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Hard Charger : Vagabond Wagner Lands in Hometown, AFC Championship Game

January 14, 1995|ROB FERNAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

San Diego Charger punter Bryan Wagner suspects that most Steeler fans attending Sunday's AFC championship game in Pittsburgh have forgotten about the last time he played at Three Rivers Stadium.

At least, he hopes they have.

If not, he can deal with it. Wagner, a former NCAA Division II All-American at Cal State Northridge, will laugh along with his one-time tormentors. He has been through too much in his on-again, off-again NFL career to let the memory of Sept. 15, 1991, spoil an opportunity to help the Chargers, his hometown team, reach their first Super Bowl.

The pressure is thicker this time, but so is his skin.

"You just have to roll with the punches," Wagner said. "Too many people, when they fail, they give up. But you have to cope with that, and then success will come."

Wagner, 32, an NFL journeyman who has bounced around the league since the mid-1980s, knows all about failure.

His career reached its nadir at Three Rivers in the third game of the 1991 season when he was playing for the New England Patriots. In what ranks as one of the most-embarrassing moments in league history Wagner, punting from deep in his end zone, missed the ball completely and kicked teammate Eugene Lockhart in the rear end. The Steelers' Ernie Mills fell on the ball for a touchdown, much to the delight of the crowd of 53,703.

Immediately after the game, Wagner was cut.

Though the gaffe wasn't entirely Wagner's fault--Lockhart, a blocker, had taken several steps backward--the punter was blamed. It was more than a year before he made the roster of another NFL team.

"I got some bad publicity," Wagner said in 1992. "Anyplace I went for a tryout, no matter how well I did, I had the feeling they were looking at me and thinking, 'This is the guy who kicked a teammate in the butt.' It was really a bad deal."

Even his family couldn't escape the incident. While Wagner's wife, Robin, was Christmas shopping a few years ago, she came across an illustrated desk calendar of NFL bloopers that prominently featured her husband's kick to Lockhart's posterior.

"At least I'll be known for something," Wagner said.

How did Wagner go from being the butt of jokes to the punter for the AFC Western Division champions?

Perhaps it was Wagner's "hard-nosed determination," to which his personal coach, Brad Hoffman, referred when Wagner was a sophomore at Northridge. Maybe it was the athletic ability that earned him All-San Diego Section honors in football, soccer and baseball as a senior at Hilltop High in Chula Vista.

The way Wagner sees it, it was a combination of perseverance and faith that landed him with the Chargers, his fifth NFL team.

"I know that God has given me a talent," he said. "If He wants me to play, He'll open up the door."

The opportunity came in September when, after the second game, the Chargers released punter John Kidd, who had been struggling because of a pulled groin muscle. Wagner had worked out for the Chargers in the preseason after being cut by the Green Bay Packers. Yet when he got the call from San Diego, it was a surprise.

"I never thought I would come back and play where I grew up," he said. "It was like a dream come true."

Wagner was an avid Charger fan as a kid. In fact, asked this week if he knew the last time the Chargers had reached an AFC final, Wagner quickly recited the information.

"Yeah, it was 1982," he said. "They played the Bengals and it was a freezing-cold game in Cincinnati." The Bengals won, 27-7.

Wagner's familiarity with the Chargers and the surrounding area have easily made this his most-enjoyable pro season.

"Just the fact that this is the place I'm from has made it great," he said. "I've had a lot of support from my family and friends. Even the town has come alive. It's neat to see that and be part of it."

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Wagner has responded well. He ranked 10th among AFC punters with a 41.6-yard average.

Wagner punted twice for a 43.5-yard average in San Diego's 22-21 comeback victory over Miami last weekend. Kidd, coincidentally, punted for the Dolphins.

"Bryan has had a real good year," said Chuck Priefer, San Diego's special teams coach. "He came in in a hard situation and has been very good for us. He's had a couple of games that he'd like to have back, like we all would, but he's been solid."

Priefer says Wagner's experience and versatility are especially valuable. This will be the punter's third conference championship game after losing efforts with the Chicago Bears in 1988 and the Cleveland Browns in 1989. And even though Wagner hasn't been a kicker since his days at Northridge, the Chargers will turn to him if kicker John Carney is injured.

"Going into a championship game, it's good to have someone who has been there before," Priefer said. "Some guys can get rattled, but Bryan has that quality of resiliency that all kickers need. I always tell them, 'The most-important kick is the next one.'

"Bryan knows when he screws up and he usually knows why."

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