Every summer the Chargers share their training site, the UC San
Diego campus, with a group of husky adolescents who attend a
camp designed to teach them how to manage their weight. The
campers might be interested in the advice of San Diego running
back Gary Brown, who would tell them, Don't put away eight
Philadelphia cheese steaks a day.
That was a typical day's fare last fall for Brown, who after
being released by the Oilers in training camp blimped out in his
hometown of Williamsport, Pa. Recalls Brown, who ballooned from
233 to 262 pounds during his sabbatical, "I'd be sitting
there"--often, he admits, with a pizza in his lap--"watching
other teams' running backs on TV, thinking, I know in my heart
I'm as good as that guy."
Had he watched any Chargers games, Brown would have been
particularly unimpressed with their rushing attack. San Diego
averaged 3.2 yards per rush last season, 26th in the league. Its
oft-injured, seldom-in-sync line opened few holes for plodding
journeyman Leonard Russell, who is now out of football, and
offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen's shopworn H-back offense
had grown predictable. "We'd be in our stances, and the guys on
the other team would start calling out the play," says guard
Isaac Davis. "Stevie Wonder could have seen what we were going
to run half the time."
Out are Friedgen and coach Bobby Ross. In as coach is erstwhile
Jaguars offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, who also held that
title with the Oilers in 1993, when Brown rushed for 1,002 yards
on just 195 carries. Around the time Ross was getting fired,
Brown was back in Williamsport, experiencing an epiphany. "I
looked at myself in the mirror one morning, and I said, 'Are you
August 31, 1997
He wasn't. Working out at the Williamsport YMCA--"People think
you need a personal trainer and a nutritionist, but all you
really need is the right attitude," he says--Brown whipped
himself into the best shape of his life. After signing with the
Chargers for the league minimum in March (he gets a $1 million
bonus if he rushes for 1,000 yards), Brown reported to camp at
219 pounds with 4% body fat, and he won a starting job. He will
be spelled by former Steeler Erric Pegram, who averaged 5.2
yards per carry last season while backing up Jerome Bettis; and
rookie Kenny Bynum, a fifth-round draft choice from South
Carolina State who was dazzling in training camp before he tore
his right Achilles tendon during an Aug. 9 preseason game
against the Colts. He's expected back for the opener.
Without similar improvement along the line, however, the new
backs will be able to produce just so much. The only new face is
center Raleigh McKenzie, a 13-year veteran who started for the
Eagles in '96; he's flanked by guard Troy Sienkiewicz and tackle
Tony Berti on the left side, and Davis and tackle Vaughn Parker
on the right. No stars here.
"We don't really know how the offensive line's going to turn
out," general manager Bobby Beathard said during camp, as he sat
barefoot in his dorm room watching video of college prospects.
Of his new running backs, he said, "You can't look at anybody
there and say, 'We're riding this guy to the playoffs.'"
Ah, but there's hope. Two days later, in the game against the
Colts, the slimmed-down Brown busted a 62-yard touchdown run.
"He's in great shape," Gilbride says of his new meal ticket.
"He's hungry for success."
And has less of a craving, presumably, for cheese steaks.