The Transformation of Kellen Winslow : The Most Fearsome Tight End in Football Finds Peace in Another Side of His Nature

Times Staff Writer

Androg y nous is a word usually associated with rock stars such as Prince or Michael Jackson, whose income is a lot higher than their masculinity index. Rarely is the term used to describe professional football players. Few could define it (having female and male characteristics in one). Fewer still would apply it to themselves.

Kellen Winslow of the San Diego Chargers is different. He wants the world to think of him as gentle, caring, strong enough to cry, not afraid to hug a man if he's moved. Phil Donahue would approve.

"I've never been wrapped up in the macho thing," said Winslow, 28, who is working toward a master's degree in clinical psychology.

As part of the curriculum, he took a test that gives a profile of an individual's masculine and feminine traits. He scored 22 out of a possible 29 on the male side, 21 on the female side.

Winslow revealed this as part of a crusade to help young athletes--and young people in general--define and protect their identities. He isn't naive enough to think that he can change basic perceptions of professional athletes.

"The only way I can help other people is to be myself and disclose what I'm really like," he said.

It took years for Winslow--the seemingly indestructible 6-foot 6-inch, 252-pound tight end--to form an acceptable opinion of himself beyond the cocky, noisy mask he put on for the world.

"I guess it may threaten people's masculinity and ruin their Sunday afternoons to know that I want to be human," Winslow said. "We as pro football players do so much to reinforce that macho stereotype. Hugging and patting a guy on the backside are acceptable on the field but not off it.

"Well, I don't think it means you're homosexual if you hug a man. It means you care about him as a person. Hey, it's OK to be human. It takes a real man to cry and show involvement. The ones who say they don't have any weaknesses are lying."

Seen in this light, he doesn't mind if he's also regarded as a hunk.

Last fall, Winslow was named the tight end on pro football's team of the quarter-century, 1960-1984, by the voters who select members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was the only active offensive player so honored. Among his other accomplishments: Three seasons with at least 88 receptions, plus one of the most memorable macho performances in the game's history.

Against the Miami Dolphins in a 1982 playoff game, he caught 13 passes and blocked a field goal to send the game into overtime while staving off exhaustion on a muggy night. "Superman," Miami Coach Don Shula called him.

Winslow, whose goal is to catch 100 passes as part of a comeback from a terrible injury in 1984, said he is running freely and catching as well as ever in workouts. He seems to have dropped the surliness and unhappiness that afflicted him last year, when he was used less than he desired and even left the team, unexcused, for a day.

He is signed for the next three seasons at guaranteed salaries of $585,000 for 1986, $745,000 for 1987 and $795,000 for 1988. He talks of prolonging his career by converting to offensive tackle for a year or two.

Winslow has some large aims in his personal life as well.

After obtaining an advanced degree in psychology, he wants to establish a practice that helps athletes make the transition from high school to college, and later from college to the professional world.

He also is working to maintain the fragile sense of self-esteem and inner peace he reached after a divorce three years ago.

In the midst of the divorce, in the summer of 1983, he discovered just how human he could be, going days without sleeping or eating. The experience was more painful than recuperation from his knee injury and far lonelier than his weeklong "retirement," a tactic he employed in pursuit of a new contract in 1984.

The divorce led him to the gradual rediscovery of his religious roots--and inner satisfaction.

"I don't care how much money you have, if you can't walk in a room and be by yourself and feel content, you've got a problem," Winslow said. "My first five years in the NFL, I did all a player could do and won all the honors, but I didn't have the satisfaction I needed off the field.

"There was so much anger and bitterness and guilt from the divorce. I couldn't deal with it by myself. That was the first time in my life I couldn't handle something by myself. People offered sympathy, but that wasn't enough, either. What finally helped was religion. I had been raised in the church, and by early 1984 I started seeing a change in myself. Church filled the void in my life and gave me peace of mind."

Now actively involved in church activities and counseling troubled students at San Diego's Morse High School, Winslow remarried this year. With his new wife, Deborah, he attends church several times a week and sings in the choir. He also sees his sons, ages 4 and 3, on a regular basis.

"I cry in church, and I don't mind if people see the tears," Winslow said. "If one of my little boys cries about something, I don't tell him he's a sissy. I've changed diapers, fed babies, washed dishes, swept floors, all those things.

"People always ask me, 'How can you be such an animal on the field and a sensitive guy off it?' My answer is simple: Survival. I have an alter ego. In a football setting or a group setting, I'm Kellen Winslow. In my own little setting, I'm just Kellen. I enjoy being just Kellen a lot more."

He was trying to be Just Kellen one day recently as he picked at a plate of lasagna at a downtown bistro. Several diners sought his autograph, while others winked or waved. Just Kellen said he surely wouldn't want the burden of Michael Jackson's much greater fame.

The care and feeding of the Winslow ego seems simpler than it once was.

If nobody ever again proclaimed him the greatest tight end in history, he has heard it enough that he says he wouldn't miss it. Well, maybe. He says acclaim increases the potential audience for his message.

"Kids tend to be in awe of an athlete like me," he said. "They see the clothes, the cars, the jewelry, all the signs of affluence, and they will listen.

"I think it's my calling (to help kids). Not to shoot down their dreams, but teach them to dream in the real world. Don't float through life. Dare to be different. And don't let your life be ruined by pressure from friends you probably won't see after you're out of school."

Winslow's short sermons arise from his exposure to drugs and crime as a youngster in East St. Louis, Ill., and his later experiences as a star athlete at the University of Missouri.

"Kids are patted on the back too soon and too often," he said. "But a 17-year-old doesn't know what's real. He gets lost in the fantasy of being an athlete. I try to provide some reality therapy.

"I'm like the Hewlett-Packard commercial. I ask, 'What if?' What happens if you don't fit in? You may be the best athlete in your school, or your town, but look at all the others out there. Don't tie up your whole life in sports. What do you have left if you don't make it?"

To gain credibility, he visits Morse weekly so that kids know it's not a one-shot thing. And he doesn't limit his counseling to athletes. Recently, he has been talking with a student about talking back to her parents and being nicer to people around her.

"I notice she's treating me differently and seems excited about things," Winslow said. "I think she's taken the first step to taking control of her life. That's what I stress so much--not to let someone else decide your life for you."

Winslow's life was altered dramatically on the afternoon of Oct. 21, 1984, when he was tackled by Raider linebacker Jeff Barnes. He had made eight catches in the game, and 55 to that point in the season. But he was finished for the year, plus half of the next season, when he suffered a severe knee injury.

The injury came only six weeks after Winslow had secured a long-term contract from owner Alex Spanos. His seven-day retirement had worked, mostly because the Chargers had lost Chuck Muncie to drug problems, and the team couldn't afford to be without another superstar, as Winslow admits now.

"People said I was crazy to walk away, but I did what I knew was right, and I had peace of mind," Winslow said. "In the weeks before I got hurt, I was playing out of my mind, totally relaxed, just letting go. There was nothing I couldn't catch."

It was different when he returned at midseason 1985. He was unsure of himself, and the coaches seemed even more uncertain. Winslow was used mostly as a blocker and a decoy.

He accepted that role amicably in his first game, which was against the Minnesota Vikings, nearly a year to the day after he was hurt.

In the next game, the Raiders did him a favor of sorts, inflicting several punishing blows on his knee. He got up, straightened his shoulder pads and waited for Dan Fouts to call the next play, feeling better about the state of his comeback.

But he had trouble walking for several days, and he wasn't included in the game plan for the forthcoming game against Denver. At that point, Winslow began to brood, and he worked up a real sulk as the season progressed.

He failed to show up for a team meeting the day after the Bronco game. As it turned out, he had flown to Canada on personal business. He was there to promote a beverage in which he had an economic stake, but he says now that there were bigger reasons for his flight.

"Nobody explained anything to me," Winslow said. "I didn't know what they wanted. . . . On my celebrated trip, I needed time to get away. I was asking myself why I had spent the previous 12 months getting ready if they weren't going to use me.

"The intelligent thing would have been to confront the coaches. Instead, I left. When I came back, I talked it over (with the front office) and gradually came to accept the role they defined for me."

He caught a season-high seven passes in a game against Houston, but his production was down in the final games, leaving him unhappy with his comeback--only 25 receptions.

There were rumors of a possible trade, but assistant coaches Al Saunders and Ernie Zampese squelched them with their commitment to retaining No. 80 in the San Diego offense.

Appreciative of their support, and lifted by his remarriage, Winslow has done an about-face in the off-season. He has actually showed up at the stadium without a frown, working toward a meaningful comeback.

"I used to hate going to the stadium to work out," he said. "I didn't even want to see it between seasons. But now, for the first time in my life, I've dedicated myself to working hard in the off-season.

"My knee is a little stiff when I first wake up, but it warms up quickly. I have no doubts about being the old Kellen Winslow. I never attacked the ball last year, but now I'm running routes aggressively, and when the ball's in the air it's mine."

Winslow, a decent blocker when he puts some heart into the effort, said he would have no qualms about moving to offensive tackle when he turns 33 or 34.

"I don't get much chance to practice my blocking, but when I get the chance in a game I do pretty well," he said. "If some young buck comes along who might take my job, I'd think about becoming a blocker. Besides, what's a tight end but a faster offensive lineman with hands?"

The jokes were rare last year, when Winslow went weeks without talking to local writers. So he must be feeling pretty comfortable about his second comeback try, right?

In reply, Winslow delivered a monologue on the joyful absurdity of catching a football. He seems rather comfortable.

"It's really the simplest thing in the world," he said. "All you're doing is throwing around a piece of a dead pig . . . in front of millions of people. But it gets back to survival, like in the caveman days, and I get a real rush knowing three or four players are trying to stop me. I get such a thrill, and I want to do it again and again."

In pursuit of that elemental enjoyment, Winslow is enduring four workouts a week at 7:30 a.m.--and liking it.

"In running my routes, I'm not hesitating anymore," he said. "I can get to the spot, reach up and snatch the ball, the way I used to. I'm gliding out of breaks and catching the ball without thinking or even seeing it."

Winslow said he still has goals as a football player. He'd like to make 100 catches in a season ("It sticks in my craw that I haven't already done it.") and he'd like to duplicate his Miami playoff showing.

"The Miami game was something special, and I get very emotional when I see the replay," Winslow said. "Still, it's almost like an albatross. The only way to better it would be to do it in the Super Bowl.

"In a game like I had against the Dolphins, when I catch 8 or 10 or 12 passes, I get so hyped, and I'm having such a good time. It doesn't matter where the ball is thrown. It's just me and Dan, playing catch."

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