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Week 4 in the NFL

Just Getting Warmed Up

Playing with passion is normal to the Chargers' Merriman, whose life has been touched by fire

October 01, 2006|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The fire in San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, fueled by a burning passion for football and perhaps the nightmarish flames of his youth, never stops.

Teammate Luis Castillo, a defensive lineman, sees it.

"You see that look in his eye when he puts on his helmet," Castillo said. "You see that passion. He's a freak. He physically imposes his will on people."

Randall Godfrey, a fellow linebacker, sees it.

"He's out to punish anybody who gets in his way," Godfrey said. "He goes 100 miles an hour, 24-7. He's wide open every game."

Marlon McCree, a free safety, sees it.

"He plays with a fire that says nothing can be taken for granted," McCree said. "When you have humble beginnings like he had, you tend to take things more seriously."

Merriman, the team leader with three sacks and a motivating force on a club that leads the NFL in total defense, certainly comes from humble beginnings -- a life of poverty and homelessness.

His youth was spent in Maryland, where Merriman and the 2-0 Chargers will be today to play the 3-0 Ravens in Baltimore.

The 6-foot-4, 272-pound Merriman, a first-round draft pick in 2005 who developed into the defensive rookie of the year and a Pro Bowl starter, cracks a big smile when he talks about this weekend's homecoming. "I have about 50 people coming to the game," he said. "It will be nice to play in front of my family."

The smiles were rarer during a series of three fires that marred his youth.

When Merriman was 4, a faulty chimney caused a fire in the home of his grandmother, Arnethia Buchanan.

"It was scary," Buchanan said by phone from her Maryland home. Just as Merriman and several other family members got out of a bedroom in which they had been watching television, the ceiling caved in.

Years later, Merriman and his family were living in an apartment where a neighbor who occasionally baby-sat had recently witnessed a murder.

The killers returned to throw a Molotov cocktail -- flaming rags in a bottle -- through the window of the neighbor's apartment. Again Merriman, whose apartment was two stories up from the fire, had smoke in his lungs and terror in his heart.

That terror intensified when he learned a 3-year-old girl in the building had been burned to death. "It was tough," he said, "something you'll never forget."

And there is yet another fire seared into his memory. It occurred when Merriman was a junior at Frederick Douglass High in Upper Marlboro.

Returning from football practice, he found his house dark and cold. There was no electricity because his mother, Gloria, could not afford to pay the bill. Merriman went down the street to warm up in the home of a friend.

When his mother came home, she lighted candles. But when she fell asleep one candle ignited a blaze in the house. No one was hurt, but Merriman was again homeless.

J.C. Pinkney, now head coach at Douglass High but then the offensive coordinator, vividly remembers the call he got from Merriman.

"He called me in tears and told me, 'Just when you think it couldn't get any worse, this happens. I don't know what to do. I have nowhere to go. I don't have a plan. This is a mess.' "

Pinkney told Merriman he could live with him and his wife. Merriman accepted the offer.

"Money was always an issue with his family," Pinkney said. "One month, they couldn't pay the mortgage. Another month, they couldn't pay other bills. Sometimes there wasn't enough food or he didn't have the right kind of clothes."

But Merriman survived by keeping the right frame of mind.

"He was always a positive person in a negative world," said Buchanan, his grandmother.

And Merriman always had football to reinforce him. Never did he let his horrendous personal life blur his focus on the field. Merriman directed his inner rage and frustration at other players, those on his own team as well as the opposition.

"Shawne was skinny, about 5-11 and 158," Pinkney said, "but he always wanted to go after the biggest guy, even when he was a sophomore. I remember he was always telling our varsity quarterback, Greg Spriggs, who was about 6-0, 190 and bench-pressed 335 pounds, 'If I get a shot at you, you'll miss your next game.' Shawne had a game where he had 22 tackles; another where he had 18."

The game they still talk about at Douglass was the one in which Merriman knocked four opposing players out of the game -- three before halftime. He soon earned the nickname "Lights Out," and now has it tattooed on his right forearm along with a light switch in the off position.

Merriman kept a body count on his school locker, listing how many players he had knocked out of games.

"I remember we once took him to another school on a scouting trip," Pinkney said, "and some of the other players were getting on him in the bleachers. He asked for a pen and paper and started asking each of those players for their jersey numbers and then wrote them down.

"He made it clear to them he'd be looking for that number when we played them."

Merriman continued leaving jerseys scattered in his wake at the University of Maryland and now in the NFL.

But now he doesn't have to worry about having a roof over his head or a meal in front of him. He is in the second year of a five-year, $11.33-million contract that could be worth more than $15 million with incentives.

"He wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth," said Buchanan, "but he's certainly got one to chew on now."

steve.springer@latimes.com

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