Versatile Kid On Block

January 12, 1995|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

Chargers guard Eric Jonassen has been daydreaming a lot since Sunday evening, when San Diego beat the Miami Dolphins and won a berth in the AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He has thought about being 60 minutes away from the Super Bowl, about how far he has come from his grade-school days in Glen Burnie. He has drifted back to the times when he would argue with coach Joe Paterno, which ultimately led to his leaving Penn State for tiny Bloomsburg College; and about his father Ray, who died of cancer nearly four years ago.

"My dad was my biggest fan," said Jonassen, 26, a graduate of Mount St. Joseph High. "He never missed a practice when I was in high school, never missed a game when I was at Penn State. Even when he was sick with cancer, I remember him standing in a torrential downpour and watching me play a game against West Chester.

"Somehow, I know he is watching, and he'll be very proud if we make it to the Super Bowl."

To get there, Jonassen and his Chargers line mates probably have to play their best game of this season. The Steelers are 7 1/2 -point favorites and have the top-ranked defense in the AFC.

No other team blitzes as often and with as much success as the Steelers, which means Jonassen will have to stop left end Brentson Buckner, or contain one of two outside linebackers, Greg Lloyd or Kevin Greene.

"Buckner is a big body," said Jonassen, who is 6 feet 5, 310 pounds. "I think he is more effective against the run than the pass. That Steelers defense is one of the top two in the league and those outside linebackers are great. The strong point of the team is the secondary, and I think the weakest unit is the defensive line."

That means the Chargers will try to run straight at the Steelers. The Dallas Cowboys' Emmitt Smith had some success earlier this season in a 26-9 Cowboys win, and San Diego's Natrone Means ran for 85 yards and two touchdowns in San Diego's 37-34 regular-season victory over the Steelers, Pittsburgh's only loss in its past nine games.

But the Steelers were without Lloyd and cornerback Rod Woodson because of injuries, and the Steelers may have lacked intensity because they already had won the AFC Central crown and home-field advantage in the playoffs.

"I have heard them say we were playing against their second and third string, but they cannot deny we had a great game plan against them and we were successful," said Jonassen.

Jonassen, a fifth-round pick by the Chargers in the 1992 draft, has been a part-time starter the past two seasons. He spent his rookie season on injured reserve because of a neck injury, but he started every preseason game last year at right tackle.

Jonassen lost his starting job in the final exhibition when he allowed a sack that caused an injury to quarterback Stan Humphries.

"I guess I should have played a little harder, a little better," said Jonassen. "The thing I've learned about this league is that you never stop learning. My line coach has told me that it takes three to four years to become a quality starter. So I feel I'm on the verge."

Jonassen plays just as much as any starter now, relieving starting guard Joe Milinichik, who might retire after this season. Versatility has been Jonassen's strongest asset. Because of injuries, he has played every line position except center.

"Eric is very close to being a full-time starter, and sometimes he plays more than the starters," said offensive line coach Carl Mauck. "He's got good size and strength, but his progress has been retarded from playing so many positions. We need to put him at one spot."

Jonassen said: "Playing different positions is very difficult to do, and playing offensive line may be the most difficult position in football. On each play, there's 20 different ways you can block it, and we've got 50 plays for each game. Then multiply that for four different positions.

"But I'll be a starter, and soon," Jonassen added. "Either here or someplace else."

Jonassen's career has taken different paths before. By the end of the 1988 college football season, Jonassen thought he had it all. He had a national championship ring and was a starting offensive tackle for Penn State as a sophomore, so a career in the NFL almost seemed certain.

But one year later, it almost all disappeared. Jonassen spent a lot of time partying, and couldn't maintain his grades. He transferred from Penn State to Division II Bloomsburg.

"I was 19 years old, just getting away from home for the first time," said Jonassen. "What happened to me happened to a lot of people attending Penn State. Back then I had long hair, and with a body as big as mine, all I had to do was be in the area to get in trouble."

Jonassen took 30 credit hours at Anne Arundel Community College for a year and then transferred to Bloomsburg, where he started for two seasons. But the year off pushed his draft entry back a year later than originally scheduled.

Ray Jonassen died 11 months before the Chargers drafted his son.

"If I had done well in school, my father would have been around to see me get drafted," Jonassen said. "My parents always made sure I had the best equipment, the best of everything to play football.

"And now I just sit back and realize how far I have come," he added. "It's still kind of unbelievable. This kid from Glen Burnie is only 60 minutes away from the Super Bowl."

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4) vs. San Diego Chargers (12-5)

When: Sunday, 12:30 p.m.

Where: Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

NFL PLAYOFFS

SUNDAY Conference championships * AFC: San Diego at Pittsburgh, 12:30 p.m., chs. 11, 4

NFC: Dallas at San Francisco, 4 p.m., chs. 45, 5

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