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.