Beneath Means' exterior, Charger is momma's boy SUPER BOWL XXIX

January 26, 1995|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

MIAMI -- San Diego Chargers running back Natrone Means says he likes that sickening crack of helmet on helmet during high-impact collisions. Or watching wide-eyed opponents' knees buckle when he barrels over them. Or those times when he buries his shoulder pad so deep into a sternum that he can hear the gasp for air.

Tough guy, hey?

Not really. Means, 22, is a momma's boy.

Mom may be tougher.

She's the last person to stop Means. Once held him to zero carries, zero yards and zero touchdowns for an entire season. Told him to adjust his attitude and get out of the fast lane.

"Yeah, I've always been a mommy's boy, always will be," said Means, just a big kid at 5 feet 10 and 245 pounds. "Mom is my E. F. Hutton. When she speaks, I listen."

No team in the league has stopped Means consistently this season. Though slowed by an aching left knee, an offensive line that has been riddled with injuries and teams stacking the line with eight players, Means rushed for a team-record 1,350 yards, second in the AFC to the Seattle Seahawks' Chris Warren.

And when the Chargers meet San Francisco in the Super Bowl on Sunday, the 49ers know the key to winning is stopping Means.

"You know with big Natrone Means back there, he's a great back and we don't want him breaking through the defensive line and spending the whole afternoon with the defensive backs," said San Francisco tackle Dana Stubblefield. "You stop their run, you slow their offense."

Gwendolyn Stevenson, come on down.

She last stopped her son during the off-season when Means' weight ballooned to 260 pounds. Chargers coach Bobby Ross flew to Means' hometown of Harrisburg, N.C., to meet with Stevenson, and she pulled Means out of the chow lines. Fried chicken became broiled. Cheesecake was replaced by salad.

And then there was the time Means became a football star in his first year of junior high school. He started to see his name in headlines. He soon began running with the wrong crowd.

Stevenson intervened.

"He was very mischievous and had a macho attitude," said Stevenson. "He had started to read his name in the papers and thought he was 'The Man.' I had to slow him down. After that, I didn't have any problems."

"Me, argue with her? You have to be kidding," said Means. "That lady worked long hours in the cotton mills and other odd jobs to raise four kids by herself. She has kept me humble. She's tougher than me."

Means still has a nasty streak, but it's more controlled now. As for toughness, there aren't many running backs tougher. Means can run like Earl Campbell yet sometimes make cuts like Barry Sanders.

Two plays from Means' hard-to-believe season serve as a microcosm for his rare skills.

There was the 24-yard run in the 22-21 win over Miami in the AFC playoffs. Means darted through a hole, then came burning around the corner like a runaway truck lugging cornerback J. B. Brown the final 7 yards for the touchdown.

Then there was the Sanders-like move against Kansas City during the regular season. Means caught a pass in the right flat. He turned upfield, came upon a linebacker, looked one way, feinted the other and left the defender grasping for air.

/# The linebacker? Derrick Thomas.

The Derrick Thomas.

"He's not as fast as an Eric Metcalf, or as shifty as Sanders or as powerful as a Larry Csonka," said Chargers running backs coach Sylvester Croom. "But what you get is a total package."

The Chargers expected this kind of performance out of Means when they picked him in the second round of the 1993 draft after consecutive 1,000-yard seasons at North Carolina.

A 645-yard rookie season by Means gave the Chargers enough confidence to trade Marion Butts last April. Butts was the team's leading rusher the previous five seasons.

"We definitely wanted to keep Marion," said Chargers offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen. "But we had to adjust to the [salary] cap, and there aren't many teams that can handle a steady diet of Natrone Means."

Means is handling the success well. Next to linebacker Junior Seau, he may be the Chargers' most recognizable player.

Seau is sincere, but he has gone corporate with his clothing line and commercials. Means is marketable, especially the surname.

Several weeks ago, a limousine waited for him after practice to whisk him away to Montgomery Field, where a helicopter waited to fly him to Burbank for an appearance with Jay Leno, who supplied him with a sport coat for the occasion.

He has been featured on HBO, ESPN and ESPN2, but Means hasn't changed. He is still about droopy pants, high-top Nikes that are never laced, baseball caps and oversized T-shirts.

"Fame can do strange things to a person," said Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries. "But Natrone is still the same guy since Day 1, still hanging with the same guys before he became 'Natrone Means Business.' "

Means has a confidence about him that borders on arrogance. When the Chargers traded Butts, Means predicted he would rush for 1,300 yards. He did.

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