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A LOOK AT TWO OF NEXT RAM, RAIDER OPPONENTS : Detroit Receiver Mandley Had a Year to Remember on, Off Field

Times Staff Writer

As claims to fame go, Pete Mandley could have done without the events of Aug. 16, 1987, a day that mixed tragedy with fate, death with happenstance. It is a day that Mandley has long since quit trying to explain.

“All I can do is be thankful,” he says.

Mandley, a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, was supposed to take his wife, Teresa, and their two young children, Dejhown and Treazure, to Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport that summer evening for a 9 o’clock flight to Phoenix. Mandley would stay in Detroit, where the Lions were involved in training camp, while Teresa and the family returned home to Arizona.

But then destiny somehow intervened, and for whatever reason, Mandley decided that afternoon he’d rather have them stay one more day. He’d simply cancel his family’s reservations on Northwest’s Flight 255--a scheduled two-stop trip to Phoenix and then Orange County’s John Wayne Airport--and make similar arrangements for the next night. The late change of plans surely saved his family’s lives.

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Moments after takeoff, Flight 255 plummeted grotesquely toward the ground. The MD-80, an updated version of the more familiar DC-9, was enveloped in flames seconds after impact. Of the 157 passengers and crew members aboard, there was but one survivor.

Left wondering, “What if?” was Mandley, who to this day is caught between feeling joy for his family’s safety, and grief for those who boarded the flight that night.

“You have to leave those things in the hands of God,” he said. “I’m just thankful that He chose not to take my family at that time.”

The following day, Teresa, Dejhown and Treazure visited the Lions’ practice at the team’s Oakland Hills facility. Later, Teresa told reporters that the family preferred to put the events of the crash behind them, that those who perished, not the Mandleys, deserved the attention and prayers of others.

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More than a year after the incident, Pete Mandley still adheres to those words, choosing to concentrate on the future rather than the past. Could anyone blame him?

Mandley, deeply religious, conducted a priority check one day. He decided that he had no control over the plans of God. He decided it best to rededicate himself to his faith, his family and his profession, which would keep him busy enough.

Guess what! It worked.

In one season’s time, Mandley became someone to watch, a star maybe waiting to happen. Best of all, his family was there to see him do it, as were the Lions, who had been waiting four years for Mandley, a second-round choice in 1984, to make good on earlier scouting reports.

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Perhaps this will begin to satisfy the doubters:

--In his first season as a starter, Mandley finished tied for fourth among National Football League wide receivers in receptions with 58, and tied for sixth in touchdowns with 7.

--Take away replacement-game statistics and Mandley, who didn’t cross the picket lines, was surpassed in touchdown catches only by San Francisco 49er Jerry Rice, Miami Dolphin Mark Duper and Philadelphia Eagle Mike Quick.

--Mandley was named as a Pro Bowl alternate in 1987 after leading the Lions in catches, yardage and scoring by a non-kicker. He also averaged 10.9 yards per punt return.

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We’re talking an endangered species here, someone who happily submits to special teams and first-team offense.

“It’s my decision,” Mandley said. “I want to do everything I can to get us on the winning track.”

So Mandley fields punts, an experience he describes as scary. “That’s what it is: You against 11 people.”

Or he finds his way across the middle for a pass or tries to turn a simple out pattern into a big play. Mandley is nutty that way. Ask him to name another receiver of similar playing style and you get a long pause.

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“Uh, I really can’t think of anyone,” he said. “I like to kind of think that I have my own style. I feel that I’m a receiver in a running back’s body. I want to do a little bit more than catch balls and go out of bounds, or catch balls and fall down. I want to try to break a play open.”

Mandley got his chance, but it was three years in the making. First, he had to overcome a shaky rookie season, which was lowlighted by a case of the dreaded turf toe. Turf toe is one of those injuries, said Mandley, that hurts a lot worse than it sounds.

Simply put, it’s a jammed toe of sorts; the joint is injured. You can walk on it fine, but quick starts and stops--like those used during pass patterns--are out of the question.

Imagine how that went over in Detroit, especially after the Lions had chosen Mandley, from Northern Arizona, over a local favorite, Daryl Turner, a Michigan State man. Turner went on to score 10 touchdowns for the Seattle Seahawks, while Mandley finished the season with 3 receptions for 38 yards and not a touchdown to be found.

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There were rumors, too. There were those who thought Mandley was faking the injury, that no one could walk that well and run that poorly. Mandley said he didn’t take it personally.

“In that era, you couldn’t come in as a rookie and get hurt,” Mandley said. “They have an old saying: ‘You can’t make the club in the tub.’ ”

Mandley rested the toe for a month and eventually it healed. But his rookie year was essentially wasted.

Little changed the next two seasons. Mandley became the team’s punt returner, and a good one at that. But playing time at wide receiver was rare. The coaches liked his work, but not enough to find a place in the starting lineup for him.

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Then came 1987, a year for Mandley to remember for all sorts of reasons. At last, the Lions offered him a chance at something more than returning punts. Mandley thanked them with a season worth waiting for.

“Like I’ve said before, ‘You can’t catch 50 balls if they only throw you one.’ I mean, you need to be out there to get experience,” he said. “If you look at me from an experience point of view, I’m just a rookie. They look at me as a rookie.”

Well, not exactly. Turns out that Lion Coach Darryl Rogers has been watching Mandley’s development with interest.

“He’s come along, just like (Ram receivers) Aaron Cox and Willie Anderson are going to do,” Rogers said. “Most guys in the league don’t start out exactly burning on fire. But each year they get better and better.”

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Mandley likes to thank receiver coach Lew Carpenter for the chance to play. And while he’s at it, Mandley isn’t against patting himself on the back.

“My work ethic remained the same,” he said. “I never gave up on myself.”

As for this season, Mandley doesn’t know what to think. He said the Lions--who will play the Rams at Anaheim Sunday--should be more competitive, but who knows how much? He said his own career is just starting. Where it’s headed, he isn’t about to guess.

“As far as predictions, the only one who knows what’s going to happen is the man upstairs.”

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