Why Is This Man Smiling? He Wants To : Chargers: Darrin Nelson is bringing an upbeat attitude and more than a little ability.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was mid-morning Wednesday, and Darrin Nelson's plane was about to touch down on the tarmac at Lindbergh Field. The fog that had shrouded much of San Diego was beginning to lift. And the symbolism was almost as overpowering as Nelson's thousand megawatt smile.

At this same moment, Nelson's mother, Margaret, was talking to a San Diego reporter long distance from Minneapolis about the smile.

"You'll see it," she said. "It's a winning, free smile. You can't help but be attracted to it. Kids are drawn to it."

Moments later, Nelson's wife, Cam, was talking long distance from Hawaii on the same subject. "A lot of it has to do with his baby face," she said. "It not only attracts children. It attracts women as well."

Nelson is the newest Charger, a smallish waterbug of a runner commonly referred to as a "scatback." He reported for practice Wednesday. And Coach Dan Henning hopes he will be able to help solve his pressing need for a third-down back Sunday afternoon against the Giants at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

"I just hope he can give us some semblance of what his abilities are," Henning said after Nelson's first workout as a Charger.

To make sure Nelson felt welcome, the Chargers sweetened the two-year deal he signed with Minnesota before the season by adding $50,000 to the $350,000 in base salary he is making this year and $50,000 more to the $450,000 he will make in 1990. Nelson also got a $350,000 signing bonus from the Vikings before the season began.

"He's definitely going to help," said Jim McMahon, whose passing attack has lost third-down backs Dana Brinson and Rod Bernstine to recent injuries and Gary Anderson to a season-long contract holdout. "I think he'll be a good, great addition to the offense."

Two days earlier, Nelson, 30, was ready to retire. The powerful Vikings, a team to whom he had contributed mightily for more than seven years, had traded him Oct. 12 to the winless and feckless Dallas Cowboys in the monster deal that that sent Herschel Walker to the Minneapolis Metrodome.

Nelson's smile was suddenly gone. And according to Merrill Swanson, Minnesota's longtime publicist, the Vikings had lost "probably our most popular player."

Cam Nelson, a lawyer for the Minnesota Attorney General's office, was furious. "He left quite a bit of cartilage on that artificial turf," she said.

And she was even angrier about the way the Vikings handled the trade. Nelson had found out about the deal first through rumors and then through the media. "I knew I was traded before I got to practice that day," Nelson says. "That bothered me. To say the least."

Still, he flew to Dallas. But mostly he just brooded. The night before last Sunday's Cowboys-49ers game in Irving, Tex. he decided he would not play.

"It was one of the most down periods of his life," his wife said. "It took a while but I was finally able to get him to admit that he felt terribly mistreated in the way it (the trade) was handled. There was no way he shouldn't have been told it was in the works.

"They (the Vikings) gave him the boot. I was more upset than he was. But at least he was more prepared than I to understand what a nasty business pro football is. I understand now."

Then came the Tuesday news of the trade to San Diego. It meant Nelson would be used selectively. It meant he might be able to play the game he loves for another few years. It meant he would be returning to his native California. And it meant he would be able to practice and play on grass instead of the dreaded artificial turf.

"I'm excited," Nelson said. And he smiled.

So did the entire Charger organization. On the same day they acquired Nelson from the Cowboys, they foisted drug-troubled linebacker Chip Banks off on the Indianapolis Colts.

Nelson was a badly needed breath of fresh air for an organization that has been choked with local image problems since the middle of the decade. Despite reports of rehabilitation and promises of contrition, the air around Banks had grown more stale than last week's panatella.

Inhale Nelson. Exhale Banks. There now. Everybody feel better?

In Minneapolis, Nelson was the point man for Project Charlie, a local drug abuse prevention program for elementary school children. During the off-season, there weren't enough days in the week for Nelson to visit all the schools that wanted him to speak to their students.

Nelson loved the kids. "When you talk to kids you always get an honest opinion," he said. "You don't have to B.S. them at all."

But it got to the point where Nelson confided to Swanson that, "I talked to so many kids I was almost tired of talking to my own"--so great were the demands on his time and his smile. Cam Nelson finally put her foot down.

"My better half informed me I had to be home more," Nelson says. Home was where his two sons, J.D. and Alec, instantly began getting more of their father's attention.

Now they are separated again. Nelson says he and his wife will try to figure out the logistics of his new workplace, her job and their family's needs as soon as they get the chance. By the time she gets back from her business trip in Hawaii, Alec, 15 months, will be old enough for day care. J.D., five, is already enrolled in a Montessori. Margaret Nelson is watching the kids for now.

She says her son, Darrin, was always the way he is now. The Natural. "I just told him to treat people the way he wanted to be treated by others," she says.

"A lot of what he is relates to his playful nature," says Cam Nelson. "There are very few things he takes very seriously."

At Stanford, Nelson's teammates called him "Junior" and "Son" because he is only 5-feet-9. But UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said tackling Nelson was like "trying to tackle air."

Charger cornerback Gill Byrd played against Nelson in college when he was at San Jose State. The two also worked together at a summer football camp.

"The only bad thing I can say about Darrin Nelson is that he went to Stanford," Byrd says. "But he's outgoing, he's fun, and he likes to laugh. That's the way you should be in this business. You've got to have fun. That's when you perform best. Not with a load of burdens on your shoulder."

Nelson was a particular favorite of former Viking Coach Bud Grant, a wry man with a sense of humor that wasn't always appreciated. Asked once who his starting quarterback would be for an upcoming exhibition game, Grant deadpanned, "All things being equal, it will depend on ticket sales."

Grant didn't believe in football as war. It was a game. Nelson is the same way.

"Hey, football is great and football is good," Nelson said recently. "But football still isn't the end of the world. I mean losing is something you want to avoid. But it's not like cancer when you lose a football game."

And it shouldn't be like dying when your career ends. Nelson counts every down he has played past his fourth season as a bonus. How long will he last?

"That's a good question," he says. "You never know. It could be one game if somebody comes down and hits me in the wrong place."

Nelson has also never minded talking about the side of the game most players keep to themselves. "Guys in pro ball play mind games with each other all the time," he says. "Those 245-pound linebackers, they don't want to run down the field against guys like me because they can't run fast enough. And I don't want to block those guys because I'm not big enough. So we just sort of stare at each other and hope it won't happen."

None of this went unnoticed in Minnesota, where Nelson had gotten off to a rocky start after the 1982 draft. Nelson wasn't thrilled about having to make a living in tundra. And he was publicly candid about it. Many of the locals took it personally. Slowly, he won them over.

"I have cherished Nelson," wrote popular Minneapolis columnist Jim Klobuchar last month. "He is fundamentally joyful about his life and candid about his mortality, which immediately puts him on the 10 Most Suspected list. He is also an utterly normal human being tickled by sparks of mischief and undazed by illusions about his abilities to block 245-pound linebackers. He does not, moreover, feel personally disgraced and shorn of his manhood when the Vikings lose a football game."

The latter is a good thing. The team he plays for now will almost certainly lose more games than the team with which he started the season. His consolation should lie in the knowledge that the team that owned his rights Monday hasn't won a game yet.

Yet he credits Dallas for respecting his decision not to play there. "They didn't have to do that (trade him)," he said. "They should be commended."

Steve Ortmayer, referred to as "Mr. Ottmayer" Tuesday by Nelson, should be commended as well, if Nelson turns out to be the player Henning thinks he can be. Ortmayer is the Chargers' director of football operations.

On the day of the Walker-to-Minnesota trade, Henning offhandedly remarked that Walker for Nelson, straight up, would have been a more "equitable" deal for the Vikings. On the day of the Nelson-to-San Diego trade, Henning smiled and insisted he knew nothing about Nelson coming to the Chargers when he made the comment about the Walker trade.

Henning smiles have been rare lately. Maybe Nelson is contagious.

Charger Notes

The Chargers waived rookie tight end Craig Davis off the six-man developmental squad Thursday and replaced him with rookie quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver. Tolliver also remains on the injured reserve list. But because of a league rule technicality, they had to place him on the developmental squad, too. Charger Coach Dan Henning still hasn't decided whether to activate Tolliver for Sunday's home game against the Giants (1 p.m.).

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