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The Secondary Is Primary In K.C.
Paul Zimmerman
September 09, 1987
Constituting a whole greater than the sum of its parts, Kansas City's defensive backfield may be the best ever
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September 09, 1987

The Secondary Is Primary In K.c.

Constituting a whole greater than the sum of its parts, Kansas City's defensive backfield may be the best ever

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"We don't have any No. 1 draft choices in our group," Cherry says, "no big egos. Just four hardworking guys trying to get better. We're all in our mid-to late 20's. We all have two years left on our contracts. We room together on the road, watch film together, hang out together. There's no animosity. We feed on each other's success."

Last season Cherry was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Year by the 101 Committee, which is composed of 101 national sportswriters and sports-casters. He and Burruss made the Pro Bowl, but the Chiefs voted Lewis their MVP, an honor Burruss won in '85. Recognition is finally arriving, and it has been a spur to push the throttle even harder.

At minicamp in May, Lewis dazzled everyone with a 4.37 40, the fastest time of his life. The club record for the 300-yard shuttle run, a set of six turnaround 50's, was 44 seconds, but Lewis did it in 43.34, and then Burruss broke that with a 43.05. The weight room was turned into a competition between the secondary and every other unit on the squad. Led by Ross, a 5'9", 182-pound weight-lifting fanatic, the defensive backs scored highest in the pound-for-pound gradings.

Ross's teammates call him Rocky, because he's a ferocious hitter. He's also a wicked little man-to-man cover guy. "Look at him," Burruss says, pointing to Ross's close-cropped, almost shaved head and powerful neck. "The head, the neck. Who does he remind you of?"

You look at an unblinking, almost baleful stare. It could be only one person: Marvin Hagler. There are whoops of delight. " Marvin Hagler, our own Marvin, our little Rock," Burruss says.

"Rocky," Cherry says, "tell him what Cliff Branch said to you your rookie year?"

Ross was the Chiefs' seventh-round draft choice in 1984. He had been a rugged tailback and linebacker at Paulsboro High in South Jersey, where he enjoyed taking on guards and centers, and a fine strong safety and then cornerback at Temple, where he faced some of the nation's best quarterbacks, including Doug Flutie, Dan Marino and Todd Blackledge. At Kansas City he was working at nickelback and strong safety when, six days before the '84 opener against the Steelers, the coaches told him that they had just cut Lucious Smith and that he would start in Smith's place at right corner.

"I'd always been a Steeler fan," Ross says. "I watched them in the warmups—Stallworth, Lambert, Webster, Shell—all my heros. I got caught up in it. I was excited, but mentally and emotionally I wasn't ready to play."

Pittsburgh passed for 419 yards that day, and John Stallworth and Louis Lipps had 350 between them. According to the reports, 282 of them were directly attributable to Ross. After the game he faced a battery of reporters and answered their questions with that same unblinking gaze. "This," he said, "will never happen again."

Against the Bengals the next week, he made 10 tackles and forced a fumble that saved a 27-22 victory. Then the Raiders came to town. Branch had seen the Steeler film. He licked his chops.

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