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ON THE BUBBLE : Anyone Can Be Cut--That’s the Way Joiner and Chargers Look at It

To say Charlie Joiner will not last forever is an untruth. He already has.

At least it seems that way.

If the average National Football League career lasts four years, Joiner has been an old-timer longer than most players have been players. At 37, the Chargers’ wide receiver is in his 17th preseason training camp.

Yet, he is a rookie.

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That is the way he sees it, because that is the way he has always seen it. He was a rookie, when it meant something to be a rookie, back in the days when a rookie signed for what he could get and quivered when a veteran glared his way or a coach barked his name. He is not a veteran looking for a second childhood, rather a professional looking for a mental edge.

“I don’t think I’ve ever thought I had a club made,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t take that approach. If I think like that, maybe I won’t perform as well as I should or work as hard as I should. I have to think like a rookie or a free agent, like a guy trying to make the club.”

Understand that this man has caught more passes (657) than any other man in NFL history, and that this man has played in 164 straight games, and this man has been voted his team’s most inspirational player for five straight years. How’s that for (a) production, (b) dependability and (c) leadership?

However, these are transitory times for the Chargers. These are times when fresh new faces abound. Rolf Benirschke, the placekicker who campaigns to save endangered critters, need look no further for candidates than some of his veteran teammates.

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And Charlie Joiner is among those who face a battle to make the club. He has to prove he can still play football, which seems a bit like asking the Pope to prove he can still say Mass.

Joiner himself asks for no deferential treatment. If he’s on the spot, so be it. And he concedes he is on the spot.

“I’m definitely on the bubble,” he said. “I have to work to make the team. That’s the best approach.”

For Joiner, that has been the only approach. How can it perturb him to be critically evaluated by others when he has always critically evaluated himself?

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“I know that it could end for me at any time,” he said. “It depends on the coaches and the administrators. The time comes for everyone, sooner or later, and I’ll accept it when the time comes for me. In the meantime, I’ll do my best.”

Charlie Joiner’s best has always been so good it is hard to imagine the end for him can be anywhere near. Indeed, it might be hard for the public to accept the departure of an institution such as Joiner.

“The Chargers can’t look at it that way,” Joiner said. “Anyone can be cut. And that’s the way they have to look at it.”

Joiner talked matter-of-factly, looking out from under the beret he seems to wear everywhere but to the shower or the football field. He was wearing one of those “Jefferson-Joiner . . . High Voltage” T-shirts from back in the glory years.

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It did not seem to bother him that someone was wondering about the sands in his football hourglass. His calm that is such a strength on the field does not betray him off it.

It did not, for example, concern him that the Chargers have made such a drastic swing toward youth. He expects that. It is the way of football, and of the world, and that was the way a young Charlie Joiner got started so long ago.

If his jaw tightened and the crease deepened in his forehead, it was only because the subject had changed to losing. That, to Joiner, is much more distasteful than growing older.

“The losing years are tough,” he said, “especially after we’d had so many good seasons. I don’t want to go through another losing season.”

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In fact, when Joiner was asked about memorable catches later in the conversation, he talked about two or three before he was finally asked about No. 650. This was the one that gave him the NFL record for career catches.

“I’d like to forget that game and that year,” he said. “Maybe not the catch itself . . . “

His voice trailed off. The record-breaking catch had been in a 52-24 loss last year at Pittsburgh. It was late in a losing effort in a lost season. Dan Fouts, injured earlier in the game, was not even the quarterback who threw the pass.

On the afternoon Joiner set an all-time record, it was his estimation that nothing was right. Wrong city, wrong winning team, wrong quarterback. All wrong.

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“I wished it could have worked out differently,” he said.

Another year is approaching, and Charlie Joiner has already had 16 of these football seasons. He has had games when he has come back when no one thought it was humanly possible, and he has had seasons when he has come back when no one thought it was humanly possible.

At this point, in this training camp, Joiner might just be lost in a shuffle of wide receivers who are taller and younger and faster. What folks forget, of course, is that Charlie Joiner has made a living at not being noticed. Just ask four generations of defensive backs who thought they knew where he was.

I know the Chargers have signed all their draft choices and brought in waves of free agents, but I already have my choice for rookie of the year. I’ll take the rookie wide receiver who will be 38 years old in October.

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