SAN DIEGO — The other day, Charger wide receiver Al Williams discovered something on the top shelf of his locker that didn't belong. It was an envelope. He tore it open. It was a team photo.
But it looked strange. It was not of this team. It was of the Charger replacement team. Six weeks ago, it retired unbeaten. Six weeks ago, Williams was the star.
He held it underneath the light and took a closer look. Somewhere, down deep, he felt a lump.
"I look at those faces and it all came back to me," Williams said. "I started remembering all the guys again. I realized how close we were. How we hung together. All the good times.
"I'm wondering, gosh, what is Tony Simmons doing? What is Tim Moffett doing? How is Rick Neuheisel doing?"
Williams quickly put the photo back in the envelope. He put it back on the shelf.
"I realized it was just a dream," he said. "It's over. I'm in another world.
"It happened, but, you know, it never happened."
Funny how it works. Two months ago, Williams could have sworn he was a hero.
The replacement team, still the biggest reason for the Chargers' current first-place position, went 3-0. Williams caught 12 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown.
His numbers, his style, his speed were good for everything from headlines to autograph requests from waiters. At the end of the strike, it was good enough for a slot on the regular Charger roster.
But since then, it hasn't been good enough for him to play. It hasn't been good enough for him even to suit up.
In the six Sundays since the strike, he has not once been on the active list. He is dismissed from the squad on Fridays. He doesn't put on the uniform again until Tuesdays.
And now he's in the middle of a four-week stay on the injured reserve list. He pulled a hamstring while working with, who else, the scrub team.
"I thought I was finally ready to be activated. I thought I was in their plans. Then I hurt my leg," he said quietly. "And now, even though it feels fine, I have to wait. I can finally play, and now I can't.
"By the time I can come back, there will only be two weeks left in the regular season."
He paused, as if suddenly realizing this.
"Oh my God."
According to Williams, that's precisely what the fans are saying.
While he was sitting in the stands for the Denver game: "I was looking at the program, and came across a picture of myself. The guys behind me saw and started saying, 'Hey, Al, you were great. Why aren't you playing?' "
While he was sitting in his apartment complex's hot tub: "Some people came by and said, 'You look like a football player.' I told them who I was and they said, 'Hey man, you should be in there. They really need you.' "
While he was at the hospital for his hamstring injury: "I see this old lady in a chair, looking half-dead. She hears my name and mumbles, 'I don't know why you aren't playing. You're great.' "
Even in the Charger locker room: "Other players have told me that they need me, that I should have been there long ago."
Whether or not Williams has conducted a representative poll, those public questions are indeed multiplying. After all, the Chargers have lost two straight, the offense hasn't scored a touchdown in 10 quarters and the wide receivers have only 16 catches in the those 10 quarters. Wes Chandler has been battling a bad shoulder and ankle. Lionel James has had a bad ankle.
Although it was all done against other replacement teams, Williams' average yards per catch (20.6) is better than anybody on the current team who has caught more than one pass. He has caught the longest pass of anyone on the club this year, a 57-yarder.
And how does Williams answer his public?
"I tell most of the people that I just have to wait my turn," he said. "But I get tired of the questions. And I'm running out of answers. Lately, I've just told them I don't know.
"I keep saying, 'They need me. They have to need me.' "
And then there is Coach Al Saunders' answer: "We were going to activate him, and we hope to get a chance to activate him again. He's definitely a prospect. The biggest thing he has to learn is the mental part. And it's not just the plays, it's the adjustments off those plays.
"He played a real good three games, then all of a sudden, Wes and Lionel and Gary (Anderson) are back and we're throwing all these new things at him at once. They all know it, and he doesn't."
That was one of the reasons Williams was cut at training camp, because he missed time with another hamstring injury and couldn't learn the playbook. Since the strike, Williams has actually been waved off the practice field at least once, because he wasn't running the proper play.
"I messed up, and Roger Theder (quarterback coach) yelled, 'Get the right personnel in there,' and it really hurt," Williams said. "He was right. I didn't know the certain motions, but I don't get any practice time to learn them.