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SUPER BOWL XXVII : Cowboy Tennell Thinks of Father : Dallas: Former UCLA tight end has more than Super Bowl on his mind.

January 27, 1993|LARRY STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Derek Tennell's touchdown catch for the Dallas Cowboys in a 34-10 playoff victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Jan. 10 had special meaning for Tennell.

And not simply because it was only the sixth touchdown reception for the former UCLA tight end in his less-than-glorious five-year NFL career.

And not simply because he was unemployed only 11 days before making that catch, signed by the Cowboys to fill a roster spot left open when backup tight end Alfredo Roberts suffered a knee injury during the Cowboys' final regular-season game against the Chicago Bears.

The main reason this touchdown catch meant so much was because Tennell dedicated it to his father Harold, bedridden at his home in Victorville, paralyzed from a stroke he suffered 2 1/2 years ago.

"Norv Turner (the Cowboys' offensive coordinator) had designed a play for me, so I knew I might catch a touchdown pass in that game," Tennell said during a quiet interview Tuesday while hordes of other reporters gathered around his more famous teammates during media day at Dodger Stadium.

"I told my father about the play, and told him if I did get a touchdown, I'd dedicate it to him."

Tennell said he kept the ball and presented it to his father.

Tennell said life has been tough for his parents since the stroke. His mother can't work because his father needs constant care.

"I help out (financially) as much as I can," said Tennell, a single father of a 4-year-old daughter.

Tennell, cut five times by four NFL teams, wasn't in a position to help anyone very much until he got a call from the Cowboys in late December.

He beat out four others in a tryout, and now he's in the Super Bowl.

"I always had the confidence I could play in this league," Tennell said. "I never gave up."

Tennell grew up in West Covina, one of four boys. His father managed a drugstore in Azusa. Tennell said his parents moved to Victorville about three years ago.

Tennell was a three-sport star at West Covina High. As a tailback his senior year, he rushed for 807 yards and seven touchdowns. He averaged 19 points and 12.5 rebounds in basketball as a senior and led his team to the Sierra League championship. In track, he set a school record of 49.2 seconds in the 440-yard dash.

An outstanding student, Tennell planned at one time to attend medical school. But football took up too much of his time at UCLA. He ended up majoring in history.

As a freshman at UCLA, Tennell was a fullback, but switched to tight end as a sophomore and was a three-year starter.

He had more than 20 receptions in both his sophomore and junior seasons and was regarded as a top pro prospect. But he had only 15 receptions as a senior in 1986, when the Bruins didn't throw to the tight end very often.

Tennell was chosen in the seventh round of the 1987 draft by the Seattle Seahawks, then was cut during training camp.

He hooked up with the Cleveland Browns as a strike-replacement player that season and was one of two players who stuck. He finished the season with nine catches, three for touchdowns.

Tennell had nine catches and one touchdown in 1988. He had one catch--a four-yard touchdown reception--in 1989 before being released after the 14th game.

He was out of football in 1990 after being cut in training camp by the San Francisco 49ers, but spent the year working out, hoping to hook on with a team. And he did. Signed by the Detroit Lions, he was cut during camp but re-signed after the season opener and started two games.

But the Lions cut Tennell again during training camp this season.

He was picked up for four weeks by the Minnesota Vikings, and played in three games, catching two passes in a game against the Lions. He was cut again Nov. 3.

Then came the call from the Cowboys and the touchdown catch against the Eagles, a one-yarder from Troy Aikman, who was a redshirt at UCLA during Tennell's senior year.

Now, he can dream about being a Super Bowl hero.

"Every player dreams that he might be the guy who comes up with the big play," Tennell said. "You just never know."

Another game ball would certainly brighten Harold Tennell's dreary days.

"Just my playing in the game has helped a lot," his son said.

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