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Against All Odds

VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Price Was Right at Sylmar and UCLA, But He Faces Big Struggle With Chargers

August 04, 2000|MIKE BRESNAHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The little kid, not more than 5 or 6 years old, scratched his head shyly, stuck out a pen and piece of paper, and asked Durell Price a question he hadn't heard in a long, long time.

Who are you?

In case Price hadn't fully grasped the truth, he was reminded of the obscurity that comes with being an undrafted free agent trying to earn a spot on an NFL roster.

As he attempts to find a niche with the San Diego Chargers, somewhere between the overwhelming success of nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau and the headline-grabbing antics of quarterback Ryan Leaf, the former Sylmar High and UCLA running back is overjoyed at times, graciously signing autographs--even for fans who aren't sure who he is.

But at other times, the 5-foot-11, 245-pound Price, who rushed for 4,135 yards and 78 touchdowns as a tailback at Sylmar and started for two years after converting to fullback at UCLA, is less than joyous, fully aware that his next rushing attempt might be his last in an NFL uniform.

"This is the first time I have no security in playing the game I love," Price said. "In high school, I knew I wasn't going to get cut. In college, I had a scholarship, so I knew I'd be OK. Here, I'm a rookie free agent and they're the first people to get cut."

If Price doesn't make the team, it won't be the worst thing that has happened to him.

Last year, Price was among 19 current or past Bruins implicated in a widely publicized scandal that involved the use of illegally obtained handicapped-parking placards.

After two continuances, Price eventually pleaded no contest and was hit with a $1,485 fine, 200 hours of community service and two years' probation. He was also suspended for the Bruins' first two games.

"Young and dumb," Price said. "You make mistakes. That's what college is about. You can't tell me that everybody who goes from being a teenager to being an adult doesn't make mistakes.

"Everybody who knows Durell Price knows it was just a bad decision."

Things didn't improve on the field for UCLA, which went 4-7 last season, a year after appearing in the Rose Bowl. Price, a team captain, started nine games at fullback and rushed for 46 yards in 16 carries, a 2.9 average. He caught six passes for 85 yards.

Considered a decent bet to get drafted because of his size and strength (he has benched 436 pounds), Price was a wreck as the draft approached.

He was unable to eat and lost about 15 pounds. When his name was not mentioned on either day of the draft, he was bitter.

"I was disappointed and hurt that nobody thought that the two years I started at UCLA at fullback was worth anything," he said.

Price's esteem improved after he received calls from several NFL teams who wanted him to try out, including Dallas, Green Bay and San Francisco. He chose San Diego because he believed it gave him the best chance at making the team.

It has taken time to get used to the Chargers' thick playbook, about 250 pages for offense, and Price is battling somewhat of an awe factor.

"These are guys I grew up watching play," he said. "When you're going against a [future] Hall of Fame linebacker like Junior Seau on a regular basis in practice, you're learning a ton. I get upset because he'll beat me, but the rest of the running backs remind me that I'm a rookie and that he's supposed to do that.

"I'm holding my own, though. I'm not letting up and getting pushed around. I'm making plays. I know I belong at this level."

Price, listed as the third-string fullback on a team that carried only one true fullback last season, will have a tough time making the squad.

The Chargers, who ranked 27th last season with 77.9 rushing yards per game, often employ single-back formations. And instead of a true fullback, they are more apt to use an H-back in their base offense.

Last year's starter, Fred McCrary, is back and the Chargers also signed Derrick Harris, who played one game for the Rams last year before being released.

"It's hard to say what we'll do at the position," said Ollie Wilson, the Chargers' running backs coach. "If the third fullback is better than the fifth or sixth receiver, maybe we'll keep him. We just don't know right now."

Wilson does, however, like what Price has to offer.

"He combines what he used to be as a tailback with some of the fullback skills he got at UCLA," Wilson said. "We didn't know a lot about him, but we're learning."

His best chance at making it is through special-teams play. He is on the punt and punt-return teams and is a back-up on the kickoff team.

"I tell them when they walk in the door that they have to play special teams," Wilson said. "If they're not interested in that, we're not interested in them."

NFL teams must trim their rosters to 65 players by Aug. 22 and must pare to the regular-season limit of 53 players by Aug. 27. At that point, five players may be re-signed to a team's practice squad, working out and practicing with the team during the week but not seeing game action.

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