Slaughter weathers wear, tear

August 18, 1999|By John Eisenberg

"Fourteen years in the NFL," Webster Slaughter was saying after practice yesterday, "and a hit has never left me on the ground."

Not once?

"Not one time," he said with a smile. "I've always popped right back up."

How could that be? How could a smallish, darting receiver such as Slaughter, who weighed 163 pounds when his career started, play this long without getting injured?

"Hold on, it's not that I haven't been hurt," he said. "I tore up my knee in '94. Broke my arm in '88. Tore my hamstrings. I've gotten hurt. But never from another guy's hit."

He's almost 35 now, the second-oldest player in the Ravens' camp, a highly accomplished veteran (two Pro Bowls, 563 career catches) reduced to fighting for a job with guys as much as 13 years younger. Maybe he'll make the team, maybe not.

"He has to show us he still has that burst [of speed]," Ravens coach Brian Billick said.

If it's close, Slaughter's formidable set of intangible qualities could make the difference. He's a self-starter who has played on a lot of winning teams, so he sets the right tone. And let's face it, you just don't last this long as a small man in a big man's game without having some special attributes.

"Call it ignorance if you want," Slaughter said, "but I came into this league believing no hit could hurt me. And praise God, that's what's happened."

What do we call that? An indomitable will? Putting mind over matter? Sheer denial?

"How about `freak of nature?' " said Earnest Byner, the Ravens' director of player development, who was Slaughter's teammate for six seasons in Cleveland. "The guys who play a long time all have the same qualities. Their bodies are able to take the pounding. Their minds are able to take the pain. Webster can do that. He's determined and dedicated, and he's as mean as a linebacker."

Why wouldn't the Ravens take such a fierce, proven competitor over the other candidates in camp?

Actually, it's not nearly as simple as that, as is often the case with NFL personnel decisions. Slaughter's numbers have been in decline since 1994, when he caught 68 passes for the Oilers. He was out of the game for all of 1997, seemingly having retired, then returned to catch just eight balls for the Chargers last year before getting injured.

In other words, as much as he accomplished over the years in Cleveland and Houston, it's debatable whether he can produce more than Floyd Turner, Qadry Ismail or some of the others with whom he is competing for a job.

Not that Slaughter thinks there's any cause for debate.

"When I get a chance to play, it's hard for anyone to cover me," he said. "Once I'm given more of an opportunity [here], my play will speak for itself."

He played sporadically in the exhibition opener against the Eagles last week, making just one catch worth 4 yards. But he also made a huge play at the end, beating his defender, Eric Edwards, so decisively that Edwards interfered with him at the Eagles' 12-yard line, setting up Matt Stover's winning field goal.

The clutch play was reminiscent of many he made in his glory days in Cleveland, when he was a quick, elusive target for Bernie Kosar on a team that reached the AFC championship game three times.

"Someone can watch you in practice and say, `That guy has been around 14 years. Who knows if he can still do it?' " Slaughter said. "But when you get in a game and you're open, no one can deny that. No one can say you're not open and not catching the ball. And that's what I'll be doing when I'm in there."

Obviously, he feels good about his chances of making the team.

"I do," he said. "But the decision isn't up to me."

Either way, the idea of having to compete for a job after starring for so long doesn't seem to faze him.

"I've always considered myself a fighter," he said. "These younger guys in here are just like I was when I came into the league. They want to play bad. They're hungry. Every day is a fight. And that's fine. That's how it should be."

He's the old gunslinger now, with four kids and a wife back home in Houston. Deeply religious, he might try the ministry if the end of his football career suddenly came. Some Ravens already call him "The Minister" after he led a Bible study session last week.

But Slaughter isn't about to concede that that time is near. He's in good shape, he's running sharp routes and he's close to Billick, who coached him at San Diego State. He doesn't look his age, that's for sure.

"I have a God-given talent, that's how I look at it," Slaughter said. "I'm here to see how far I can take it. I know I can still play this game. All I want is the chance."

Pub Date: 8/18/99

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