ATLANTA — It normally takes two hours to drive from Ruffin, N.C., to Boone, W. Va., unless, of course, you're John Settle and you've just heard the most amazing news of your already charmed National Football League career.
Then it's pedal-to-the-metal, Smokies-be-damned time as you cross state lines in desperate search of a dependable television and a nightly sportscast.
That's what Settle did on April 23, tempting fate and radar guns of the North Carolina Highway Patrol. He was in a hurry, and who could blame him, what with his life changing by the moment.
One day a co-starter for the Atlanta Falcons with three-time Pro Bowl running back Gerald Riggs; the next, \o7 the\f7 starter and heir to a Falcon attack that produces 1,000-yard rushers with some regularity. Even Settle, as calm as they come, was a bit disoriented by it all.
Settle can't remember the exact words he heard on his car radio that day but he does recall the exhilaration he felt as the announcer disclosed that Riggs had been traded to the Washington Redskins for a second-round draft choice in 1989 and a first-round selection in 1990. Suddenly, the speedometer was jumping toward the red zone, to say nothing of what Settle's pulse was doing.
"I was lucky I didn't get a ticket," he said.
As soon as he arrived in Boone, where he was completing requirements for his degree in criminal justice at Appalachian State, Settle found a working TV and waited for confirmation. When it came, Settle sat there, stunned.
"I had to see it to believe it," he said.
Believe it. The Falcons sent Riggs, the eight-year veteran, packing and kept Settle, the modest second-year free agent who was so low on the depth chart at the start of the 1988 season that you needed search dogs to sniff out his name. In fact, Dallas Cowboys statisticians later noted Settle's first carry against the team as such: "Sutle on left side."
While he isn't yet a household name around the league, Settle does hold a prominent place on the Falcon marquee, thanks mainly to a magical season during which he became the first NFL free agent since the 1970 merger to rush for more than 1,000 yards. Not only did the Falcons barter away Settle's main rival, they also promised to fork over some big bucks when Settle's bargain-basement contract expires at the end of the season.
It seems the least they can do, considering the goals Settle is setting for himself in 1990. Let's see, a minimum of 15 touchdowns . . . another 1,000 yards' worth of rushing . . . 1,000 yards' worth of receiving. He begins his quest Sunday against the Rams at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
"You need to have something to shoot for," he said.
This is the Settle motto, courtesy of some loose interpretation of the New Testament, specifically, Philippians 4:13. It is Settle's favorite passage and it reads, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me."
No mention of 15 touchdowns there, but then again, what did the Philippians know about power sweeps? Anyway, Settle uses the sentence for inspiration and if you don't believe him, ask the Falcons, who must have had a good laugh back in 1987 when Settle presented a short list of contract demands.
Among other things, Settle wanted a bonus should he be selected to the Pro Bowl.
The Pro Bowl? Yeah, sure, said the Falcons, happily scribbling down the terms.
Settle wanted a bonus if he led the team in receptions, gained 1,000 yards either receiving or rushing, led the league in yards per carry or scored a predetermined number of touchdowns.
No problem, smirked the Falcons as they agreed to the incentive clauses. Back then, they might as well have included a little something for winning MVP honors, succeeding Pete Rozelle as league commissioner, negotiating the next league television deal.
After all, Settle began the 1987 training camp as the 11th running back on a depth chart that went 12 deep. He had bombed at the scouting combine a few months earlier, running a slow 4.75-second 40-yard dash and performing strength tests that were disappointing. What no one knew, except Settle, is that he had the flu. Tough to bench press when your temperature is higher than the weights you're lifting.
Somehow he survived the roster cuts that year, but not by much. He carried only 19 times for 72 yards in 1987. And when the next season started, Settle could be found blocking for Riggs or on the bench.
Then Riggs bruised a shoulder in the Falcons' second game. Settle stepped in and rushed for 102 yards. An unlikely star was born.
Steve Dils, now with the Rams, was there that day as the Falcons' backup quarterback. Like many of the Falcons, he didn't think much of the 5-foot 9-inch, 210-pound running back as Settle went into the game against the New Orleans Saints.
"I'd never heard of him," Dils said. "You'd look at him and you'd say, 'He can't run.' "