Now, Matt Stevens' Job Is to Turn the Cobras Around

Times Staff Writer

Matt Stevens may not be the best-known athlete in Southern California, but he is more famous than the team he plays for. Stevens, the former UCLA quarterback, is playing these days for the Cobras, Los Angeles' newest pro team, in the Arena Football League.

The Cobras are 0-3, and tonight they return home, after a pair of road games, to play the Pittsburgh Gladiators at the Sports Arena.

Last week, against first-place Pittsburgh, Stevens threw for 300 yards and 6 touchdowns, although the Cobras lost, 61-43. He ranks second in the league in touchdown passes with 16 and third in total yards with 706.

Despite all that, Stevens must endure a lack of exposure playing for the Cobras. At times, it is overlooked that he is the same Matt Stevens who:

--Started two games for the Kansas City Chiefs during the 1987 strike-replacement games and played with the Chiefs until the ninth week of the season.

--Led UCLA to two bowl victories. He completed 16 of 26 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown in the Bruins' 45-28 victory over Iowa in the 1986 Rose Bowl. He ranks fourth on the Bruins' completion and passing yardage charts.

--Earned prep All-American honors at Fountain Valley High School, where he passed for 2,066 yards and 9 touchdowns as a senior, after having thrown for 2,376 yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior.

So what is Stevens doing, laboring in the relative obscurity of an indoor football league?

Giving pro football another shot, and getting one, too.

"I was released by the Chiefs in the middle of the season, and they decided not to sign me again for next season," he said. "After returning home, I was ready for the challenge of getting a job in the real world, until I was approached (by Coach Ray Willsey) to play for the Cobras.

"I really did not know much about Arena football. I had heard about a tryout day for the Cobras, but I did not want to be out there with hundreds of guys, so I just blew it off," added Stevens, who still lives at home in Huntington Beach.

"Until Coach Willsey filled me in on the league, I had no intentions of playing. He sparked up enough interest, so I attended their second tryout day. There still were a lot of guys out there but I guess they liked me, because they had me join the team when they went to Orlando (in Florida) for preseason camp."

Once there, Stevens earned the starting job, but it has taken time to get used to the new team and league.

"It reminded me of street ball at first," Stevens said, "I had trouble with the smaller field. You have to use more touch with your passes because you don't have a lot of room to work with."

The field in indoor football is only 50 yards long and 85 feet wide, with nets and a padded barrier wall surrounding the field.

"Because the field is so small, you are always going in for a score, even when you are near your own goal line," said Stevens, who is averaging more than 230 yards passing and 5 touchdown passes a game.

"Not only do quarterbacks have to adjust, it is also very tough on receivers. They can't run out of their breaks because the wall is right there and the wall makes the game very rough to play."

The Arena Football League pays every player $1,000 a game, but players on the winning teams get bonuses. Stevens is confident that the Cobras will soon start collecting their share.

"We have a lot of talent and we know we're getting better in every phase of the game--kicking, blocking, tackling, catching and throwing," he said.

Cobra Notes

Wide receiver-defensive back Cliff Branch will not play tonight because of a groin injury. Branch and lineman Lou Green are on the injured-reserve list. . . . The Cobras have waived kicker Ken Olsen and lineman Eric Arrington. . . . Kickoff tonight is at 7:30. There will be no live or delayed TV, nor will there be any radio broadcast.

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