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NFL DRAFT : It’s Day of Pleasant Surprises for FitzPatrick, Sherrard and Lee

Times Staff Writer

The announcement on television was drowned out in spontaneous cheering. It was like a New Year’s Eve party that had lasted into the early morning hours Tuesday.

James FitzPatrick, USC offensive tackle, had sat calmly on a couch in the West Los Angeles home of agent Leigh Steinberg, waiting patiently for the San Diego Chargers to draft him.

Steinberg had been told by the Chargers that they would take the 6-foot 8-inch, 290-pound lineman if he was still on the board when it came time to use their 13th pick in the first round.

But nothing is sure in the draft. So Fitz, as he is known, joked with newspaper and television reporters and calmly posed for photographers as time wore on. But he kept his feelings to himself.

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Then, the suspense ended. The Chargers had kept their word and FitzPatrick was going to the team of his apparent choice.

He became the 15th USC offensive lineman drafted in the first round since 1968.

FitzPatrick and Steinberg clinked champagne glasses to celebrate the moment.

However, there were some surprises later for Steinberg’s two other clients, UCLA wide receiver Mike Sherrard and Bruin placekicker John Lee.

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Dallas swapped its 20th pick for San Francisco’s 18th, moving ahead of the New York Giants, and picked Sherrard, who had thought he was going to wind up with the Giants.

Lee came to Steinberg’s home later than FitzPatrick, saying that he was resigned to being drafted in the third or fourth round.

He wasn’t even in the room where the television was blaring when he became the fifth player chosen in the second round by the St. Louis Cardinals. Surprise! Surprise!

Lee wasn’t sure whether NFL teams would want to gamble on a kicker in the early rounds. Many have failed to live up expectations and free agents come a lot cheaper.

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“But after talking to Leigh, he said I had a legitimate shot at the second round,” Lee said. “I thought so myself, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself by saying anything about it.

“So it’s a dream come true and a pro career is right in front of my eyes.”

Fitzpatrick said. “Now that it has happened, I’m ecstatic. I was prepared for the worst and didn’t want to get my hopes too high. (The draft) just took a year off my life.”

FitzPatrick has been primarily a run blocker for the run-oriented Trojans. Now he’ll be playing for Air Coryell, a pro team with a prolific passing game.

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“I’ve been slugging it out in the trenches because we run all the time,” FitzPatrick said. “Pass blocking should be easier on my body.”

FitzPatrick said that his teammates had teased him that he should buy some snowshoes because he was going to be packed off to Buffalo.

“Now all I say is, ‘Pass the suntan oil,’ ” FitzPatrick said.

Artie Gigantino, USC’s defensive coordinator, who recruited FitzPatrick at Beaverton, Ore., was also present for the festivities.

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“He’s only 22 and still growing into his body,” Gigantino said. “In two or three years he’ll be a dominant figure in the NFL. It’s a shame that we didn’t redshirt him his freshman year.”

As for Sherrard, his remarkable odyssey continues--from a walk-on at UCLA to the team’s all-time leading receiver and now a first-round pick of America’s team.

Sherrard was in Chico, Calif., with his family and said by phone that he was gratified that the Cowboys thought enough about him to trade up to get him.

“The Giants had shown an interest in me on three different occasions, but I’m really happy I’m going to a team with such a great tradition as the Cowboys,” Sherrard said.

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The Raiders were reportedly interested in Sherrard and he showed his speed for them with some sub-4.3-second 40-yard dashes.

Known for his speed, the Cowboys must have taken it for granted. “When I tested for them, I never ran a 40--just caught the ball and and ran some routes,” Sherrard said.

Lee was an NCAA and Pacific 10 record-breaking kicker at UCLA, but pro teams are sometimes leery of college kickers because they kick off a tee rather than the ground. Also, Lee wasn’t a kickoff specialist at UCLA.

“I kicked a 53-yard field goal off the ground in the Senior Bowl and in two all-star games, I kicked off eight times into the end zone,” the Korean-born Lee said.

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He also said that he owes his teammate, Sherrard, a dinner and that he’ll gladly honor the debt.

“The bet was that I would owe him if I was drafted inside the third round, and he would owe me if I was drafted outside the third round,” Lee said. “The only problem is that he likes gourmet restaurants.”

Two other Southern California collegians were also drafted in the second round. Wide receiver Webster Slaughter of San Diego State went to Cleveland as the 43rd player picked and defensive back Mark Collins of Cal State Fullerton went to the Giants as the 44th player chosen.

FitzPatrick had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last January and lost some rating points with NFL teams.

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“Things got pretty depressing,” he said. “I couldn’t work out and I was moving down in the ratings while others were moving up.”

Five weeks ago FitzPatrick began to make his move--literally.

“Ted Tollner (USC’s coach) arranged for a mini-scouting combine to test me at USC. I was running every day and my legs just didn’t recover. I was exhausted.

“Then I took my world tour. I spent a day and a half in San Diego, flew back to L.A., then got up at 5:30 in the morning to fly to Pittsburgh. After Pittsburgh, I went to Cleveland, then on to Dallas before I flew to Tampa Bay. It was a Monday-through-Saturday thing and I never knew what time it was.”

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He said he underwent a lot of “weird” computerized tests when he was in the Dallas camp and, earlier, with the New York Giants.

As the draft droned on, Steinberg kept offering encouragement to FitzPatrick.

When Detroit was ready to make its pick, 12th in the first round, Steinberg said: “I’m now more sure of Fitz going to the Chargers because the Lions will draft (Iowa quarterback) Chuck Long or a running back before they’ll draft a lineman.”

Detroit drafted Long.

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Earlier, Steinberg was apparently pleased that the Minnesota Vikings had ignored FitzPatrick.

“Minnesota is the worst-paying team in the NFL,” he said. “They pay 40% less than the others.”

Then, when it came down to San Diego and its 13th pick, Steinberg said: “It will be Fitz if they’re straight.”

They were.

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FitzPatrick was then on the phone with San Diego General Manager Johnny Sanders and Coach Don Coryell, saying all the right things.

The huge USC lineman had come to Steinberg’s home in a car driven by USC teammate Sam Anno. He left, though, in a limousine bound for the airport and a press conference in San Diego.


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