SAN DIEGO — They are Chargers, but without the aid of a uniform or an American Express card, they would have difficulty proving it.
They practice, they get paid and sometimes they even play.
"Two plays against Seattle," said Mike Zandofsky, while holding two fingers in the air, but who noticed?
And who's Mike Zandofsky?
He's a Charger, just like Mark Rodenhauser. Who? You know, like Tony Savage and Anthony Shelton. Who?
While Billy Joe Tolliver and Billy Ray Smith play leading roles for the Chargers, there's also a who's who roll call of \o7 who are these guys\f7 residing in the locker room.
"This is my life being unknown, no respect," Richard Brown said. "I would like to see the spotlight someday . . ."
But who is Richard Brown?
They don't get interviewed very often, if at all. They don't get seen on television unless fans make it back from the bathroom or refrigerator in time to view the kickoff. They don't get asked for their autographs, because they aren't Billy Joe or Billy Ray.
For the most part, they are free agents. They are at the bottom of the 47-man roster, and in time they will either replace Billy Joe and Billy Ray or be gone without fanfare.
During the week, they practice as actors and assume the role of the opposition so the Chargers' better-known players can prepare themselves properly for action.
Someone such as Zandofsky might begin practice wearing the blue jersey of a defender and work at defensive tackle or defensive end against the starting offensive line.
Then it's off with the blue jersey to wear white and play dummy guard against the likes of Lee Williams or Burt Grossman.
On Sunday, Zandofsky warms up like Williams and Grossman, and then after the national anthem, they separate. Williams and Grossman go to work; Zandofsky stands on the sideline waiting for opportunity to beckon. It will be a long wait.
They are all Chargers, but contributions vary. There are starters, and there are key substitutes, and there are special teams assignments. And although some of these big-time players may finish the afternoon with more fingers than plays in the ballgame, they can still make the difference between victory and defeat.
You may even notice one of them, and recognize the number on his back. But the name, well, it escapes:
Next to Jeff Bridges, who gets to make movies with Michelle Pfeiffer, \o7 Mark Rodenhauser\f7 has the best job in America. He will earn $112,500 this year for snapping the ball on punts, field-goal attempts and PATs. Thanks for showing up, Mark. Last week against the Seattle Seahawks he hiked the ball 11 times to earn his $7,031.25 weekly paycheck. And he's single, and so all that is his.
He has played in 34 NFL games because he can do one thing: snap the football. "If I hadn't learned how to do that, I'd be working at my construction company in Illinois right now," Rodenhauser said. "My coach took me to the side in high school and said, 'You're going to be a long snapper.' He started me on some drills, and I was really horrible on it. Couldn't do the drills, and still can't, but I could snap the ball."
He knows the other side of professional football: He played for the Chicago Bruisers in the Arena Football League before signing as a replacement player with the Chicago Bears during the 1987 strike. He stuck around to cash a playoff check before being released before the 1988 season. He played 16 games as a punt snapper for the Minnesota Vikings, but was left unprotected as a Plan B free agent.
Charger General Manager Bobby Beathard was out of town when Rodenhauser arrived for a tryout. Billy Devaney, director of personnel, took a gander and immediately signed him. "You could say that's the easiest job on the field in total work output," special teams coordinator Larry Pasquale said. "But the responsibility is pretty awesome."
The NFL fairy tale of the year begins in Tarbaro, N.C., and ends in San Diego.
\o7 Donald Frank\f7 is a strong safety at Winston Salem State, and Devaney is there to look him over. "I'm looking at videotapes and there isn't anything to get excited about, so I go over to Wake Forest," he said. "I figure I might as well accomplish something while I'm down here, so I also get in a good run before going back to Winston Salem State later in the day. The field they have is real clumpy, so I time him running on the tennis courts.
"He runs like gangbusters, but the thing that strikes me is he looks like a bodybuilder. I say to him, 'You don't mess around with any of those illegal substances to make you bigger?' Shock of all shocks, he says, no. But that's how he works out. He's stiff, so I say, get off the weights. And in my infinite wisdom, I go back and say, 'Shoot, he might be a decent free agent, but I don't think he's worth a draft choice.' You can see, we were right on top of that one."