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CENTRAL
William F. Reed
November 13, 1995
King for a Day
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November 13, 1995

Central

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The best athlete is left tackle Andy Heck, a 6'6", 296-pound product out of Notre Dame and a former first-round pick who played five seasons with Seattle before signing with Chicago in 1994. "Andy provides a stabilizing influence," Wise says. "He takes on that big pass rusher every week."

The most noticeable lineman is 6'7", 335-pound right tackle James Williams, who was so overlooked during little Cheyney State's 0-11 season in 1990 that the Bears were able to sign him as a free agent in 1991. A defensive tackle in college, Williams was moved across the line midway through the 1992 season.

The catalyst is 6'3", 300-pound center Jerry Fontenot, a seventh-year pro from Texas A&M who took over in 1992 after Jay Hilgenberg was traded to the Browns. "He understands everything," Wise says. "He's a perfect match for the position."

The five Wise men don't want a nickname. Their coach discourages one because, well, you know how it is with linemen. "The guys have a good handle on it," Wise says. "They get their recognition when we're watching film and one guy says to another, 'God, that was a great block.' Or after a game, when an opponent shakes hands with one of them and compliments him. That's the best recognition there is."

Many Happy Returns

When Lion wideout Johnnie Morton learned during the off-season that Mel Gray, the NFLs alltime leading kick returner, had signed with the Oilers, he volunteered for the job. "I just want to get my hands on the ball," said Morton, the Lions' first-round draft pick in 1994. Small wonder. As a senior at Southern Cal, Morton had 88 touches in 13 games. But as a Lion rookie, he got his mitts on the ball only seven times in 14 games. One of those touches, however, came on a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Dolphins in the season finale.

Morton knew it would be difficult to replace Gray, who was so feared that opponents often opted to kick short or away from him. In 1994 Gray returned three kickoffs for scores and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the fourth time in five seasons.

Lion coach Wayne Fontes was happy to grant Morton's request. With his sprinter's speed—in high school he ran the 100 meters in 10.8 seconds—Morton figured to be just the man for the job. Unfortunately Morton quickly learned he couldn't deal with the physical punishment that goes with returning kicks in the NFL.

In the first half of the Lions' win over the 49ers in Week 4, Morton was hit so hard on a return that he suffered a concussion. "I kept playing," he says, "but at halftime I was asking the guys if I was a rookie and if I was supposed to bring in doughnuts." Two weeks later, in a game against Cleveland, Morton got dinged again. "It felt like I stepped on a land mine," he recalls.

Later in the Brown game, Morton asked to be relieved of his return duties. His numbers weren't bad: a 21.7-yard average on kickoffs, 6.9 yards per punt return. But Morton believed the only way he would see the end of the season was to concentrate on receiving.

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