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Leo Goeas Will Go It Alone With the Rams : NFL: Offensive lineman from Chargers won't have his friend, Gill Byrd, to lean on. But he's excited about his prospects.

July 31, 1993|T.J. SIMERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTON — Leo Goeas' three years in San Diego ended in rejection, with the Chargers giving up on him and packing him off to the Rams for a fourth-round pick.

There were hard times in San Diego: a broken foot, three surgical procedures on his knee, his father's death and losing his opportunity to start to teammates who went on to earn tremendous pay raises.

Upon reflection, however, Leo Goeas considers himself very fortunate.

"I had the chance to play football for the Chargers and become friends with Gill Byrd," Goeas said. "He's like my brother to me; I love him just as much as any one of my four brothers."

They were the odd couple in San Diego, the struggling offensive lineman and the Pro Bowl defensive back. Their families vacationed together in Hawaii. They took turns baby-sitting each other's children.

"He and I just got so close over the past three years," Goeas said. "It was like we knew each other since we were kids."

The Rams and Chargers will scrimmage at 10:30 a.m. today at Cal State Fullerton. For Goeas and Byrd, the plan was to make this a grand reunion.

Byrd, however, suffered a serious knee injury this week. He underwent surgery, and the team announced that he would be out for the season.

On the telephone to Fullerton, however, Byrd told his best friend that his career was over.

"When I heard about him blowing out his knee, I was bummed," Goeas said. "I called him and I was all upset and he was like real excited: 'It's over and I just thank God for all the years I had; I'm just so excited about what's in store for me in the future.'

"I had just sprained my ankle in practice and was feeling sorry for myself and here's this guy just coming off major knee surgery and he's all happy. He was tremendous."

Byrd's impact with the Chargers was obvious: He had 31 interceptions in the last six years, more than any other defensive back in the league in that time. He had been elected to play in the Pro Bowl the last two seasons. He is the Chargers' all-time leader in interceptions with 42.

More than that, he was the Chargers' emotional leader. Teammates selected Byrd, 32, their most inspirational player in each of the last five seasons. And so when times turned difficult for a player such as Goeas, Byrd was the one to offer encouragement.

"He would always tell me how things went for him in the beginning with injuries and position changes," Goeas said. "He had a gift for turning what seemed a negative thing into a positive thing. I'd go to him with my frustrations, and after talking with him it was like it would just totally wipe away any discouragement I had."

When the Chargers decided this off-season that Goeas no longer fit into their plans, he talked to Byrd. By the time the Rams sealed the deal for Goeas to be their starting right guard, Byrd had a charged-up companion.

"When I had the chance to play for the Rams," Goeas said, "I was actually happy to physically break the tie and move onto a new team where there was no Gill Byrd. Maybe I could be that guy to other players. I was sucking up everything he had to say, and now I had my chance to help people."

The Rams had a hole at right guard after Joe Milinichik signed as a free agent with the Chargers.

"When I picked up the paper and saw the Chargers had signed Milinichik I knew it was time to go looking for another team," Goeas said.

The Chargers selected Goeas in the third round of the 1990 draft, and installed him as their starting left tackle. In the first hour of his first training camp practice, however, he broke his foot.

He came back in his second year as the projected starter at left tackle once again, but injured a knee. Harry Swayne stepped in, became one of the Chargers' premier players and will be paid more than $2 million this season.

Goeas got lost in the shuffle, and stood No. 4--at best--behind the Chargers' starting guards and backup Mike Zandofsky. Goeas was available for the right price.

"He's really fit in very well," said Jim Erkenbeck, Ram offensive line coach. "He's done better than I expected him to do. He's been a pleasant surprise."

The Chargers have an abundance of talent along their defensive line, and Goeas' first test today should be a demanding one.

"It's like a game for me," he said. "I don't care about anybody else. I have to prove to myself that I definitely belong at the starting right guard position here and that San Diego just basically missed the boat.

"But it's going to feel real weird looking over to that left corner and not see No. 22 there with his socks rolled up real high and his chin straps hanging down. I'm going to miss him out there, but it doesn't change anything. I have a life-long friend."

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