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Why Is This Man Smiling? He Wants To : Chargers: Darrin Nelson is bringing an upbeat attitude and more than a little ability.

October 20, 1989|BRIAN HEWITT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — It was mid-morning Wednesday, and Darrin Nelson's plane was about to touch down on the tarmac at Lindbergh Field. The fog that had shrouded much of San Diego was beginning to lift. And the symbolism was almost as overpowering as Nelson's thousand megawatt smile.

At this same moment, Nelson's mother, Margaret, was talking to a San Diego reporter long distance from Minneapolis about the smile.

"You'll see it," she said. "It's a winning, free smile. You can't help but be attracted to it. Kids are drawn to it."

Moments later, Nelson's wife, Cam, was talking long distance from Hawaii on the same subject. "A lot of it has to do with his baby face," she said. "It not only attracts children. It attracts women as well."

Nelson is the newest Charger, a smallish waterbug of a runner commonly referred to as a "scatback." He reported for practice Wednesday. And Coach Dan Henning hopes he will be able to help solve his pressing need for a third-down back Sunday afternoon against the Giants at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

"I just hope he can give us some semblance of what his abilities are," Henning said after Nelson's first workout as a Charger.

To make sure Nelson felt welcome, the Chargers sweetened the two-year deal he signed with Minnesota before the season by adding $50,000 to the $350,000 in base salary he is making this year and $50,000 more to the $450,000 he will make in 1990. Nelson also got a $350,000 signing bonus from the Vikings before the season began.

"He's definitely going to help," said Jim McMahon, whose passing attack has lost third-down backs Dana Brinson and Rod Bernstine to recent injuries and Gary Anderson to a season-long contract holdout. "I think he'll be a good, great addition to the offense."

Two days earlier, Nelson, 30, was ready to retire. The powerful Vikings, a team to whom he had contributed mightily for more than seven years, had traded him Oct. 12 to the winless and feckless Dallas Cowboys in the monster deal that that sent Herschel Walker to the Minneapolis Metrodome.

Nelson's smile was suddenly gone. And according to Merrill Swanson, Minnesota's longtime publicist, the Vikings had lost "probably our most popular player."

Cam Nelson, a lawyer for the Minnesota Attorney General's office, was furious. "He left quite a bit of cartilage on that artificial turf," she said.

And she was even angrier about the way the Vikings handled the trade. Nelson had found out about the deal first through rumors and then through the media. "I knew I was traded before I got to practice that day," Nelson says. "That bothered me. To say the least."

Still, he flew to Dallas. But mostly he just brooded. The night before last Sunday's Cowboys-49ers game in Irving, Tex. he decided he would not play.

"It was one of the most down periods of his life," his wife said. "It took a while but I was finally able to get him to admit that he felt terribly mistreated in the way it (the trade) was handled. There was no way he shouldn't have been told it was in the works.

"They (the Vikings) gave him the boot. I was more upset than he was. But at least he was more prepared than I to understand what a nasty business pro football is. I understand now."

Then came the Tuesday news of the trade to San Diego. It meant Nelson would be used selectively. It meant he might be able to play the game he loves for another few years. It meant he would be returning to his native California. And it meant he would be able to practice and play on grass instead of the dreaded artificial turf.

"I'm excited," Nelson said. And he smiled.

So did the entire Charger organization. On the same day they acquired Nelson from the Cowboys, they foisted drug-troubled linebacker Chip Banks off on the Indianapolis Colts.

Nelson was a badly needed breath of fresh air for an organization that has been choked with local image problems since the middle of the decade. Despite reports of rehabilitation and promises of contrition, the air around Banks had grown more stale than last week's panatella.

Inhale Nelson. Exhale Banks. There now. Everybody feel better?

In Minneapolis, Nelson was the point man for Project Charlie, a local drug abuse prevention program for elementary school children. During the off-season, there weren't enough days in the week for Nelson to visit all the schools that wanted him to speak to their students.

Nelson loved the kids. "When you talk to kids you always get an honest opinion," he said. "You don't have to B.S. them at all."

But it got to the point where Nelson confided to Swanson that, "I talked to so many kids I was almost tired of talking to my own"--so great were the demands on his time and his smile. Cam Nelson finally put her foot down.

"My better half informed me I had to be home more," Nelson says. Home was where his two sons, J.D. and Alec, instantly began getting more of their father's attention.

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