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Point to Prove : Rathman Wants to Show That the 49ers Erred in Letting Him Be a Raider

July 22, 1994|LONNIE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXNARD — Tom Rathman's future with San Francisco appeared as solid as his 6-foot-2, 232-pound frame when he arrived at the 49ers' training camp a year ago.

Coming off what he considered his best season as a pro, Rathman was among the NFL's highest-paid fullbacks. With two Super Bowl rings to his credit, the former Nebraska power runner went into last season earning $985,000 in the final year of a three-year, $2,655,000 contract.

"I would have to say, that before last season I really didn't see myself leaving the 49ers," said Rathman, who was drafted by San Francisco in the third round in 1986.

That changed with one injury.

After having missed only one game because of injury in his first seven years with the 49ers, Rathman suffered a dislocated shoulder in the 1993 season opener against Pittsburgh.

He sat out eight games and then did not reclaim his starting job for four more. That's because in his absence, Marc Logan, a veteran of five NFL teams, made the most of his opportunity as a starter by scoring seven touchdowns and catching 37 passes.

Rathman knew this spring that his future with San Francisco was in question. Not only had Logan emerged, but the 49ers also had drafted Florida State fullback William Floyd in the first round.

"I prepared myself for this off-season, knowing that I would become a free agent," Rathman said. "I talked with the (49er) coaches and talked to my agent (Marvin Demoff), who talked with management. I had to find out what they had in mind and where I fit in for this year."

San Francisco, which spent a truckload of money for defensive free agents Richard Dent,

Gary Plummer and Ken Norton Jr., told Rathman that the starting fullback's job was no longer his, although he would be able to compete for it in training camp. The 49ers also offered him $500,000, a drastic cut.

"We knew that we had to make some decisions," said Carmen Policy, San Francisco team president. "We made a conscious decision to roll the dice, to strengthen the areas where we were weak, even if it meant taking a chance that we'd leave ourselves short in other areas."

Seeing an opening, the Raiders pursued Rathman as a replacement for veteran Steve Smith, whom they released because of his contract. Smith was reportedly to earn more than $1 million this season.

In what appeared to be a last-minute, decision, Rathman signed a two-year deal worth $1.2 million with the Raiders last Friday, the last day unprotected free agents could sign with new teams.

"It was tough on me because I didn't think that I'd deserved to be put in that type of situation," Rathman said about his contract discussions with the 49ers. "I didn't feel that I needed to prove anything to anyone. But, obviously the coaches there felt that somebody could do a better job than I could."

Whereas San Francisco told Rathman that his services were no longer needed, the Raiders greeted him warmly.

The addition of Rathman and the signing of tailback Harvey Williams from Kansas City give the Raiders two proven veterans to bolster a running attack that struggled at times last season.

Coach Art Shell says Rathman's versatility will complement the high-powered passing attack, directed by quarterback Jeff Hostetler.

"He's done everything I heard about him," Shell said. "He can block, run and catch the ball out of the backfield. He's done everything we've asked from him so far, and he has picked up our system very quickly."

Rathman, who will be 32 in October, is happy to have a chance with the Raiders. Although he was listed behind Napoleon McCallum and Derrick Gainer on the fullback depth chart at the start of training camp, he expects to contribute to a team that he feels has enough talent to make a lot of noise this season.

"I just want to come in and show people what I am capable of doing," said Rathman, who has scored 34 touchdowns and caught 294 passes. "I think they have a pretty good idea of what I can do already. I just need to keep my standards--which I always have--and just demonstrate in practice that I am still very capable of carrying the ball, blocking and catching passes."

Rathman has always been regarded as a team player willing to do the intangibles that help the team win. He has never rushed for more than 80 yards in a game.

"I grew up working hard," said Rathman, who spent his summers working for his father, a building contractor in Grand Island, Neb. "Nothing was ever given to me."

Working on his father's concrete crew, pouring foundations in 90-degree heat for up to 11 hours a day, Rathman learned how to sacrifice and to look at the bigger picture.

"That's something that just carried over to football with me," he said. "Playing with the 49ers, I sacrificed statistics for playing time, and I had no problem with that. But I never really was given the opportunity to show all of my skills because they've always had such a potent offense with so many weapons, and just one football."

Rathman hopes to play at least two more seasons with the Raiders before thinking about retirement.

"The way things went, it's unfortunate that I had to leave (San Francisco)," he said. "But the structure of the game has changed. You have teams dealing with free agency and salary caps now. I don't think you'll see anyone staying with an organization for eight or nine years anymore.

"I just know that I have something to prove to myself more than anything. I know that I can still play."

The Raiders are counting on that.

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