Times Staff Writer

They have this rule about those who play cornerback in the National Football League: You're only as good as your ability to forget.

"You have to forget the good plays and the bad plays," Danny Walters said. "You can't survive the next play if you are thinking the last play."

Walters understands the rule because he has broken it, in such a way that he has been left torn, his season in pieces.

The Chargers' once-best cornerback said he has not been able to perform effectively this season because he has not been able to forget the handcuffs, the holding tank, the sound of a judge's gavel, the shakiness in his own voice, the fear.

On the night of Sept. 14, Walters was pulled over because, according to police, his car was weaving. He was arrested and charged with possession of cocaine and driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance.

Two months later, the cocaine charge was suspended pending his completion of a drug education program. He was fined $750 for driving under the influence and ordered to complete 20 hours of community service.

So he will remain free. But Walters says he has not felt free until lately. Even when whisking down the field one on one with some track star in shoulder pads. Especially not then.

"I would get out there on the field and feel like I was under a huge magnifying glass," he said. "I felt degraded. Publicly humiliated. I couldn't concentrate on my job because I was too worried about the court dates and all those other things.

"I was playing in a trance. I was going through the motions. I was not emotionally stable."

You can't play if you can't forget. You try covering Carlos Carson while worrying about a jail sentence.

"We're playing Kansas City, and I have seen Carson do this pull-up-and-go move I don't know how many times," he said. "But what happens? He pulls up and goes, and I freeze. I can't think. He beats me deep.

"To play cornerback, you've got to be the cockiest . . . there is. And here I was, feeling sorry for myself. It was the worst possible thing I could do."

You can't play if you can't forget. You try sweating in your helmet when all you can think about is sweating in a courtroom.

"I will always remember standing in my suit in front of the judge and suddenly feeling the sweat rolling down my forehead," Walters said. "I will always feel that. You can't play when you're thinking about that."

You can't play if you can't forget. Walters now has a cold bench underneath him as a reminder. After the game with the Cleveland Browns, his third after the arrest, he was demoted in favor of Elvis Patterson. Since then, Walters has been used only as the fifth defensive back, on passing situations.

Walters, who was a starter for 41 of the 42 games he had played going into his fifth season here, has been transformed into a bit player.

"If a cornerback thinks about his off-the-field problems even for a second out there, he's dead," said Ron Lynn, Charger defensive coordinator. "It doesn't take long for a guy to run by you."

Walters, 27, understands. He says he is finally feeling and playing better. He says the memories will never go completely away, but he can learn to deal with them. Anyway, he says a part of him doesn't want the memories to go away.

"I'll always remember one thing," he said. "I would rather take on two receivers man to man than stand in front of a judge. I can always knock down the receivers and get a five-yard penalty. With a judge, it's five years."

You may recall that Walters has had drug problems before, having spent 30 days in a rehabilitation clinic in 1984. But that didn't involve an arrest.

Big difference, according to Walters.

"I've never felt handcuffs before. You wouldn't believe how awful handcuffs feel," he said of the arrest night.

After his release from the holding tank--"I was lucky some of the guys in there knew me from football."--he returned to the Chargers. He passed a club drug test and was cleared to play that Sunday against the St. Louis Cardinals. He had a good game, too, with a couple of tackles and decent coverages.

"At that point, it still didn't sink in, what I had done, and what I was about to go through," Walters said.

Then came the strike. Then the paranoia.

"This was when I first thought everyone was watching me," he said. "I would go to the strike practices and then go home and stay in my house. I stayed in my house nearly the whole strike, afraid of being followed around."

Just about the time the strike ended, the various court dates began. If Walters had hoped everyone on the team would forget Sept. 14, that soon became impossible.

"We all knew when Danny was going out to take care of his business," safety Martin Bayless said. "We didn't have to ask, we could just see."

His suits, for instance. Four court dates, four suits. Walters wore them to practice in the morning, left his coat in his locker and attended meetings.

Because all of his court times were 10 a.m., he was leaving just as everyone was getting ready to go onto the field. He was returning just as they were coming off the field. He would attend more meetings and go home.

Teammates didn't ask him what court was like. He was glad.

"I could walk in there, and there were cameras, always cameras, following me around," he said. "It was so humiliating. I'd get in front of the judge, and all eyes were on me. There was no one to hide behind. You would ask this question, and I would get a creaky feeling in my voice and blurt out an answer.

"I'd be behind these guys wearing county jail clothes and sitting in this glass box, and the judge would swing down that hammer and give them five years for robbery or something," Walters said. "I only wondered if I was next."

That wonder carried to the football field. Beginning with the Chargers' first game after the strike--against the Chiefs--the coaches and players began to notice.

"You could tell the game wasn't on his mind," fellow cornerback Gill Byrd said. "He'd be on man-to-man coverage, and the guy would be one or two steps behind him, and that's not Danny."

Bayless said: "You could tell by his body language. He'd come in here hanging his head, his eyes are down, he's carrying himself real funny.

"Shoot, when my little girl comes home and tells me she hasn't eaten her lunch, that affects my play. I can imagine how Danny's problems affected him."

After the Cleveland game, the coaches no longer needed to imagine.

"We got in the film room, and it was terrible," Walters said. "I looked awful. It wasn't me."

Lynn called him into his office.

"I told Danny that I felt all these problems he was going through were distracting him, and he agreed," Lynn said. "We decided to sit him down, just take a little pressure off him. Since then, he's played better. He's not all the way back, but better."

"That's good to hear," Walters said. "For a while, I tried to convince myself that this was a bad dream. Then I called my father (Herbert), who told me, 'Treat this like a bad play, like you just got beat. Forget about it.' "

Walters frowned. "If only that's all this was."

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