When he didn't fit NFL mold, Ham did it his way

February 21, 1994|By John Steadman

When the Los Angeles Rams took Tracy Ham on the ninth round of the 1987 draft, they invited him to mini-camp, took a look at the 5-foot-10 quarterback, and decided they would try converting him into a running back. Ham said "no thanks" and scrambled off to the Canadian Football League.

Ham's style fit the situation. With a football in hand, he's a "make something happen" kind of manipulator. Not a prototype of Randall Cunningham, the Philadelphia Eagles' superb runner-passer, but similar in that he can gain yardage with his arm and legs.

The 30-year-old Ham, who becomes the first player signed by the new Baltimore team of the CFL, said he put the Lord first in his life. There's nothing wrong with that unless you're an agnostic.

It's somewhat appropriate that Ham should be joining an expansion club because he was a part of the strong football resurrection at Georgia Southern College in the 1980s after it had been out of the sport for 40 years.

With Ham, Georgia Southern won NCAA Division I-AA championships in 1985 and 1986 by beating Furman and Arkansas State under the coaching direction of Erskin "Erk" Russell. The Ham weekend visit to Baltimore had to be part of a hurry-up offense since he wanted to return to Statesboro, Ga., to handle the role of "Bobo" in the school's stage production of "Raisin In The Sun."

He's hoping to graduate and is at work completing 10 hours of study for a degree as a recreation major.

The call to Canada has led to a career that will go into its eighth year after he found out the Rams only viewed him as a possible running back. They liked his 4.5 speed for the 40-yard -- but not his 5-10, 190-pound size.

"A scout from the Edmonton Eskimos named Ray Newman, who has been around a long time, contacted me," recalled Ham. "I wanted to be a quarterback and the CFL offered a chance. I had seen Warren Moon, who played earlier at Edmonton on television, and the idea was attractive."

Being told he couldn't quarterback in the NFL didn't stun him; he had heard the same from the University of Florida when he graduated from High Springs (Fla.) High School. "I grew up wanting to go there," he said. "Nat Moore, later a Miami Dolphin, was my hero. But Florida wanted me to be a defensive back and I didn't want to be a DB."

So he went to Georgia Southern, where he set a helmetful of records. He was the first Division I-AA player to rush and pass for more than 1,000 yards in a season. "He's built like a rock," mentioned Tom Matte, who is an official with the Baltimore CFLers.

Ham realizes he's coming into unfamiliar territory, a city that only had eyes for the NFL, but which may find the CFL highly entertaining.

"It's not fair to compare the two games," he insisted. "That's like matching oranges and apples. We're different. Once you stop comparing us to the NFL, you'll see the CFL for the excitement it offers."

Drop-back quarterbacks are almost passe in the CFL. Coach Don Matthews said only Kent Austin of the Saskatechwan Roughriders and Dave Archer of the Sacramento Gold Miners are set-up passers.

"Austin has been successful but most of them are mobile and throw on the run," Matthews said. "Ham was the first CFL quarterback to rush for over 1,000 yards.

"This is a young man who is such a good athlete, he hasn't had to take a lot of hard shots. He makes you miss. He'll sometimes run 60 yards to gain 15. The wider field helps him. In the CFL you've got to be able to run left or right, spread the defense and also throw under pressure."

Ham says he knows only a bit of the history of the Baltimore Colts but in this regard "got a little help from the taxi drivers over the weekend." But that shouldn't be a problem.

He commented when he went to Canada the only thing that bothered him was the 12th player on a team. It took an adjustment.

"The kicking aspects of the game will be the most difficult for the fans to understand since punters can score points," he said.

As for only three downs to gain a first down, he explained, "I treat the first down as second down. You have to gain 5-plus yards on the first play or else it's second-and-long. If you watch the game, it'll sell itself."

Tracy Ham says his childhood dream was to quarterback in the NFL. That wasn't physically possible. "Quarterbacks in that league are an extension of the coach," he said. "In the CFL, I have input in the offense."

This tells Ham he can be his own man -- even if he first had to go across the border to prove he could play.

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