Rams’ Gaston Green Is Still Waiting To Deliver on That UCLA Promise

Times Staff Writer

The first time Gaston Green played in Anaheim Stadium, the results were so spectacular that giddy UCLA fans joked about adding green to the school colors of blue and gold.

Green set what was then a major bowl record by rushing for 266 yards and three touchdowns for the Bruins in a game against Brigham Young in the 1986 Freedom Bowl.

The performance catapulted Green, then a junior, into the front-runner spot for the 1987 Heisman Trophy. During his senior season, the UCLA athletic department mounted an intense publicity campaign, complete with posters and weekly post cards to update the national media on his progress.

Green was in the running for the Heisman until an injury kept him out of one game and parts of two others. Still, the graduate of Gardena High finished his collegiate career as the Bruins’ most prolific runner and their No. 2 all-time scorer, behind kicker John Lee.

Green’s return to Anaheim Stadium in 1988 as a first-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Rams generated far less excitement. This time around, the only play on words his surname suggested was green as in inexperienced.

The 14th player taken in last June’s draft, Green saw limited playing time this season behind the tailback duo of Charles White, the NFL’s leading ground gainer in 1987, and the surprising Greg Bell, who rushed for 1,212 yards and 16 touchdowns in 1988. Green, whom the Rams selected with a draft choice acquired in the Eric Dickerson trade, played in only 10 games, rushing for 117 yards in 35 carries.


That’s just two attempts more than he had in that Freedom Bowl game.

Green, however, has no regrets about last season, and he defends the Rams’ drafting him. Give him the ball, he says, and he’ll show you what he can do.

“Going into the season, I figured I’d carry the ball 10 to 15 times a game and catch some passes,” said Green, who has gone back to UCLA to complete his bachelor of arts in history. “I was disappointed at first, because I expected to get more playing time than I did. . . . I didn’t get an opportunity to show my capabilities, like I did at UCLA.

“When your opportunity comes, you have to make the best of it. But I wasn’t able to because I didn’t get an opportunity really to play. . . . You have to be patient and wait for your chance to come.”

With White already established in the backfield after his best season, the Rams’ plan all along was to bring Green around slowly.

“You can make a big error, and I think everyone’s done it,” Coach John Robinson said during the preseason about Green. “You want a guy to be something. You draft him, recruit him to be that. He might not be able to be that for you. You have to take him where he’s at and try to get the best out of him.”

Ironically, when Green arrived at training camp, he wasn’t all that impressed.

“It wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be, as when I was in college,” he said. “It was tougher at UCLA as far as learning the system. (The Rams) do a lot of things the same way they do at UCLA, and that made it easier.

“I was thinking they’d be hitting harder too. I didn’t get to carry the ball that much, but the times I did, sometimes they’d hit me pretty good, but it wasn’t as tough as I expected.”

The season started ominously for Green when he missed the Rams’ first exhibition game with a bruised knee. But Green improved as the preseason went, rushing for 73 yards in 11 carries in the Rams’ final exhibition game against San Diego. A showdown between the rookie and the veteran for the starting spot was expected.

A changing of the guard, with Green replacing White, would have been a flashback of sorts. As a youngster, Green worked the sideline chains during the 1977 Rose Bowl when White replaced the injured Ricky Bell in the USC backfield, signaling a new era in Trojan football.

“I’ve been a fan of his ever since,” Green said.

As the season progressed, it was Greg Bell, however, not Green, who proved to be White’s heir apparent. Green carried the ball five times in the Rams’ opener at Green Bay, and his playing time dwindled even further until the sixth week, when Bell went out with a bruised shoulder in the third quarter of a game against Atlanta. Green carried 14 times for 61 yards. Two weeks later, Green missed the Seattle game with sore ribs, and he carried the ball just six more times the rest of the season.

Green thought he would have another chance to play when White was suspended for 30 days for drug and alcohol problems. When Robinson kept the rookie on the sidelines, Green approached the coach.

"(Robinson) told me that the way Greg had been playing, he didn’t want to take out a running back who was playing as good as (Bell) was playing,” Green said.

On the brighter side for Green, his contract--estimated to be worth nearly $2 million over four years--has given him some financial independence. He has purchased a house for himself in Tustin, assumed his parents’ mortgage payments and bought them rings for their 25th wedding anniversary.

And regardless of the lack of playing time, Green wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Sure, I could be playing somewhere else, but who knows how good that team would be,” he said. “This is where I grew up, and this is where I want to be. I’m happy where I’m at, playing for a winning team.”