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EVERYTHING ON NO. 9 : All of Chargers' Chips Are Riding on Quarterback McMahon

September 09, 1989|BRIAN HEWITT | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Hide the women and children.

No, that's not right. Jim McMahon already has a wife, Nancy. And they have three children.

Nancy is a saint. She lives with McMahon. Every day.

Their kids are the joy of Jim McMahon's life. Golf is his favorite sport. Chicago is still his city of preference. And playing quarterback in the National Football League is his passion.

When football is not in season, McMahon can't get back to the privacy and creature comforts of his home fast enough. Located in the upscale Chicago suburb of Northbrook, McMahon's dream house features a racquetball court, two locker rooms, a swimming pool, a putting green, a sand bunker, a playground, a weight room and, a hot tub.

Ask McMahon what he misses most about the Midwest since he became a San Diego Charger and he will tell you: "The house . . . sleeping in my own bed."

The McMahons will return to Northbrook after the season.

So consider the women and children of "America's Finest City" safe. From Jim McMahon. For now.

Hide the owner.

Alex Spanos, the Chargers' chairman of the board-president, has a heart bigger than the San Joaquin Valley, where he used to drive a catering truck that serviced migrant workers. Spanos parlayed those early dollars into a large fortune by investing in California's No. 1 natural resource--real estate.

Now he can afford to be generous. But Spanos is tougher than third and 19. And his politics are conservative. The quarterback to whom he will pay $800,000 in this, the last, year of his contract, is about as tuned into Spanos' Republicans as the Democratic donkey.

If the questions about McMahon's arm strength and durability turn out to be legitimate this year, the Chargers will suffer, and Spanos will carefully find a way to channel his displeasure in the public print. He is good at that. McMahon will respond in kind.

If, on the other hand, the instant adrenaline boost McMahon has provided doesn't wear off, the Chargers and their improved defense have as good a chance as any team to win in the AFC West. They will start finding out Sunday when they play the Raiders in the Coliseum starting at 1 p.m.

And if that happens, McMahon will demand a sum of money starting in 1990 that will make Dan Fouts' last contract look like chump change.

So, no. Despite all the excitement of the moment, the voluble Spanos and the free-spirited McMahon will eventually be at one another. It is inevitable.

"I don't think I've changed," McMahon said.

And so, yes. Hide the owner.

But forget trying to hide the free safeties from Jim McMahon. They will never be safe from him unless he is recovering from another hairline fracture, sprained shoulder, lacerated kidney, infected turf burn, strained knee ligaments, stiff neck, sore buttocks, bruised ego or sensory overload.

Having broken the huddle, the position of the free safety is usually the first mental note McMahon makes as he approaches the line of scrimmage. How the defense deploys the free safety sets the tumblers clicking inside McMahon's brain. Once they lock into place, the vault to the end zone begins to open. When the rest of his teammates hear the same signals, a touchdown becomes a possibility on every possession, if not every play.

"It's just a God-given ability that I have," McMahon said. "I've never had a big problem picking things up. They got 11. We got 11. There's only so many places on the field they can cover. When they're lined up in a certain position, they can't cover certain things. To me it's not that hard. It's a chess game, is all it is."

It was always a mind game with McMahon and Bear Coach Mike Ditka in Chicago. McMahon's first year in the NFL was Ditka's first as a head coach. They grew together. They grew apart together.

"My relationship with Jim McMahon is weird and wonderful," Ditka loved telling the banquet circuit. "He's weird, and I'm wonderful."

McMahon was more a public tweaker than speaker. Asked once to describe a Ditka coiffure that wedded hair and forehead in rather unholy matrimony, McMahon said, "I thought winged tips were something you wore on shoes."

But when the Bears won Super Bowl XX in January 1986, there was plenty of endorsement money for everybody. Ditka, McMahon and William (the Refrigerator) Perry gave new meaning to the phrase, "gross national product." Some of the offers were, well, outrageous.

But as time wore on, McMahon's act wore thin. In 1986, Ditka brought in Doug Flutie to replace an injured McMahon. In 1987, the Bears drafted Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh in the first round. This summer, when the Bears determined that a younger, more durable Mike Tomczak was beating out McMahon, the handwriting was on the wall. It looked like graffiti to McMahon.

One of the reasons the Chargers wanted McMahon in the worst way was Ted Tollner, their new quarterback coach.

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