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Hester Branches Out His Career With Rams : Football: Veteran receiver had problems with the Raiders but he's just what his latest team needed.


ANAHEIM — Billed as the next Cliff Branch when the Raiders spent a first-round draft pick on him in 1985, wide receiver Jessie Hester wound up running pass routes and hoping the quarterback wouldn't throw to him.

After all, watching Hester try to catch the football was like watching a leaky faucet.

Drop . . . Drop . . . Drop . . .

But six seasons after the Raiders traded him to Atlanta because of his inability to catch the ball, Hester has become a steady veteran starter with the Rams. He takes a 71-game catch streak into Sunday's sold-out game against the Raiders at Anaheim Stadium.

"I never had any negative things said about me (in college)," said Hester, a three-year starter at Florida State, "and then I came to L.A. and had all this pressure thrust on me being 'The Next Cliff Branch' and all of a sudden I was 'doo-doo squat.'

"It hurt bad."

It got so bad, Hester was making sure defensive backs stayed with him, step-for-step. Why drop the ball when you can hide behind the competition, he figured.

"I didn't want the ball," he said. "I didn't want to shame myself, the organization, my family, myself, nobody."

Hester admits he once probably deserved that reputation as the Roberto Duran of NFL wide receivers--he was the man with the hands of stone. But he said four solid seasons in Indianapolis and the 71-game catch streak proved he doesn't deserve that knock now.

"When I first started out, people were saying I couldn't catch the ball," Hester said. "But go back and check the records. The past five or six seasons, I haven't let balls go on an everyday basis."

Still, in those first three seasons with the Raiders, Hester watched the ball--and his confidence--slip through his fingers.

He started every game as a rookie, catching a respectable 32 passes for 665 yards and three touchdowns.

But his productivity decreased with every dropped pass in the next two seasons.

He started only one game in 1986 and finished the season with 23 catches. He played in only 10 games the next season, catching only one pass in a reserve role.

"Those were tough catches that got away from me in crucial situations," Hester said. "I just didn't hold onto them. Maybe they were hard on me because I was a No. 1 draft pick and I was in the shadow of a Cliff Branch. Those were some big shoes to fill, to come right in as a young guy and they expect you to be a Branch right away.

"I was just mentally shot from all the pressure that 'I can't do this and I can't do that.' I was used to people saying positive things about me, but all of a sudden the tide had turned and I just got in a serious funk.

"I started believing it, and it came true. I believed I couldn't play."

The Raiders thought so too.

The Next Cliff Branch wasn't even the Next Dokie Williams, so the Raiders went shopping for wide receivers. They brought in James Lofton and Mervyn Fernandez in 1987, then signed Willie Gault and drafted Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown before the 1988 season.

Hester got the picture: they traded him to Atlanta for a fifth-round draft pick at end of the 1988 training camp.

"Once they brought in those guys," he said, "they gave up on me."

Hester started three games with the Falcons, catching 12 passes. The Falcons cut him before the 1989 season, and he sat out the year before Indianapolis signed him as a free agent in March 1990.

"The coaches in Indianapolis said they would give me a fresh start," he said. "They told me they had heard some stuff about me (that he couldn't catch), and I told them it wasn't true."

Then he proved it, averaging 57 catches the next four seasons. He caught a career-high 64 passes last season, then tested the market as an unrestricted free agent.

The Rams, in need of a veteran wide receiver, settled for Hester, and signed him in June.

He impressed Ram coaches in training camp and earned a starting spot opposite Flipper Anderson by the opening day of the season. He has caught 19 passes for 224 yards, and his 24-yard run on a reverse play against Denver last Sunday is the longest run from scrimmage by a Ram this season.

"We are very pleased with the job Jessie has done," Ram wide receiver Coach Steve Moore said. "He and Flipper have done a great job of working with our younger receivers too."

Hester remembers his struggles as a young receiver every time he works with Ram rookies Isaac Bruce and Chris Brantley. He remembers Marcus Allen, Todd Christensen and Branch giving him advice.

And he remembers playing against Raider teammates and all-pro defensive backs Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes.

"It was tough," Hester said. "It was real tough."

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