Archive for Sunday, December 8, 1991

AFTER 13 WEEKS, BIENIEMY CARRIES BALL FOR FIRST TIME

December 8, 1991

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— If you stood Eric Bieniemy next to Tony Sands, you'd know how difficult it will be for Sands, the former Kansas tailback, to make it in the National Football League.

At 5-foot-7, Bieniemy stands about an inch taller than Sands. That's where the comparison ends, however.

With muscular calves and thighs, and the upper body of a weightlifter, Bieniemy packs 215 pounds on his small frame. That's about 40 more pounds than Sands weighs.

And Bieniemy, the man Sands succeeded as the Big Eight's leading rusher, carried the ball for the first time all season on Sunday against the Chiefs.

THAT'S RIGHT. The Chargers waited until the 14th week of the NFL season before they let their second-round draft choice carry the ball. Early in the second quarter, he took handoffs on three straight plays, gaining 17 yards.

Otherwise, Bieniemy did what he's been doing all season hunt heads on the kickoff and punt coverage teams. Such is life for an NFL rookie.

"I'm not just a running back anymore," Bieniemy said after Sunday's 20-17 overtime loss to the Chiefs. "All I can do is be a student of the game."

Would Sands face a similar fate if he made an NFL team next season?

"You never know," Bieniemy told me. "He might go to a team that needs running backs. As long as he has the heart to play he'll make it."

Heart helps Bieniemy certainly has plenty of that but the Chargers, like the Chiefs, believe in using oversized running backs. Starter Marion Butts is listed at 6-1 and 248 pounds and backup Rod Bernstine is 6-3 and 238. Third-stringer Ronnie Harmon isn't much bigger than Bieniemy at 5-11, 210, but Harmon is used mostly as a receiver.

"ERIC BIENIEMY is short, but he's not small," Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard told me. "He just happens to be on a team with several running backs. He'll get his chance."

Sands is short, too, but Sands is also small. Furthermore, he's not as fast as Bieniemy who runs a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash. Sands is in the 4.5 to 4.6 range.

Beathard didn't want to comment on Sands because he hasn't seen him play.

Chiefs' running back Barry Word has seen Sands, though, and he's dubious about anyone who weighs 175 pounds lining up at running back in the NFL.

"Not unless you have extraordinary ability," Word said. "No. . .not even that. I don't see how you can do it. Maybe as a situational back on third down, but. . .I'm 240 pounds and I still get beat up."

BIENIEMY DOESN'T know Sands, other than to talk to him off the field after Kansas-Colorado games, but he knows Sands by reputation and by that record-setting 58-carry, 396-yard performance in his college finale against Missouri.

"I wish I'd have had a day like that while I was in college," Bieniemy said, smiling. "The guy's an overachiever."

From one semi-tall running back to another, Bieniemy had this bit of advance for Sands.

"He should keep his head above water and just persevere and be the same person he's always been, and he'll have nothing to worry about," the former Colorado All-American said.

That, in effect, is what Bieniemy is doing during his year of NFL apprenticeship.

"You just adjust," he said. "You realize it's a job. . .but it's a fun job."

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