After rough ride, bobbers run for first down

February 15, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

ALBERTVILLE, France -- They never imagined they would be here together, these football players from Maryland and Navy.

All Greg Harrell ever wanted after catching passes thrown by Boomer Esiason at Maryland was a steady job in the NFL. He bounced from camp to camp, outdoors to indoors, until he found a home with the Los Angeles Raiders.

For Bob Weissenfels, football was just a four-year rite of passage at the Naval Academy. He was a hard-hitting defensive back, but his aim was to fly attack jets. And after a crazy winter of bouncing along icy runs, he'll take to the skies.

Yet here they are -- Olympians. Pushers and passengers on the orneriest roller-coaster ride in the world.

Today, while Herschel Walker will draw most of the world's attention when he pushes the USA I sled piloted by Brian Shimer, Harrell will climb into USA II and bounce down an icy track in La Plagne in the 1992 Winter Olympics.

Friday, it's Weissenfels' turn to hop into a four-man sled and hang on for the ride.

"The first time I ever rode in one of these things, I knew I'd get to the bottom of the track," Harrell said. "I just didn't know if it was going to be on my head or my side."

A bobsled ride shakes the body and the psyche. But trying to make this American team was downright bruising.

"For all we've been through, we've got to win some medals," Weissenfels said.

The two are friends now. At 6 feet 5, 245 pounds, Harrell looks like a walking pillar. The man has muscle on top of muscle, all the more to survive life on the NFL fringe.

Weissenfels, 6-1, 207, is a square block. He is taut and disciplined, just like a Midshipman should be.

They will tell you over and over that the sacrifices they have made in the past few months have been rewarded. But they have endured trials that would drive others to distraction.

The U.S. bobsled program has been in chaos for more than a decade. Once run exclusively by an old-boy network out of Lake Placid, N.Y., the federation was embroiled in one controversy after another, all but destroying the team's chances to win its first medal since 1956.

But, in the past four years, the federation appeared headed in a different direction. Millions of dollars were poured into sled research. Football players -- led by Walker and Willie Gault -- were recruited as pushers.

There was even talk of winning a medal at these Olympics.

And, then, a lawsuit tore the team apart.

Harrell, Gault and Edwin Moses filed suit to block the final selection of the U.S. Olympic team, claiming vastly changing qualifying criteria contaminated the July trials. An arbitrator agreed. So, last month, a new set of push trials was held on an indoor track in Altenberg, Germany.

Harrell and Weissenfels were on opposite sides. Harrell, who lives in Columbia, Md., was the outsider who wanted back in. Weissenfels was named to the team back in July, and he was trying desperately to keep his place.

"It was very stressful," said Weissenfels, a Navy ensign from Richland, Wash. "It took a lot of concentration. The training I received from the Naval Academy helped a lot. There, you deal with things as they come up. You're down. You're up. But you have to remain steady."

They have no regrets now. Their paths to these Games have been extraordinarily diverse. But they're here.

"One of the bobsled coaches came up to me three years ago, and said, 'I like the way you run, would you be interested in bobsled?' " Harrell said. "I thought he was crazy."

But why not try it? Harrell's athletic odyssey stretches from the tiny town of Harrellsville, N.C., to the NFL.

Signed by the San Diego Chargers as a free agent tight end out of Maryland in 1985, Harrell spent one season on injured reserve, sat out two more, played with the Arena Football League's Washington Commandoes in 1988 and 1989, hit the bobsled track in 1990 and signed with the Raiders in 1991.

A day before the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, he signed another two-year deal with the Raiders.

"Being an Olympian and being a football player are different," he said. "There is a different feeling of being an amateur and representing your whole country. It's a feeling that I don't feel with the Raiders. There, I'm a football player, and I only represent one team."

Weissenfels is accustomed to representing the country. This former Navy football co-captain, class of 1990, is headed for flight school sometime this spring. But first is this detour to the bobsled run.

"My first ride was in Calgary in 1990," he said. "Everyone kept telling me to keep my head up. But we got into Turn 4, and my head dropped to the bottom of the sled. I said, 'What is going on here?' "

But he was hooked. He put up with the politics. He even put up with the trials.

"Two years ago, if you had told me I would be doing this, I would have told you, 'No way,' " he said. "I thought it was crazy. These guys are all thrill-seekers. Next to sky-diving and bungee-jumping, this has got to be the most exciting and fearless thing you could do."

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