Zeph Lee at Last Has a Chance : At USC, It Was All Work and No Play

Times Staff Writer

Zeph Lee lives, in a beat-up silver and black practice uniform rather than that sparkling cardinal and gold, an untouted Raider rookie, which is still a step up on his last incarnation: Trojan bust.

A No. 9 draft pick, he moved up another notch Monday when the Raiders waived former Cowboy Chuck McSwain. McSwain had looked OK but didn't like the odds and asked to be excused early. Raider Coach Tom Flores gave him his wish, explaining it later in terms of how the rookies, Vance Mueller and Lee, have looked.

There is nothing wrong with the way Lee looks: tall (6-3), powerful (218), with speed that is rated behind Marcus Allen but ahead of Napoleon McCallum.

Like prototype USC tailbacks, he is handsome and well-spoken. The problem was that he rarely played tailback, or much of anything, prompting the question often asked here: What could have gone so wrong?

"That's a hard question to answer," Lee says. "The way I see it, at SC I pretty much did what I was told. It was just a matter of them putting me on the field and I couldn't control that. When I did play, I performed. The statistics proved that."

He had a 6.2 average as a junior, and touchdown runs of 94, 69 and 54 yards in his career.

He was also all but phased out as a junior, disappearing behind Fred Crutcher, also known as "Four-Yard Freddy," and ultimately the new recruits, Ryan Knight and Aaron Emanuel.

Lee? He was almost in double figures on the depth chart. The word was he wasn't tough enough. This is like saying of a singer, "He's all right, except for his voice."

"They probably told other people that," Lee says. "They never told me. If a guy has to kill himself in practice just so he can play, and the other guy gets to relax in practices, what do they expect? By the time I'd get on the field in games, I was all beaten up.

"My junior year, I thought rightfully I had won the job from Fred in spring practice, but Fred stayed the starter. I accepted it. I went in the first game in '84 and had a 94-yard run on my first play from scrimmage. Even taking that run away, I still gained more yards that Fred.

"The next game was a tougher one, against ASU. I only played a quarter and I still outgained Fred. By then I was beginning to question why couldn't I start?

"The next game I was injured. The rest of the year, I kept reading in the newspapers I was injured. I knew I was healthy. I have the doctor's word to prove it. It was the same injury Marcus played all his senior year with and won the Heisman Trophy, a pinched nerve.

"I talked to Coach (Ted) Tollner. He'd say, 'You're not up to tempo, you're not doing this.' It was never a straight answer until my senior year. Then he told me he had better abilities in his other backs. I kind of chuckled. Average-wise, I was still doing as well as any of them.

"I was never the type of guy to complain, go to the newspapers and boo-hoo it. I just waited around to see what happened. I always have been a USC person (Lee is a third cousin of the late Ricky Bell). I never wanted to do anything to hurt the school.

"I was happy to be drafted, number one, and I was happy to be drafted by the Raiders. They're a team that's reknown for picking people no one thinks much of and converting them into their type of players. They really didn't have much to go on. They didn't see too much of me the last two years.

"But I know I can be tough. I can catch. I can block, even if I have to improve in that. Whatever that rap was, I've proven it wrong so far in this camp."

Three backs disappeared in last week's first cutdown, but Lee whistled through, he says, without a worry. If an unkinder cut hits closer to home, an eventuality he says he has never considered, he'll deal with it.

What, him worry?

"If that was the case," he says, "I would have exploded at SC a long time ago.

"I graduated from the university I went to. I put in the time. It would have been even better academically if it had been separate from football, but I had both commitments.

"As far as looking for a job if I don't get to finish football, I really don't have any worries. I'm a working person. I'm not a lazy person."

Bob Buczkowski has returned, but he is not practicing. The Raiders sent him all the way to New Brunswick, N.J., to see Dr. Joseph Zawadsky, who operated successfully on Bill Pickel's back.

Said Buczkowski: "He said it was a deteriorating disc. I guess the disc is pressing on a nerve and causing pain, from what I hear. I know the pain's there."

Buczkowski is getting injections--"I can't count 'em all . . . mylocaine, xylocaine, cortisone, I don't know, I just take 'em. Sometimes they help, sometimes they don't.

"We're just going to see how it works and go from there. If I have to have an operation, hopefully, it'll be after the season, so I'll get a chance to contribute and learn the system."

Raider Notes

Is depth at defensive end suddenly a problem? Ex-49er Fred Dean reportedly doesn't like the deal struck by the Raiders and his agent, in which his $125,000 reporting bonus would be added to his salary, collectible only if he makes the team. Dean is still thinking it over. . . . Randell Webster, the 11th-round draft choice from Southwestern Oklahoma apparently left for home in the early hours on the morning. Tom Flores: "You see young football players from a small school who maybe get overwhelmed. Maybe he just got homesick. It's unfortunate. We felt he had some talent." . . . The holdout of guard Charley Hannah continues. Flores says the two sides are close.

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