He's No Star, but He's No. 1 : Novacek Is Surprise Leading Receiver

Times Staff Writer

Jay Novacek has the body of a decathlete (he was one), the demeanor of a corn farmer (he is one) and the title, for this week anyway, as the Phoenix Cardinals' leading receiver.

Let that kind of wash over the old cranium. On a team that features the rather spectacular talents of J.T. Smith, who led the National Football League in receptions last season (91), and two-time Pro Bowler Roy Green, Jay Novacek is the No. 1 guy.

Novacek, a fourth-year tight end, made nine receptions in the Cardinals' 41-27 victory over the Rams Sunday at Anaheim Stadium.

That raised his season total to 21. Smith has 20 and Green has 17.

If you're thinking that a lot of those are just dump-off passes, consider that Novacek also leads the Cardinals in receiving yardage with 333. And he's tied with Green for the team lead in receiving touchdowns with three.

On a football field, Novacek tends to go unnoticed among the Greens and Smiths.

It seems that's what happened on a crucial play early in the fourth quarter Sunday. The Cardinals were on their own 3-yard line, and leading, 27-20. Cardinal quarterback Neil Lomax hit Novacek with a 26-yard pass that started Phoenix on a length-of-the-field drive that led to the eventual winning touchdown, a 7-yard run by fullback Earl Ferrell.

Cardinal Coach Gene Stallings said Novacek's 26-yard reception was, "a great, great play."

Lomax said it was the play that, "broke the Rams mentally."

Novacek said the play was supposed to go to Smith.

"We wanted to get J.T. one-on-one with somebody," he said. "That didn't happen and I just happened to find myself in the right nook and cranny and made the catch."

Novacek caught an 8-yard pass for a touchdown in the second quarter that, with the conversion, put the Cardinals ahead, 17-14. They never gave up that lead.

"Novacek has been making big plays for us all year," Stallings said.

Novacek, who grows corn on his 140-acre farm in Nebraska, was a sixth-round Cardinal pick in the 1985 draft. He was a 6-foot 4-inch, 215-pound All-American from the University of Wyoming.

His first professional season was spent on special teams. His second, 1986, he bulked up to 225 pounds to play tight end. But a thumb injury meant he had to miss the first six weeks of the season. His 1986 receiving totals: 1 catch for 2 yards.

Along comes 1987, and after six weeks, Jay Novacek is 235 and leading all NFC tight ends in receptions with 15. But after seven weeks, he had a very stiff right elbow. It turned out the elbow was broken.

"I didn't find out until a week after it happened," he said. "I always figured football was a game you played with some pain."

Novacek said he didn't have many injuries at Wyoming. And those were the days when he was playing football in the fall and competing in the decathlon in the spring.

Novacek, the Western Athletic Conference champion in the event, placed fifth at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1984.

"The past two years were real frustrating," he said. "To work so hard and then reach a certain point, and then to have it all taken away . . . that was hard. Especially since I stayed healthy through college. Maybe I'll go back to running track to stay healthy."

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