LOS ANGELES -- Four years after being cut loose in Kansas City, a first-round bust if ever there was one, Ethan Horton is back, bigger than ever.
You wouldn't recognize him. On the long return route from Missouri to the Los Angeles Raiders, Horton took quite a few road-side hits. He also underwent a total physical transformation, the result of some fancy football surgery performed by Al Davis, the always-tinkering Raiders' owner and noted Dr. Frankenstein.
Horton entered the league as the 15th pick of the 1985 draft, a star running back from the University of North Carolina. He left the Kansas City Chiefs a year later, branded a colossal mistake. When Horton was released in training camp 1986, no other National Football League team would sign him.
In 1989 Horton showed up on the Raiders doorstep as nothing more than an interesting science project. Today, he's the team's starting tight end.
In between, Horton has endured enough rejection to wonder how he ever made it this far. He was out of football for the entire 1986 and 1988 seasons. The Raiders gave up on him twice before he stuck.
The Raiders first tried him as a running back in 1987 but released him after eight games. They called him back for a tryout as a slotback the following summer but cut him again.
After each rejection, Horton returned to the University of North Carolina to counsel student-athletes on the importance of staying in school. There were no sure things in sports, he preached. He was living proof.
"The experience that I had [to offer] was myself," he said.
After his second release from the Raiders in 1988, Horton did a quick reality check. He figured it was time to move on.
"I was going back and forth, back and forth," Horton remembered. "I knew I was starting to get older, and I couldn't keep chasing something that wasn't really there. It was about time for me to start looking in other directions."
Then he got the phone call that changed his life. It was Davis, with a great idea. Horton, who was a tall running back to begin with at 6 feet 4, would check into a weight room for a few months, load up on pasta and emerge a tight end. Davis told him to think it over.
Horton couldn't stand another rejection, but said he also couldn't reject another challenge.
"I was not a quitter," Horton said. "I never had been and never want to be."
That Davis had called personally was enough to persuade Horton to give it one more chance.
Before the '89 season, he worked out with noted strength coach Marv Marinovich and added about 15 pounds. A 225-pound running back coming out of college, Horton now stood a solid 240.