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Winslow Is Back in Forefront : It Took 3 Years, but He's Leaving Mark Once Again

November 14, 1987|BILL PLASCHKE | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — For Kellen Winslow, this is how it now works:

"Game against Cleveland. I catch this pass on the flat. I've got a blocker out in front of me. Then over on my left side, I see this blur. I can't see good enough to tell if the guy is black or white or big or what. Just an orange blur.

"I figure, he can't be on their sidelines, he's moving too fast. He must be in the game, and he must be coming toward me.

"I cut inside. Good thing, because it was some Cleveland guy, coming to take my head off. Because I saw him, I gain five extra yards."

For Kellen Winslow, this is how it used to work:

"That happens a year ago, I never see the guy. I would have been blindsided. I probably would have fumbled. I wouldn't stand a chance."

Maybe the best tight end in professional football history turned 30 last week, and finally, he sees life coming. He understands how it moves, and how it can hit, and how it can hurt. He says he no longer will let it catch him with a forearm to the back.

"It was 1984. I had a terrible knee injury and a guaranteed contract and I try to come back. I guess I was stupid," the Charger veteran recalled with a light laugh. "But it has taught me a lot. It has taught me that I can go places I thought I couldn't."

He missed 15 games in two seasons with the career-threatening injury, snapped ligaments in his knee. He had since endured a comeback that was as questioned as it was painful.

But yes, lately, Winslow has gone places that people thought he couldn't.

In the Chargers' three games--all victories--since the strike, he has caught 15 passes for 178 yards, a touchdown and dozens of memories. He is running over defensive backs again. He has purchased the sole rights to third-and-eight again.

And his face is showing up in opponent's faces again. When once it was enough to just plant left, cut right and survive, he now finishes his move with complaints and finger-pointing and arguments.

Said nose tackle Terry Unrein: "If you had asked me any time before now, I would say, 'Well, Kellen is making his way back.' Ask me now and I say, 'He is back.' He's 110% back. He's verbal. He's nasty. He's mean.

"He's no longer just running and catching the ball. He's adding spark. He's no longer just playing for himself, he's playing for the Chargers."

He is able to find the anger, the violence, the war again, because he has found peace.

When his contract expires in February of 1989, he plans to retire. He is hoping to begin postgraduate classes next year at the University of San Diego. He wants to become a lawyer.

It has been three years since the knee caved in on an October afternoon in 1984, but he has finally realized that he has only one football life to live, and not much time left to live it.

"No longer do things happen on the field where I wonder, 'Why?' " he said. "I don't let the knee bother me. I don't let the referees bother me. I have learned to come back from all of that.

"Everybody says, 'Yeah, now he's physically healthy.' A bigger thing is, I'm mentally healthy."

Cut to Oct. 21, 1984. More often than he'd like, Kellen Winslow does.

It is the fourth quarter in a game against the Raiders--Sunday's opponent here--in San Diego. Winslow has already caught 55 passes and is on a pace to set the National Football League record for catches in a season. He has already been named to the Pro Bowl four times in his first five NFL seasons. He is being called one of the best players in the game, period.

He has just signed a guaranteed, 5-year, $3.2-million contract. He is just 26. Life works.

Then suddenly everything stops, on a hit by Raider linebacker Jeff Barnes with 3 minutes 32 seconds remaining in the game. It jumbles the stuffing in his right knee. Two major ligaments are torn. The doctors compare it to something that often happens in an auto accident.

Winslow remembers lying on the trainer's table with the game continuing outside. He remembers turning his head and talking with the team doctor, Gary Losse. He remembers it the way other people remember their nightmares.

Losse: "Kellen, your knee is seriously hurt. We have to operate."

Winslow: "When?"

Losse: "After the game."

Winslow: "Do we have to open it up or can we just use an arthroscope?"

Losse: "Open it up."

Winslow: "Oh, no."

Winslow remembers what happened when he returned home after the operation, his career in doubt.

"I lay there and pray," he said. "That's all I could do, was pray. I prayed for patience."

Winslow remembers six months later, when he tried to run again.

"I was coming out of a bank building, and my car was illegally parked and a cop passed it, so I instinctively start running," he said. "Then I realized, 'Hey, I'm running.' And I stopped. I pulled up."

He did that for his next two seasons. He would cut on a defensive back, and pull up. He would have a chance to run over a defensive back, and pull up.

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