UCLA's Sean LaChapelle knew he was a born wide receiver on the Halloween nights he and some of the other neighborhood kids would rattle the cages of the suburb's homeowners. Nothing serious. Just a little Halloween mischief to shake out the good citizens of Napa, Calif., and set them in hot pursuit.
You see, that is all offensive football is about. Just as a man's home is his castle, so a defensive back's turf is the 10 yards or so downfield that is his job to keep free of invaders with the football.
When Sean found he could get clear of irate landlords in Napa, he knew he could handle USC or Stanford safeties. The techniques were the same: recognition of the defense, separation maneuvers, inside moves, cornering speed. Of course, every pattern is a post pattern, every route a fly when you have an aroused citizenry coming at you in a man-to-man defense with reserves coming up.
There is also the element of fear. Sean thinks that is a good emotion for any receiver. In this, he is in accord with the old-time fight trainer, Cannonball Green. Cannonball was of the firm opinion that fear was a fighter's greatest asset.
"If a lion doesn't fear you, it's a pussycat," he would say. "It will let you pull its tail, stroke it, even bite it. But, if it's afraid, look out!"
It's not that Sean LaChapelle turns pale at the approach of a defensive back. After all, he's 6-feet-4 and 210. What he fears is not being able to get to the ball. Fear makes you take evasive tactics.
The interesting thing about Sean LaChapelle--well, one of the interesting things about Sean LaChapelle--is that he may become the greatest pass receiver UCLA has ever had. This is saying a lot in a school that had the legendary Tom Fears, Burr Baldwin, Milt Smith, Mike Sherrard, Cormac Carney, JoJo Townsell, Kurt Altenberg, Flipper Anderson and Dick Wallen.
LaChapelle has already set the UCLA single-season touchdown reception record with 11. He has caught 47 passes in seven games, which put him within firing distance of Mike Farr's 66 in a season. His total to date of 86--he has a whole season left--makes him a threat for Mike Sherrard's career total of 128.
Sean LaChapelle is not your basic shy, retiring collegiate jock. Like most wide receivers, he is gregarious. The best wide receivers are people who cannot stand to stay in one place very long.
One of the first things LaChapelle did on enrolling at UCLA was to clap the coach on the back and ask him how it was going. This is not recommended familiarity with head coaches, but campus gossip has it Terry Donahue forgave him when he caught five passes against Michigan in Game 2 last year.
LaChapelle shot himself in the foot last spring, not exactly the kind of accident to inspire confidence in the coaching staff, either. He has also, figuratively, shot himself in the foot in postgame locker room interviews, where he has not been slow to criticize game plans--even winning ones.
He is as chatty as a New York cabbie. Donahue has been known to allude to him as a "loose cannon." But he can run under a thrown football better than anybody since Steve Largent.
"He's like a great outfielder," one of his coaches says. "When the ball comes down, he's there."
Scholars have long wrangled over which comes first, the thrower or the catcher? It has vexed the press poets since Gus Dorais to Knute Rockne, Cecil Isbell to Don Hutson, Otto Graham to Mac Speedie and Joe Montana to Jerry Rice.
LaChapelle has Tommy Maddox to get the ball to him. But, typically, he sees neither the passer nor the catcher as the critical element to success.
"It's the offensive line," he insists. "If they don't hold, the quarterback can't get the ball away. No matter how open you are. And no receiver is any good without the ball."
A pass is frequently completed before a ball is snapped, he believes.
"The ability to read the defense is more critical than speed," claims Sean. "You don't have to be fast if you know where everyone is going to be. In a zone defense, you have to find the right window. In man-for-man, you have to make that guy think you're running a pattern you're not. Make him think you're running a streak when you're going to be hooking."
It's a high-level con game and LaChapelle feels he's going into it with his own deck.
"The defense never likes to let anybody get behind them, and they'll give you a lot to make sure you don't outrun them," he says.
He's skeptical of his own speed.
"I was faster in high school," he says, shrugging. "I used to be timed in the 40 in 4.47. But I came here slower and weaker in the legs. I had to get back on a program to strengthen my leg muscles.
"But speed is not as important as knowledge. Steve Largent used to run the 40 in 4.7. (Fred) Biletnikoff was not that fast, just effective. I try to be effective. Game speed is more important than clock speed anyway. Jerry Rice is not a world beater at straight-ahead speed, but his game speed is the best. This isn't the Olympics. We don't stay in lanes."
Sean LaChapelle believes that, to catch him, first you have to locate him. That's something the neighbors in Napa couldn't do long ago. And the sophisticated defenses of the Pac 10 aren't having much luck, either.
He may be the most underrated pass catcher of his era. Michigan's Desmond Howard has caught nine fewer passes for 200 or so fewer yards--although he has four more touchdowns--and he is being touted as the shoo-in Heisman Trophy winner.
But LaChapelle doesn't yearn to win the Heisman--just the USC game.