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He spends the better part of his Sunday afternoons running wind sprints behind the St. Louis Rams' bench, stopping intermittently to do knee bends, windmill stretches and various other calisthenics. So often, the bulk of Ricky Proehl's workday is an exercise in futility. "I feel like an idiot out there," says Proehl, a 12th-year wideout who long ago abandoned his claim to first-string status. "It's like the other guys are getting their groove on, and I'm in the background looking like Jack LaLanne."
While the Rams' souped-up offense rewrites record books and thrills a football-watching nation, Proehl, 33, is content to finish his career as the Greatest Sideshow on Earth. Well, he's usually content. Sometimes even the juggling unicyclist commands a turn in the center ring, and on Sunday, with St. Louis's pride and standing at stake, Proehl played a starring role. In a 27-14 win over the San Francisco 49ers that vaulted the Rams to the top of the NFC with a 10-2 record, it was No. 4 receiver Proehl—rather than the heralded trio of Isaac Bruce, Tony Holt and Az Hakim—who provided the strongest rebuttal to Niners safety Lance Schulters's midweek pronouncement that the St. Louis wideouts were "soft."
Think this 6-foot, 190-pound technician is soft? Hardly. Proehl, who seven years ago glared defiantly at coach Buddy Ryan after Ryan told him that he wasn't good enough to play for the Arizona Cardinals, traverses the secondary as fearlessly as Picabo Street handles a bunny hill. He struck a blow for the Rams' receiving corps on Sunday by knocking Schulters off his feet with a block during quarterback Kurt Warner's career-long 23-yard run late in the first half and finished with six receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown. In the biggest game of St. Louis's season, Proehl, as is his custom, came up huge.
"Ricky deals with pressure better than anyone else we have," said Rams coach Mike Martz after Sunday's victory, which left St. Louis a game ahead of the 49ers, the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers in the race for the NFC's No. 1 postseason seed. "I don't know why that is, but the greater the pressure, the more big plays he makes. He's the guy who got us into the Super Bowl two years ago with his catch against Tampa Bay, and he stepped up again today. Our only problem is that we don't use him enough, but that will change—I promise you."
Told of Martz's promise later on Sunday, Proehl replied with a bemused expression that conveyed the words, We'll see. After all, the Rams' offense is more loaded than the cast of Ocean's Eleven. Bruce is one of the NFL's best receivers, while Holt is a budding star and Hakim is among the league's most dangerous open-field playmakers. Throw in Warner and multitalented running back Marshall Faulk, the NFL's last two MVPs, and there aren't many touches left to go around.
Proehl may be the most overlooked member of the league's 500-reception club—he has 526 career catches—but he's got old-school credibility among those in the know. "That's Rock 'n' Roll Ricky Proehl, man," says St. Louis safety Kim Herring. "Back in the early days of video games, when we used to play Nintendo's Tecmo Super Bowl, Ricky was the Truth. When you need a vital catch, he's the guy."
As recently as 1998 Proehl hauled in 60 passes for 771 yards and was voted the Rams' most outstanding offensive player by the coaching staff. Since then it's as if Proehl made some bargain, exchanging a reduction in individual opportunity for an increase in team victories. It's an arrangement he enjoys, though he has never become accustomed to the lack of rhythm in a backup's role.
He's generally on the field for 15 to 20 plays a game—a lot for a fourth wideout but still less than a third of the snaps—making for stretches when he starts to feel stagnant. "That's been the hardest thing for me, standing there and waiting my turn," Proehl says. "You get loose in warmups, and then you have to find a way to stay in the game mentally and keep ready physically."
Proehl's solution is to impersonate a junior high gym teacher behind the bench, no matter how silly it might make him appear. On Dec. 2, during St. Louis's 35-6 victory over the Falcons in Atlanta, Proehl was running knee-pumping sprints when a Georgia Dome fan began mocking him. Born in the Bronx and raised in New Jersey, Proehl didn't mind the verbal abuse. "The guy said, 'Hey, Ricky, you still suck,' " Proehl recalls. "I looked up and realized it was the same guy who heckled me last year! I love when people in the stands talk s—-."
Speaking of trash talk, Proehl and his teammates have received a stream of uncomplimentary banter from opponents this year. The latest came from Schulters, who questioned the willingness of the St. Louis wideouts to go across the middle and fight for extra yards. Predictably, Martz tried to use the charges as a motivating force for his players. The coach, however, needed no extra impetus. Although they have now beaten their onetime upstate rivals six consecutive times, that streak was preceded by a run of 17 consecutive losses to San Francisco. For Martz, a Rams assistant from 1992 through '96 before succeeding Dick Vermeil as coach in February 2000, the bitter memories are fresh.