These Days, an Actor Can Play Quarterback

Times Staff Writer

The Charger quarterback position is suddenly in the arms of guys whose stories are much more impressive than their statistics.

Collectively, Mike Kelly, Russ Jensen and Eric Thomson have never played a down in a National Football League regular-season game. Kelly played a total of a quarter in two exhibition games with the Atlanta Falcons in 1982, and that's a quarter more than either Jensen or Thomson has played.

Their helmets have had the logos of professional clubs such as the Tampa Bay Bandits and Memphis Showboats of the dormant United States Football League and the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. They have been cut by the likes of the Birmingham Stallions and Oakland Invaders.

Just last weekend, Kelly was trying to earn a spot on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League, Jensen was working construction and acting on cable television, and Thomson was studying at law school.

Now, barring an NFL strike settlement or the signing of another quarterback, one of these non-union players will start in place of Dan Fouts in the Chargers' next game, Oct. 4.

"Their first scrimmage will be the game," said Roger Theder, Charger quarterback coach.

Theder said Kelly and Jensen would probably split the playing time if Chargers had to play a game this weekend.

"Both have fairly strong arms and a little experience," Theder said. "Jensen has the strongest arm, but is a little erratic. Kelly has a quick release and a nice touch."

But Theder wishes Rick Neuheisel or Tom Flick were around. They were cut in training camp, but now that the strike is on, they have become experienced stars . Everything is relative.

"It would have been nice to have Flick or Neuheisel because they went through training camp," Theder said. "I wouldn't think they (Kelly, Jensen and Thomson) could have a taken a job away from Flick or Neuheisel."

Neuheisel and Flick were both contacted by the Chargers, but neither signed. However, for 27-year-old Mike Kelly, the strike was another opportunity to make it to the big time.

"I don't feel good about coming in," Kelly said. "I don't want to make enemies. I'm not trying to take Dan Fouts' job. But I got a wife and a child on the way. It's a chance to make some quick money. If I get into the NFL, it's a bonus."

Eric Thomson should have been in a torts class at the University of San Diego law school Thursday morning. Instead, a friend was taping the class, and the 29-year-old Thomson was tossing spirals for the Chargers.

"This is a very unusual opportunity," said Thomson, a left-hander who played at Arizona and then briefly with the Los Angeles Express and Arizona Outlaws of the USFL. "These things don't come along very often. When they said come out, I could think of 100 reasons to do it. I wanted to throw the ball, meet everyone and put on a Charger helmet."

On Tuesday morning, a friend told Thomson he should call the Chargers and see if they would give him a shot.

"I got a secretary and left my name," Thomson said. "I was studying when they called back (Tuesday night). I was surprised they called back."

It turned out that Thomson (6-feet 4-inches, 210 pounds) had a San Diego connection in Theder, who was with the Outlaws when he was there. After being cut by the Outlaws and the New Orleans Saints, Thomson has done little more than toss a football in the past year. His arm is not exactly ready for the NFL.

"My arm is out of shape," Thomson said. "Last year, I was in good shape. I'm having trouble throwing the long out. I'm kind of mad at myself. As soon as I heard they might strike, I should have started throwing every day."

Instead, he studied property and contracts. Before law school, Thomson attended medical school for two years at the F. Edward Hebert School of Medicine in Bethesda, Md., which is connected with the Navy. Before that, he studied mechanical engineering at Arizona.

"Going to law school was kind of a process of elimination," Thomson said.

As a law student, Thomson has some definite and different legal ideas concerning the strike between the NFL Players Assn. and owners.

"I kind of think they're (players) going about it all wrong," Thomson said. "I think the owners are too powerful, but if I were them (players), I'd go for a lawsuit rather than a strike. I'd claim a class action suit against owners having a system that treats its employees in an arbitrary and unfair manner. I'd go at it from that standpoint."

Mike Kelly was paged during a stopover in the Toronto airport Monday. Kelly was on his way to Buffalo to join the Bills when he was called to the telephone. It was his wife, Jan, calling from their home in Winnipeg.

"I thought she's hurt," Kelly said. "Something's wrong with her."

Actually, Jan told Mike that the Chargers had called to see if he was interested in coming to San Diego. But it wasn't quite that simple. The Chargers called the Memphis Showboats' office to try to locate Kelly, who played for the Showboats in 1984 and '85. The Showboats re-directed the Chargers to get in touch with Kelly's mother-in-law, who lives in Memphis. She told the Chargers to call Mike in Winnipeg.

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