SEASON PREVIEW: RAMS '91 : Sidekicks : Replacing a Friend Leaves Zendejas With Mixed Emotions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the cutthroat world of professional football, where you can be here today and Plan B-for-Booted tomorrow, there's usually no room for sympathy toward discarded teammates.

You got that last linebacker spot because the guy ahead of you fractured his leg? Those are the breaks. The guy you beat out at tight end is released? That's business. The punter shanks a few, is waived, and you get the job? Hey, a man's got to eat.

But when the guy you replace is a good friend, someone you've socialized with for years and worked out with during the past six off-seasons, it's different.

That's why kicker Tony Zendejas has mixed emotions about playing for the Rams this season.

It's a great move for Zendejas, who signed as a Plan B free agent after six seasons with the Houston Oilers. Zendejas, 30, grew up in Chino and always followed the Rams. He lives in Yorba Linda, owns a restaurant in San Dimas and is opening another restaurant in Anaheim Hills next year.

No longer does he have to pack up every year, move his family to Houston and then move back after the season. And no longer do his relatives need a satellite dish to watch him play home games. Now they can see him live.

It has all the makings of a happy homecoming except for the person outgoing--former Ram kicker Mike Lansford, a close friend of Zendejas' and a teammate on an adult soccer league team last spring.

"To this day, I still don't feel real good about (replacing Mike)," Zendejas said. "I don't know how to act when I see him, compared to before, when we did a lot of things together.

"Now, it's like we hardly ever talk. He doesn't feel as comfortable around me and I don't feel as comfortable with him. It's understandable. I just hope he doesn't have any hard feelings toward me."

He doesn't. Lansford said the reason the two haven't talked much lately is Zendejas has been busy with training camp, and Lansford has been busy trying to get into a training camp. Plus, Lansford and his wife recently had a baby boy and haven't had a lot of free time.

"There's no animosity at all," Lansford said. "We're friends, and we'll continue to be friends. It's unfortunate that I'm unemployed, but I encouraged him to take the (Rams') offer last spring. You have to look after your best interests."

Lansford, who suffered a torn calf muscle in the second game of the 1990 season and kicked with a sore leg the rest of the season, said the Rams made it "painfully obvious" that he would not return this season.

"Whether it was Tony or someone else, I knew I'd be replaced," Lansford said. "If Tony can benefit by being with the Rams, great."

The Rams expect to benefit by having Tony. Zendejas and Lansford are probably comparable when it comes to field-goal range, accuracy and performance in the clutch.

But Zendejas gives the Rams a stronger and more accurate leg on kickoffs. His specialty is placing the ball deep in the corner of the field with good hang time.

Lansford's kicks usually made it to the five- or 10-yard line with average hang time, and that sometimes left the kickoff team hanging.

"You still have to tackle people, but it's to your advantage to have the ball in the air as long as you can," Ram special teams coach Gil Haskell said.

It's also to your advantage to have an experienced kicker, and Zendejas gives the Rams that. When you're down by a point with three seconds left, you don't want a rookie lining up for that 35-yard field goal.

Zendejas, a three-time Division I-AA All-American at Nevada Reno and a member of the USFL's Los Angeles Express from 1984-85, knows how to handle the pressure.

He kicked four field goals in a 1989 Monday night game, including the game-winner as time expired, in the Oilers' victory over Cincinnati. He kicked the game-winning field goal to give Houston a 24-23 victory over Cleveland in a 1988 wild-card playoff game.

Earlier that season, Zendejas kicked the game-winning field goal in overtime to beat Indianapolis. In 1987, he kicked three field goals, including a game-winning, 42-yarder to give the Oilers a 23-20 victory over Seattle in a wild-card game.

"When the game's on the line, I just go through my normal routine like I do every day in practice," Zendejas said. "It's like you put it on automatic pilot. You don't think about the situation, you just do it. After you've been playing for a while, you learn to stay calm."

Zendejas also showed excellent range with Houston, making 35 of 57 field-goal attempts (71%) from 40-49 yards and nine of 13 (69%) from 50 yards or more.

"You have to be able to handle the pressure--Tony has done that and he's good at it," Haskell said. "Tony's mental makeup is superior. I don't know why Houston let him go. I think they made a mistake."

Houston let Zendejas go for some of the same reasons the Rams let Lansford go. The Oilers weren't sure if Zendejas could fully recover from a broken left fibula, suffered against New Orleans during the seventh game of the season.

Zendejas, who kicks with his right foot, also sprained his left knee and ankle when several players fell on his leg after he made a tackle on a kickoff.

"You'd think I'd know better, trying to make a tackle, but when you see the guy running past everyone, you don't think, you react," Zendejas said. "I had to do something to slow him down. I stopped him, but when I tried to get up, I knew right away that something was seriously wrong."

The injury sidelined Zendejas for the rest of the season, but he said he was fully recovered and kicking by the end of February. The Rams picked him up in March and are pleased with his preseason performance.

Zendejas, whose three cousins, Luis, Max and Joaquin, have NFL kicking experience but are no longer in the league, has made four of four field-goal attempts, and most of his kickoffs have gone high and far in four exhibition games.

"I've noticed no effects of the injury," Zendejas said. "My strength is good. It's like (the injury) didn't happen. I felt real lucky, because when things like that happen, you question whether you're going to be able to play again."

Zendejas will play, and he'd love to finish his career with the Rams. But you never know. He could get hurt or run into a dry spell and the Rams could bring in another kicker.

If that happened, though, you can bet Zendejas wouldn't be mad at his replacement.

"I know a lot of kickers around the league and they're all nice guys," Zendejas said. "You get to know their wives and kids. Even though one replaces another, you don't keep hard feelings toward each other, because that's the nature of the business."

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