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After Nightmarish Opener, Ellard Enjoys a Dream Game

September 13, 1993|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — It's been a long time since Henry Ellard was this tired, this dirty, this happy or this crowded after a game.

"I'm going to sleep very well tonight," he said, his teeth flashing in the hot glare of television lights as he tried to find enough space amid reporters to pull on his pants.

It will be a late-'80s sort of slumber, the kind of night when visions of diving touchdown catches danced in his head. Ellard almost always had pleasant dreams in those days. And opposing defensive coordinators tossed and turned with nightmares, variations of the same theme.

Ellard had nine catches for 127 yards Sunday as the Rams thumped Pittsburgh, 27-0. He had 120 of those yards in the first half when the Rams--a team on the verge of a confidence collapse after an embarrassing season-opening loss to Green Bay--really needed a lift.

"Henry Ellard stepped up to the plate and had a great game, no ifs, ands or buts," Coach Chuck Knox said. "He made some big plays, made some catches and got us out of trouble. I was very happy to see that."

Probably not as happy as Ellard, who just couldn't stop grinning Sunday.

"Without a doubt, it felt like old times," Ellard said. "It's been a long time since I got nine balls or 100 yards. It's been a long time since they threw me nine balls. It's nice to be involved again."

It had been 23 games since Ellard had a 100-yard performance. He had averaged 1,364 receiving yards and 77 catches a season for three years from 1988-90. But last year, he was little more than an afterthought with 47 receptions for 727 yards.

Once the quintessential possession receiver, the guy who always seemed to come up with the perfect route and the sensational grab on third and long, Ellard had lost a step, they said. He no longer was willing to extend himself over the middle, they said.

A go-to guy? If you listened to the radio talk shows, he was a go-away guy, nothing more than a link to a more-glorious past.

But Ellard, who had injured his hamstring at the 1992 Olympic trials while attempting to make the team as a triple jumper, wasn't contemplating retirement.

For the first time, he was beginning to understand the need for speed. So he went back to the track, running sprint after sprint for two hours, four days a week. Ellard also hired Randy Huntington, a long-time coach of long jumper Mike Powell, to help put the fleet back in his feet.

"Last year was last year and I try not to think about last year," Ellard said. "But, of course, it was disappointing. And I made sure it wasn't going to happen again this year."

Which is to say he hadn't thought about much else besides last year.

"I came into training camp in shape this summer," he said. "I always come in in shape, but this time I was in track-meet shape rather than just football shape. Ever since I pulled my hamstring, I was lacking that speed.

"I knew I needed it. I didn't have to hear people saying I had lost a step. But I knew I once had it, and it was just a matter of getting it back."

Ram coaches said during training camp Ellard had appeared quicker and stronger, and now Jim Everett and the Steeler secondary are believers, too.

"I haven't seen Henry run like that in a long time," Everett said. "He was really going for it. I don't know about comparisons to the old days, but he did a tremendous job today. He went after the ball. He was aggressive. And that kind of stuff is contagious."

Ellard had two catches on the Rams' first touchdown drive, the first a patented little seven-yarder on third and seven, the second a 29-yarder that gave the Rams a first down at midfield.

"Sometimes, it just takes somebody to get things started," Ellard said. "We knew we had to get something going early and get the ball in the end zone.

If the 7-0 lead wasn't boost enough, the once-feared Everett-to-Ellard combo continued its revival. They connected four times during a 12-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that put the Rams ahead, 14-0.

The highlight was a 33-yard Oh-Henry-of-old pass reception that couldn't have been more accurate if Everett had been using smart-bomb laser technology. The spiral sailed into Ellard's hands just as three Steelers converged on him at the Pittsburgh 13-yard line.

"It was a cover-two zone with the safeties split and a guy underneath trailing me," Ellard said. "Jim just dropped the ball right where it had to be, when it had to be there. It wasn't open for long, I'll tell you that."

But this was a Sunday chock full of opportunities for Ellard, and he was grabbing them . . . and running with them.

The icing on the cake arrived in the fourth quarter when Steeler cornerback Rod Woodson appeared to have an interception in his grasp. Then Ellard arrived and somehow wrested it away.

"I was just trying to bat it down, to make sure he didn't catch it," Ellard said, "and it just kind of hooked into my arm. So I pulled it in and started running."

Ellard's winter of discontent was followed by a summer of hard work and hope. And now, with his 32-year-old legs fresh and flying, he thinks things are falling in place. He's in shape and season No. 11 is shaping up as a fun one.

"The training I did this summer was intense," he said. "It was tough, but it was a test. I had to see if my body was going to shut down or wake up."

His body awakened, Ellard can now lay down to sleep, confident his dreams will be sweet.

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