Ryan Fien is just another new face at the Oakland Raiders' mini-camp this weekend. Just another free-agent quarterback scratching to make it in the National Football League.
In the pros, the players are bigger and faster. The playbook reads "like a foreign language."
Over the past few days, Fien has occasionally sidled up to veteran David Klingler to ask such rookie questions as, "What route was that again?"
Yet the Simi Valley native insists that he feels, well, almost at home.
"Growing up in junior high and high school, I would go watch the Raiders' camp when it was in Oxnard," Fien said. "Now I'm part of one. It's not so much nerve-racking as it is weird."
"Weird" sounds about right.
That describes the long, strange path that has led Fien through the highs and lows of his sport, from Westwood to Northern Idaho to an NFL practice field beside San Francisco Bay.
Just two seasons ago the 6-foot-4 quarterback wallowed in college football wasteland.
A top recruit from Royal High, he earned a starting role at UCLA by his junior year. But there were problems with injuries and an offense that did not suit his style. After being benched twice during a September 1995 loss at Washington State, Fien spoke out to reporters.
"Put me in No. 1 or No. 2," he said in a locker-room outburst. "I finally started to get some momentum, and the next thing I know, I'm out. It's tough and frustrating playing under those circumstances."
Coach Terry Donahue quickly eased his frustration. Fien never again started at UCLA. When Donahue retired, new Coach Bob Toledo instituted a play-action offense that favored mobile quarterback Cade McNown.
"If I was content on letting football come to an end, I would have stayed at UCLA and finished out my degree," Fien said. "But if I had let football end on that note, it would have always eaten at me."
So he went looking for a chance to redeem himself and landed at the University of Idaho, an out-of-the-way program that was headed from Division I-AA to Division I-A.
"What happened at UCLA, it was hard on him," said Greg Olson, Idaho's quarterback coach. "I think he matured a little bit."
He also joined an offense designed for a strong-armed, dropback passer. In the season opener at Wyoming, Fien passed for 542 yards and four touchdowns. The next week, at San Diego State, he racked up 381 yards and two scores.
By season's end, he had amassed 3,674 yards--third-best in Big West Conference history--and thrown a league-leading 27 touchdowns passes. His 327 yards per game in total offense ranked second nationally.
A pro scout told The Times that Fien "has got the size, a good feel for the game, a good arm. . . . He looks like he's good enough to get an opportunity in the NFL."
Still, when draft day came, teams weren't climbing over each other to get at small-school quarterbacks. When it came to Fien, there may have been lingering questions about his maturity.
"I think that was part of why he got benched at UCLA," Olson said. "They weren't real happy with his decision-making and how he reacted to being told that he wouldn't play."
Fien did not make special plans for the draft, did not fly home to be with family and friends. But he watched on television. He could not help but wait by the phone.
Days passed before it finally rang. Then George Karras, the Raiders' pro scouting director, called to suggest that Fien might fit Oakland's offensive philosophy. Fien agreed.
"It's drop back and throw the ball downfield," he said. "That's my type of quarterbacking."
The Raiders offer a window of opportunity, having spent the off-season overhauling at quarterback.
Billy Joe Hobert is gone to Buffalo and Jeff Hostetler is rumored to have a deal with Washington. Jeff George has arrived as the new starter. Klingler and Alfred Montez, who spent last season on the developmental squad, hold the inside track for the next two positions.
At this point, that probably leaves Fien to compete with another rookie free agent, Jason Davis of tiny Western State College in Colorado, for Montez's old spot.
Earlier this week, Olson offered a few words of advice. He told Fien to stay relaxed and concentrate on learning the Raiders' offense. Oh, and there was one more thing.
"If you throw an interception, you have to let it go, " the coach said. "Move on."
The first few days of mini-camp, which runs Thursday through today, were dominated by medical examinations and team meetings. When the team finally took the field, Fien got limited repetitions.
He threw a few good passes, a few passes into coverage, but no interceptions.
"It's just like being a freshman in college," he said. "You keep working. You keep your head up."
If the pressure mounts, Fien has only to recall the dark days at UCLA. The memories are comforting, in a strange way.
"If it ends here, there's not a bitter taste in my mouth," he said. "I'm just excited about getting the chance."