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Chargers Forced to Give Up on Clay

Times Staff Writer

Call it bad luck or a bad trade. Or both.

The Chargers waived offensive tackle John Clay Saturday because of a neck injury that wouldn’t heal. He couldn’t pass the latest physical exam administered Friday by team physicians. And he might never play again.

Clay has a herniated disc of the cervical spine. The injury occurred last season in the third game. Along with localized neck pain, he experienced tingling and numbness in both his hands and feet.

Rehabilitation efforts failed, in part, because Clay’s spinal canal is smaller than normal. That makes the disk even more susceptible to the kind of collisions experienced in normal NFL contact.

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When the Chargers examined Clay for the last time Friday, they determined he was still too weak in the injured area and also still showing abnormal neurological signs. They had no choice but to recommend to the Charger front office that he was not ready to play.

So the Chargers waived him.

Simply put, said a team doctor who asked not to be identified, “we felt it wasn’t safe to risk him getting hit on the head.”

All of which means the only thing the Chargers have left from the interrelated trades that brought Clay here and sent former Redskin quarterback Jay Schroeder to the Raiders and former Charger tackle Jim Lachey to the Redskins last summer, is a gimpy former Midshipman who will have to split time between the Navy and the NFL once the season begins.

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His name is Napoleon McCallum. He is a big running back with genuine promise. And the Chargers hope his hamstring will heal soon.

Clay, the player they have decided won’t heal soon, injured his neck in a 17-6 victory over Seattle and spent the rest of the year on injured reserve. He was unavailable for comment Saturday.

“It is obviously a blow,” said Steve Ortmayer, the Chargers’ director of football operations, who took most of the public heat when the trade took place last summer. “But what can you do about a guy getting hurt?”

Clay, now 25, reported to the Chargers last summer with a bad back, and he didn’t become a starter until the Seattle game. If this were a normal year, the Chargers would have placed Clay on the “physically unable to perform” list, kept him under contract and hoped to activate him by the end of this season or the beginning of next.

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But the NFL owners voted this year to restrict team rosters to 80 players, which means the Chargers can’t have more than that under contract at any time. When they signed defensive back Leonard Coleman (who will probably make the team and at the very least is needed for two-a-day practices) Saturday they had to waive somebody. They decided on Clay.

Earlier this month, the 80-man limit forced them to waive tackle Gary Kowalski and linebacker Chuck Faucette, both starters last year and both also rehabilitating from neck injuries.

First-year Charger Coach Dan Henning said he never counted on Clay as a regular this year mainly because of the unpredictability of neck injuries.

“You have to look at it as a bonus whenever you get a guy back from an injury like that,” Henning said. “Even if the doctors had said he could play, if John Clay was my son, I’m not sure I’d want him to play any more football.”

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Clay made $175,000 in base salary last year. Under terms of the collective bargaining agreement, the Chargers are bound to pay him half of his 1989 base salary or $65,000, whichever is less. In this case, it will be $65,000.

Ortmayer would not rule out the possibility of Clay playing football again one day. And, he said, he hoped it would be for the Chargers. But he, Henning and the doctors agreed it won’t be this year.

The longer rookie quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver remains unsigned, the farther he gets from the focus of training camp.

Saturday was the first day the veterans practiced. And rather than dwell on Tolliver’s absence, Henning chose to talk about the center who will snap the ball to quarterback Mark Malone, who will win the job more easily if Tolliver continues to stay home in Lubbock, Tex.

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“Don Macek is our starter until someone beats him out,” Henning said of the 35-year-old veteran who is entering his 14th year.

Trying to take Macek’s job away are Dennis McKnight, a Pro Bowl alternate at guard last year, and rookie Courtney Hall, a second-round draft choice.

Henning said those three make the Chargers deeper at that position than any other team in the league. Larry Beightol, who coaches the offensive linemen, didn’t disagree. But he said the Chargers will start their best five offensive linemen when the team opens its regular season against the Raiders Sept. 10. That means, for instance, McKnight could move back to right guard.

Charger Notes

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Free agents, rookies and a smattering of veterans will scrimmage the Rams today at the Chargers’ UC San Diego complex near the intersection of Genesee Avenue and Torrey Pines Road in La Jolla. Parking is $2, admission free. . . . Aside from Leonard Coleman, two more Chargers--defensive lineman Les Miller and running back Lionel James--signed Saturday, the day veterans began two-a-day practices. That left the number of unsigned veterans at three: linebacker Gary Plummer, defensive lineman Joe Phillips and running back Gary Anderson. All are, or have been, starters. First-round defensive tackle Burt Grossman and second-round quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver remain the only unsigned rookies. . . . Guard Broderick Thompson, who started all 16 games last year, reported a day late, saying his notification to report Friday never arrived in the mail. Coach Dan Henning didn’t buy the excuse and fined Thompson. . . . The Chargers cut three players in addition to John Clay to bring their roster limit to the required 80 players: former San Diego State cornerback Mario Mitchell, defensive back Nelson Jones and defensive end Leonard Johnson.


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