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4 SAN DIEGO Chargers
Austin Murphy
September 01, 1997
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.
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September 01, 1997

4 San Diego Chargers

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1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 8-8 (third in AFC West)

Rushing

Passing

Total

OFFENSE

82.0(29)

209.9(14)

291.9(26)

DEFENSE

109.7(17)

229.1(25)

338.8(23)

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 happy?' "

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.

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