WAITING TO CATCH ON : Trumaine Johnson Getting His Chance

Times Staff Writer

Trumaine Johnson is a patient man.

On July 16, he married his longtime girlfriend, Lawand. The couple didn't have time to go on a honeymoon because they were moving, and Johnson has seen his new wife only twice since Charger training camp opened here July 31.

"We'll take a honeymoon after the season ends," Johnson said. "You've got to be patient."

Johnson has learned to be patient in his two seasons with the Chargers. In 1983 and 1984, Johnson, a wide receiver, burned up the United States Football League while playing for the Chicago Blitz and Arizona Outlaws. In '83, he led the now-dormant league with 81 catches, and in '84, he finished fourth with 90 receptions. In two years, he scored 23 touchdowns and started every regular and postseason game (40).

But since joining the Chargers in 1985, Johnson has started only six games and caught 34 passes.

"They only threw me 38 passes and I caught 34," Johnson said. "I've always felt I was All-Pro material, but you've got to get the ball thrown to you."

But Johnson isn't complaining. He knows why the ball wasn't being thrown to him.

"You can't join a team and ask Charlie Joiner or Wes Chandler to sit down," Johnson said. "But I feel I could play and should play."

This season, Johnson will have his chance. Joiner is still in camp, but he's standing on the sidelines as the Chargers' new wide receivers coach.

So Saturday night, in the Chargers' first game of the exhibition season against the visiting Dallas Cowboys, Johnson and Chandler will start.

"It's time for Trumaine to produce," head coach Al Saunders said. "He has the opportunity to show what he can do."

But Saunders is realistic about Johnson's chances of living up to the standards of Joiner, who caught 750 passes for 12,146 yards, both league records, in 239 games.

"Those are awfully big shoes to fill," Saunders said. "They are totally different types of receivers. It's not fair to compare someone to the best guy that's ever been in the league." Saunders pointed out that Johnson does not have Joiner's level of experience.

Joiner doesn't think Johnson should feel any kind of extra pressure because of whom he's replacing in the starting lineup.

"Everyone out there should feel pressure on them," Joiner said. "They're going to feel pressure on the field on Sundays."

Joiner said he expects Johnson to perform well.

"He's a highly competitive person," Joiner said. "He's competitive in everything he does--the way he dresses, the way he walks. He's going to be good."

Johnson, who is quietly confident about his ability, is looking forward to his new relationship with Joiner.

"I respect him as a player and a coach," he said. "I've been learning from him ever since I got here."

In addition to being teammates and wide receivers, Joiner and Johnson have similar backgrounds. Both grew up in Louisiana, and both were four-year lettermen at Grambling State under Coach Eddie Robinson.

After his college career, in which he set school records with 135 career receptions and 32 touchdown receptions, Johnson joined the USFL as a first-round draft pick (11th player chosen overall) in 1983. The Chargers selected him in the sixth round of the NFL draft that year.

"If I had it to do all over again, I'd go straight to the NFL and have those two years under my belt," Johnson said. "But let's face it, football is a business."

When his football career is over, Johnson has expressed interest in working with the Special Olympics. He has a degree in child development and has worked with mentally retarded and hearing-impaired children.

"It's a great feeling helping a little kid learn how to tie his shoe or pronounce his name right for the first time," he said. "It takes a lot of concentration and patience."

And patience is something Johnson knows all about.

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