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Give Him the Ball; Rest Easy

Given the magnitude of a December matchup between the stumbling Chargers and the bumbling New York Jets, Sunday’s contest figured to be about as attractive as a late-season game between the Padres and the Atlanta Braves.

Quarterbacks had trouble with snap counts because of the snoring.

The walk-up at the gate was probably about 27. And 18 of those probably mistook the place for a shopping center.

However, someone very much worth watching had hauled his lunch pail to the stadium and gone to work in the Charger backfield. In truth, this fellow had a bit to do with the game being a bit of a snoozer. Watching him is sometimes like watching a glacier, in that it isn’t always exciting but you know it’s going somewhere.

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Once in awhile, that glacier breaks loose and turns into an avalanche, and Marion Butts did that with a 52-yard fourth-quarter run that set up the final touchdown in a 38-17 victory for the Chargers.

Earlier, Butts had joined the Chargers’ rather cozy club of 1,000-yard single-season rushers Sunday when he gained 159 yards in 26 carries to move to 1,154. Five others have done it, and the record 1,179 yards gained by Earnest Jackson in 1984 is in jeopardy.

Occasions such as this are usually accompanied by lavish promises to the offensive line, but Butts had been cautious in the last few days.

Asked if he was going to buy expensive watches for the blockers up front, Butts said: “They deserve better than that, but a lot of time you have to stay within your budget. I don’t make that much. I’m a seventh-rounder, and I have to stay within a seventh-rounder’s means.”

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A seventh-round draft choice? That’s right. And you won’t find a bargain on the shelf this holiday season like the Chargers found when they got this guy in the 1989 draft. You’d buy your mother-in-law a mink coat if you could get it that cheap.

In truth, Butts came cheap because he came out of Florida State without neither a portfolio nor a reputation. He carried all of 64 times in a two-year career, instead blocking for Sammie Smith and probably busing his table in the cafeteria.

The Chargers drafted him because he was a bruiser with reasonable speed, the kind of guy who would adapt nicely to life on the National Football League’s special teams.

“To be able to get 1,000 yards is a dream,” he said. “I’m just glad to have an opportunity to play in this league. After Florida State, people are probably saying, ‘Who is this guy? Where did he come from?’ ”

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This most worthwhile of seventh-round draft picks comes from Worth County, Ga., thank you. He played football at Worth County High School, where he broke his leg so severely his junior year that he was told he would never play football again.

Fat chance this guy was going to pay attention to such nonsense.

“You can’t give up on life,” he said. “A doctor can tell you anything. You put your mind, your heart and your soul into it and you can accomplish anything.”

You don’t pay any attention to opponents either, not if you are Mr. Butts.

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“The Jets were talking,” he said, “telling me they were going to key on me and it was going to be like a nightmare.”

The Jets had the nightmare part right, but the sweet dreams belonged to Marion Butts. They talked much better than they tackled, even if everyone in the stadium knew Butts was headed their way.

Take, for example, first-down plays. The Chargers had 26 of them, and Butts carried on 17 of them for 108 yards. If the Jets were expecting anyone other than him, they should be enrolled in remedial logic.

On another first-down play, quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver tossed a short pass to Butts, and he turned it into a 26-yard gain. Five Jets had a shot at him, but he either eluded them or ran them over.

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You see, Butts has this style of running where he would rather run through a wall than a door if it was more convenient. He will be compared with a buffalo long before he will be compared with a gazelle.

“Different situations I do different things,” he said. “If I can gain more yards running around them, I’ll do that. But I guess I’m a power runner. I don’t have a lot of finesse.”

The Chargers’ Leslie O’Neal has caught this act from the safest place for a defender to be . . . on the sidelines.

“He’ll probably blossom into one of the big fullback-type running backs in the game,” O’Neal said. “He runs hard, similar to Earl Campbell. He’s short and runs close to the ground and has powerful thighs. He runs through guys. I’ve never had a chance to see Jim Brown on film, but he can develop into that caliber a back.”

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Butts has simpler designs.

“My motto,” he said, “is give me the ball and I’ll take it.”

Wherever he wants to take. Giving Marion Butts the football is like turning a grizzly bear loose at a picnic.


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