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MIKE DOWNEY

He Was Often Unwanted, Not Undaunted

January 03, 1993|MIKE DOWNEY

SAN DIEGO — Picture a boy in the sixth grade. His mom packs his lunch and scoots him off to the first day of school. He is big for his age. He is deaf in one ear, having had tumors removed. He also has a cleft palate--a harelip, someone cruel would call it--that affects his speech.

The boy goes to class. Looks around. Suddenly realizes that he has been placed with the children who are partially or severely retarded. Why? Because he talks funny. Blaise Winter, 11, runs home to his mom, crying.

Blauvelt, N.Y., an autumn day, 1973.

Picture a man 20 years later, a man whose next birthday will fall on Super Bowl Sunday. He stands 6 feet 4. He weighs 278 pounds. His face is neatly bearded. His hair is a mop of rain and sweat. He is wearing a blue football uniform and is carrying a football helmet decorated with lightning bolts, the kind an 11-year-old might wear if pretending to be from outer space. A woman with blond, almost platinum hair is waiting for him. The man is ambling toward her with the spring in his step of a kid. He stomps through the slop. His football playmates have gone off to throw their muddy clothes into the laundry. Not Blaise Winter. He kisses his wife, Angie, for several seconds and then he breaks into a run, slapping hands of cheering fans along a stadium wall.

San Diego, a winter's day, 1993.

The defense of the San Diego Chargers has smothered the Kansas City Chiefs with the first shutout in any NFL playoff game since 1986. And in the middle of this defense, at right tackle, stood this happy, overgrown kid, splashing through puddles, springing as high as he could to block a pass, running as fast as he could to sack a quarterback, having the time of his life.

Even doing his dance. Blaise Winter's sack dance is becoming legendary in San Diego. Dancers in clubs could be doing it before long. When he tackles a quarterback, Winter wiggles and jiggles every muscle of his body. His dance has no rhythm. His dance has no steps. What he resembles is a puppy shaking off water after a bath. It could be big, really big. Another Ickey shuffle. Another Super Bowl shuffle.

From the boy whose mom told him that day: "Don't worry. You're special and the world will see that someday." The boy who grew up to be a football player, but woke up one day in 1992 and found himself like a lot of other people his age, unemployed. Laid off by the Green Bay Packers, the Indianapolis Colts, the Chargers--not exactly championship teams. Jobless and hopeless.

His wife stood by him, same way his mother once did. Angie and Blaise got into their car. They drove 7,000 miles, town to town, camp to camp, personally following up every unanswered letter and unopened videocassette of himself that Blaise had sent to every NFL team.

Go away, he was told. The Chicago Bears' receptionist asked him to leave. The Indianapolis coaches were too busy to see him. When he got to Anaheim, Winter's belongings were stolen from his car. He told the Rams he would work out for them barefoot, in his underwear--anything, as long as they would take a look.

Don't call us, he was told; we won't call you.

All his life, in one way or another, this had happened. No major college wanted him until Syracuse University relented at the last minute, another recruit having changed his mind. Winter wound up Syracuse's team captain. One of his coaches there was George O'Leary, now coach of San Diego's defensive line. O'Leary remembered the boy others forgot, including the Chargers, for whom Winter played once before.

They re-signed him to be "training-camp fodder," to use Winter's expression. But then Joe Phillips overplayed his contract hand and was let go. And another lineman got hurt. And, by fluke, Blaise Winter became needed. The Chargers made him a starter. Suddenly he manned the middle of one of the NFL's meanest defenses.

This big, happy kid.

"I took myself off the scrap heap," he says. "You want to make me the NFL overachieving poster child, that's fine with me. This whole country is made up of overachievers."

Winter's perfectly timed deflection of a Kansas City pass Saturday led to Leslie O'Neal's interception that led to a 17-0 AFC playoff victory. Winter's sack of quarterback Dave Krieg with four minutes to play sealed the deal. And then, as he does every game as a ritual now, with the woman he endearingly calls "my buddy, my pal," Blaise Winter sealed the victory with a kiss.

"Did you see this?" he asks. "She gave it to me last week."

It is a plaque atop his locker, with a photograph of Angie and an inscription etched in gold. It reads: "When you are playing on the field, my love. And we are so far apart. You're not only playing with your soul, my dear. You are playing with my heart."

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