While waiting to have his hair cut at the Afrocentric Barbers in an untrimmed part of downtown San Diego, the Chargers' second-year running back, Natrone Means, mentions that he's not thrilled with the nickname recently dropped on him by ESPN's Chris Berman. At 5'10" and 245 pounds, Means knows that Slim and Stix are probably out of the question as handles. But, really, does that leave nothing but Retried Means?
Not one to complain needlessly, Means strokes his goatee. Is he being unreasonable here? After all, he's earning only $276,600 this season while leading the Chargers in rushing and doing an even better job than last season's main man, Marion Butts, who is now earning $1.4 million with the New England Patriots. There are a few white hairs in the 22-year-old Means's soon-to-be-trimmed beard. "Stress," he says. No doubt the result of bashing his way to consecutive 1,000-yard seasons at North Carolina, 645 yards last season for the Chargers and 203 yards in the first two games this season. Means running is like a sit-down mower churning through weeds—with rocks dinging the blade.
"What I would like," he says of the choice of nicknames at his disposal, "is By Any Means Necessary." While weighing the marketability of an eight-syllable moniker, one asks the man how his first name is pronounced. "Nay-tron," he says.
So how about Natrone Bomb? (Stadiums unharmed; only tacklers wiped out.) He shrugs. Time to get into the chair.
Actually, the entire Charger team could use a nickname. Something like Explosive might work. Picked by most experts to finish last in the AFC West, the Chargers found themselves 2-0 last week and ready to take on the also undefeated Seattle Seahawks for the lead in the division. The Seahawks had gone 2-14 in 1992 and 6-10 last season, and they were climbing the stairsteps of success created by drafting and developing second-year quarterback Rick Mirer.
A star at Notre Dame, Mirer had stayed in South Bend for his final year of college eligibility—rather than enter the draft in 1992—mainly so he could hang out with his chums, be a college senior and travel to Paris, where he made a pilgrimage to rocker Jim Morrison's grave. Last season he made a pilgrimage to the graveside of Jimi Hendrix (it's just in suburban Seattle, he explained), and he was erratic as an NFL quarterback, not necessarily because his interest in the final resting places of these men was distracting him. The pro game was at times overwhelming for the studious Mirer, and Seahawk coach Tom Flores tried to keep things simple for him: three chords and the truth.
"Sometimes you'd call a play, and you'd look in his eyes and see the wheels turning—'Where am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to do?' " says Flores. "Now he knows what he's doing. Not just what but why."
Then the coach adds, "He's still a pup."
Most of all, the Seahawks' solid defense, anchored by tackle Cortez Kennedy and linebackers Terry Wooden and Rod Stephens, has kept Seattle's foes in line so that Mirer is not obliged to be a hero each week. Indeed, going into the Charger game, the Seahawk D had given up only 16 points, the fewest in the league. And when needed, the league's best unknown running back, Chris Warren—1,000-plus-yard rushing seasons in 1992 and '93—would put the lumber to opponents.
If the Seahawks had any obvious flaw, it was an architectural one. The roof tiles of the Kingdome were falling, the ceiling was leaking, and estimates to fix and refurbish the home of both the Seahawks and the baseball Mariners were somewhere between $50 million and $134 million, depending on which greedy, bloated sports executive (oops, that's baseball) you wanted to hear out. The whole damn Dome cost only $67 million in 1976, and it looked then, and looks now, like a stem-less toadstool. An outsider's suggestion? Squash it before it spreads.
Which brings us to the actual game on Sunday, which took place at the Seahawks' temporary home, Husky Stadium, on the University of Washington campus. This is a lovely site, flanked on the west by hills, pine trees and college buildings and on the east by Lake Washington, yachts and the occasional raft. On a beautiful sunny afternoon the stadium played host to some very ugly football, at least during the scoreless first quarter and part of the second. Then, with the score tied 3-3, the Natrone Bomb detonated on San Diego's last drive of the half. Means carried five times and caught two passes for a total of 34 yards before blasting over from the one to put the Chargers ahead 10-3 at intermission.
Not only was it Throwbacks Weekend, an occasion for wearing old-fashioned uniforms around the NFL, but it was also retro-offense day. Warren left the game for more than a quarter with a bruised elbow, and the Chargers lost rock-steady center Courtney Hall indefinitely with a torn biceps muscle. Running games pretty much vanished. At the half Mirer had completed six of 13 passes for 48 yards, and San Diego quarterback Stan Humphries, the highest-rated passer in the NFL, was 12 of 20 for 115 yards and no touchdowns. The only impact player for either team, other than Means, was the Chargers' hyperactive cornerback, Dwayne Harper. By the midpoint of the second quarter, the 174-pounder had already been flagged for three pass-interference penalties and one unnecessary-roughness call. "You can't let the refs take you out of the game," he said afterward, noting that the officials looked and acted silly in their throwback white caps. "Maybe that was their problem—those funky hats."
Whatever the problem, Harper chilled out in the second half and finished with eight tackles, a pass broken up and a not-disastrous game, considering the havoc he wreaked on his own side. The real loser after the break was Mirer. On first-and-10 at the Charger 28 midway through the third quarter, he was blitzed by linebackers Junior Seau and David Griggs, and he threw a quick out pass toward tight end Paul Green that Charger safety Stanley Richard homed in on like a hawk on a pigeon. Richard snatched the ball and waved bye-bye.
Eighty-three yards later (counting the 10 yards of end zone) the 6'2" Richard rose up and prepared to do a Michael Jordan midair extravaganza, but then...well, let him describe the letdown: "I was just kind of cruising, putting on a show for the crowd, and at the 20 all I saw was a big goalpost and I thought, Oh, wow, I need to do something. So I tried to get the height and wrap the ball over the crossbar, but I, man, I lost my vertical leap."
The monster dunk turned into a baby finger roll, but the touchdown counted anyway. Richard had put the Chargers up 17-3, and that was all she wrote. The Seahawks seemed clueless on offense. Mirer was sacked six times by San Diego, once each by Seau, end Raylee Johnson and tackle Shawn Lee and three times by resurgent end Leslie O'Neal.
Even when the Seattle defense did well, things turned out wrong. With the Chargers backed up to their own 10 near the end of the third period, Seahawk defensive end Brent Williams grabbed Humphries and spun him down for what looked like a safety. Nope, said funny-lidded referee Jerry Markbreit, mark the ball on the half-yard line On the next play Humphries dropped into the end zone again, dodged a blitz and hit wideout Tony Martin with a sweet post-route are at the 35. With cornerback Patrick Hunter chasing him like a scalded dog, Martin set out in the direction of Lake Washington: the 40, midfield, the other 40. Hunter was getting closer. The 30, the 20. And suddenly Hunter crumpled as though he had stepped in a hole. Martin crossed the goal line with a 99-yard touchdown reception, tying an NFL record held by six other men, and Hunter was helped from the field with a strained left hamstring.
That made it 24-3, San Diego. Warren would score on an 11-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to make the final score 24-10. San Diego had its first 3-0 start in 13 years, and Seattle had to wonder what exactly had not gone wrong. "I don't feel too good right now," Hunter said later in the locker room, speaking for his whole team. In a moment of poignancy, rugged sportswriter Craig Smith of The Seattle Times helped the crippled Hunter put his feet into his shorts, pulling the garment partway up the player's legs. "Patrick." Smith then said, standing up, "I only go up to the knees."
Meanwhile the members of the Chargers' wide-receiving corps—Martin, Mark Seay and Shawn Jefferson—were laughing and basking in an all-for-one show of unity. Last Thursday, Jefferson and Martin had listened as Seay explained to a writer how he lost a kidney in a random shooting in Los Angeles six years ago and how playing football was no big deal. "How dangerous can a football field be?" he asked. "I got shot at home. Homes are supposed to be safe." The other two players nodded, then bent at the waist and chanted to Seay, "We are not worthy!"
Well, Martin was worthy Sunday, snagging six passes for 152 yards and a score, and the other two were thrilled for him. "It doesn't matter which of us it is," said Jefferson, a victory cigar in his mouth. "Stan will throw to anybody at any time."
Humphries is a gritty guy who doesn't put much stock in his astronomical passing rating. He has completed 49 of 80 passes for 793 yards and hasn't thrown an interception this year, but what means the most to him is a W. "I'm not fast, I'm not quick, I don't have a quarterback's body," he says. "But I try to be smart out there and make some plays. Plus, I've got a little bit of the gambler in me. The Number 1 stat to me is what our record is, what my record as a starter is. That quarterback rating deals with so many odds and ends. I don't know about that thing." For the record, Humphries is 23-10 as a starter. Not bad.
Seau was so hopped up after the win that he had to retreat to the world of clichès to make his points. He even gave a rare three-in-one, a trifecta of platitudes, when describing the Chargers' future: "We have three games under our belts and no losses, and that's a breath of fresh air, but it's still a long road ahead."
Means did better. "We're no fluke team," he said. And he may well be right. By all means.