Word's path to Chiefs' starting backfield has been long, winding

January 05, 1992|By Ron Borges | Ron Borges,Boston Globe

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- They found him in a U.S. Sprint office, which is a fitting place for a running back one supposes, but Barry Word has not often found himself free to run.

That is not because he lacks for talent, as he proved a year ago by rushing for 1,015 yards in 204 carries for the Kansas City Chiefs, an average of 5 yards per rush or a first down every two rushes. Normally that would not only make you the fourth-leading rusher in the AFC, as he was last season, but also a fixture in your backfield.

But there has not been much normalcy on Barry Word's path through the NFL.

"Barry is a good football player," said Los Angeles Raiders defensive end Greg Townsend, a point Word proved at the Raiders' expense the past two weekends by rushing for 282 yards, including a club-record 130 on 33 carries in Kansas City's 10-6 victory in the AFC wild-card playoff game.

"They should put him in the role that he should be in, and that's a starter, instead of having him come in when everybody is hurt and nicked. Barry should be starting."

Today he will when the Chiefs go to Rich Stadium in suburban Buffalo to play the AFC East champion Bills, but that is more the result of Christian Okoye's sore knee and No. 1 draft choice Harvey Williams' bad eye than anything Word has done to impress his coach, Marty Schottenheimer.

Yet Word has done quite a lot in that regard beyond his 1,000-yard total of a year ago. In the past month, for example, Word has rushed for 429 yards and three touchdowns in the final four regular-season games and then added 130 to the total last Saturday.

In that time span, only one back, NFC rushing leader Emmitt Smith, has run for more yardage. Yet Word gets the word, not to mention the ball, today only because others are too sore to take it.

This is a highly abnormal situation for a 1,000-yard rusher but hardly a surprising one to Word, whose life has been a string of odd circumstances ever since the afternoon he was busted in Virginia in 1986 on drug charges and failed to provide the prosecution with enough evidence on his partners as part of a plea bargain to convince them not to send him away.

This would create a problem for any young man, but in Word's case it was baffling because not so many weeks earlier it appeared he had nothing but open field ahead of him. Word had just finished a year in which he rushed for 1,224 yards for the University of Virginia, was named ACC Player of the Year and had been drafted by the New Orleans Saints on the third round.

With 242 pounds of muscle lying in thick slabs on his 6-foot-2 frame and the speed to qualify for the Olympic trials in the 110-meter hurdles, he appeared to have the entire package until Word got the book thrown at him.

Not long after he was arrested, he agreed to cooperate with local authorities and when he did, he thought he had a deal. Instead, a conviction for small-time drug dealing put him behind bars.

When he was released the next year, Word finally arrived in New Orleans, but what he found was a logjam at running back behind higher-paid young runners like Dalton Hilliard and Reuben Mayes. Yet even coming off his forced sabbatical, Word made the team and played in 12 games, rushing 36 times for 133 yards. It wasn't much, but it was a promise that something better might follow.

It didn't.

The next summer, Word returned to New Orleans and again made the team as a backup, but this time the reality of his situation was clear. He was no longer a rookie blind to NFL reality. The way he saw it, he was at least as good if not better than the men in front of him but that was where they were going to stay. In front of him.

So he quit.

He played the first two games of 1989, grew weary of pro football politics and headed home.

So, fittingly, Word accepted a job talking as a telemarketing representative for U.S. Sprint in Reston, Va., until the Chiefs found him nearly two years later and signed him May 21, 1990.

This time, however, there were no illusions. He would be asked to back up a mountain of a man, a 260-pound package of muscle and speed named Christian Okoye, who had just had a 1,000-yard rushing season.

Word agreed rather willingly after two years in the real world of $5 hours and no free lunches (or breakfasts or dinners). But as the fall dragged on, Okoye began starting the games, struggled and then Word would come on in the second half and began rushing for piles of yardage.

When Okoye was injured in the 13th game of the season, Word became a starter for the first time since 1985, having proven his mettle by rushing for 200 yards in 18 carries against the Detroit Lions to set a club single-game record.

Before the season had ended, he would become the sixth Chief to rush for 1,000 yards, although when Kansas City played Miami in the first round of the playoffs he produced a dismal 13 yards in nine carries.

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