the Chargers, he was preparing to do a beer commercial.
"It was for Busch," he said. "They wanted me to head for the mountains, or something."
Phillips had just completed a role as an offensive lineman in the HBO series "1st & Ten." And he liked acting, liked the pay.
"Lot of money, for not a lot of lines," he said. But it's not football. Unless your name is Chuck Norris, you don't get to really hit anyone.
Phillips is 6-5, 275 pounds, and thought it would be nice if he could occasionally hit someone.
"In football, after that first hit, I'm comfortable," the defensive tackle said. "In acting, you are never comfortable. I once had four sentences, and the scene took 9 1/2 hours to shoot. Now, that's not football."
So he hooked on with the Chargers' replacement team. Six weeks later, he leads the club's surprising defensive line with 24 tackles and leads the entire team with 4 1/2 sacks worth 41 yards in losses.
"A lot of crazy things have happened in this league," he said. "So sure, I believe this."
What he doesn't believe is, he had to turn down the Busch commercial because active professional athletes can't promote alcohol. And he had to turn down a part in a syndicated series, "The New Gidget."
"Interesting part," he said. "Something about an ex-football player who has become a drug dealer. Oh well."
Coming to you, live and in one of the biggest packages in Chargers' history, the new ballast of the new Chargers' defense. One from the heartbeat of America, the other from HBO.
Of all the extraordinary things that have happened around San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium this fall, perhaps nothing can equal this.
"I just love it," said Gunther Cunningham, defensive line coach. "So many times, guys at our (the pro) level get lost in the shuffle. They can play, but just never get an opportunity to show it.
"Here, we have two guys who have finally gotten their chance, and who are playing like they won't let anybody take it away from them."
It was a couple of Sundays ago, one hour before Miller's first game with the regulars. It was during a routine drill. Miller delivered a hit that shook Charger offensive tackle Jim Lachey down to his molars.
"I thought, wait a minute here," Lachey said. "This was supposed to be pregame, right?"
For Miller, a 22-year-old rookie who trusts everyone and believes nothing, there is no such thing.
After graduating from tiny Fort Hayes State in Kansas, he was waived by the New Orleans Saints this fall in their final cut. Never expecting to get that far, he simply shrugged and went home to Arkansas City (population 13,000), which is pronounced Ar-Kansas City, which Miller is quick to tell everyone. He signed up for the graveyard shift (11 p.m.-7 a.m.) at a local Gott plant, affixing handles to coolers. It paid $5 an hour, which wasn't as much as other jobs he's had, but those jobs have all been at slaughterhouses pushing around pig carcasses, so he figured it was an even trade.