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After Four Seasons, Fenerty Learns He Belongs in the NFL : Saints: Running back grew up in New Orleans, but he played in Italy and Canada before coming home.

December 10, 1990|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — It took Gill Fenerty less than 10 seconds to run the New Orleans Saints back into Sunday's game against the Rams--the time he took to sprint 60 yards along the sideline for a fourth-quarter touchdown.

And in a span of five minutes 48 seconds, he carried six carries to spearhead the drive that lifted New Orleans to a 24-20 victory.

But it took four years--and a lot of frequent flier mileage--to get the opportunity.

Fenerty grew up in New Orleans, played football at St. Jesuit High School in New Orleans and fantasized about someday playing for New Orleans. But when the Saints drafted him in 1986, Fenerty went marching out.

Fenerty, a 6-foot, 205-pound running back who set virtually every rushing record at Holy Cross, was the Saints' seventh-round choice in '86. Unfortunately for him, they had drafted Dalton Hilliard in the second round and Rueben Mayes in the third.

Fenerty, who shrugs and says, "There's only one football," figured the Saints weren't stockpiling brand-name running backs with the intention of playing a no-name from Holy Cross, so he declined to sign.

Besides, he also felt he really wasn't quite ready for the NFL. So he opted for the long road to the big league, via Italy and Canada.

After playing with an Italian pro team in the spring of 1986, he migrated to the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League where he rushed for 3,094 in three seasons and set a club single-season record with 1,247 yards rushing last year.

The Saints added Craig (Ironhead) Heyward to their throng of marquee backs in 1988, but they hadn't given up the rights to Fenerty, and they were paying attention to his exploits north of the border. This time, they made Fenerty an offer he chose not to refuse.

Why?

"Money," he said with a smile.

If they weren't sure before Sunday, you can bet President/General Manager Jim Finks and Coach Jim Mora now are convinced he's worth every penny. Fenerty came into the game with 120 yards in 26 carries this season, but Sunday, he carried 10 times and gained 104 yards. He also caught four passes for 35 yards and, maybe most important, rammed the ball down the Rams' throat on the Saints' game-winning drive. He ran the ball six times on the 10-play drive, picking up 25 of the 42 yards en route to his first 100-yard game in the NFL.

When he came to terms with the Saints, Fenerty figured he would simply take the money and not run. Injuries to Hilliard and Mayes opened up a spot for a little action, however. He had been used mostly as a receiver out of the backfield on third-down situations, but against the Rams, Fenerty looked like Jim Brown.

"Rueben's been hurt and I decided that if Rueben was at all tentative early, we'd go to Gill," Mora said. "It turned out to be a good decision. He's been running the ball aggressively when he gets the chance, and I've been gaining confidence in him every week."

As for Fenerty, who four years ago wasn't sure he could succeed in this league, Sunday was the confidence-booster he needed.

"It feels great, but it feels even better that we won," he said. "Maybe when the season is over I'll look back and enjoy it, but we're still in the (playoff) hunt, and this win couldn't have come at a better time, so that feels even better."

Early in the fourth quarter on a third-and-one play from the Saints' 40-yard line, Fenerty bounced off the pile at the line of scrimmage, raced around left end and somehow evaded Vince Newsome, who appeared to have the angle to make the tackle. Fifty yards later, Fenerty cut back past Darryl Henley, who was screened by Saint receiver Floyd Turner, and the Saints trailed, 20-17.

"It surprised me as much as everyone else," Fenerty said. "It was just a short-yardage play designed to get the first down. I just outran the cornerback and it was clear sailing after that."

So maybe he should have given the NFL a shot, oh, say four years ago?

"I didn't think I was ready to play in the NFL yet, mainly because I was coming off a severe head injury, a severe concussion, my last year in college," he said. "This game is all mental and I didn't have the confidence, so I just eased into it. It worked out and now I'm glad to have a chance to play for my hometown team."

The local-boy-goes-traveling-and-returns-home-a-hero stuff sounds good, but this tale doesn't figure to have a storybook ending. When Hilliard, who has missed seven weeks with a knee injury, and Mayes return to form, Fenerty likely will end up standing on the sidelines rather than streaking along them.

Hilliard, one of the toughest backs in the league to tackle, racked up 1,262 yards rushing last year.

"We'll have five good backs when Dalton comes back, but that's not for me to worry about," Fenerty said. "I'll just do what they're telling me. It seems like this year, at one time or another, everyone's been hot, and I think they're confident now we all can do it.

"So now it's just, 'Put the hot guy in.' "

And, for one Sunday at least, this guy was hotter than a Bourbon Street crawfish.

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