Damaged Goods : Rodney Peete Says He's Fine Now and the Lions Say He's Their No. 1 Quarterback, but His Bouts With Injuries Are Part of the Reason He's Without a Contract


Two weeks ago, Rodney Peete was working out on USC's manicured practice field with Byron Hanson, an assistant trainer. Peete was sweating, but no one could see it because no one was around.

Once Peete couldn't take two steps on that field without someone saying, "Hey, Rodney, got a second?"

He was setting records for USC's football team then. He was the poster boy. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

He had it made then. He led the Trojans to four bowl games. He had the most famous case of measles in Los Angeles history. Then he crawled out of the hospital bed and led USC to victory over archrival UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

Not only was he charismatic, he was versatile. It's an old story, but he could have played baseball or football professionally. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1988 and chose football.

Then he was virtually snubbed in the NFL draft. He was not taken until the sixth round.

It's been a long and uncertain haul for Peete in the NFL. He was on the up escalator for a while there, but now, who knows?

He was the starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions, then got hurt.

When the Lions went to the NFC championship game last season, Erik Kramer was the quarterback.

And Peete?

He was there, but it was hard to see him through the door to the trainer's room. And that's where he's been most of his professional career. He has missed 21 of 48 regular-season games in his three pro seasons because of injuries.

In his first season at Detroit, he sprained his knee in an exhibition game against the Rams and sat out half the season. In his second, he was plagued by a hamstring injury and a deep thigh bruise. A torn Achilles tendon, his second such injury, took him out last season.

Aside from the hamstring and thigh bruise, the injuries were freakish.

"I've been a trainer at USC for 13 seasons and at two other colleges before that," Hansen said. "And I've never treated an athlete that has had two repaired Achilles tendons. I don't know anyone who has. Never even heard of anyone who has."

Peete realizes injuries are part of the business.

"It's just something you have to deal with," he said. "It's fine now. Everything is back--all my mobility is back."

Since November, Peete has spent five hours a day in rehabilitation to be able to say it's fine.

But there are no guarantees and Peete may not be helping himself by holding out this training camp. His contract expired after last season, and he has not signed a new one.

Peete is penciled in as the Lions' starter, despite Kramer's accomplishments last season. And despite Andre Ware, the 1989 Heisman Trophy winner, looking like a perfect fit for Detroit's modified run-and-shoot offense.

Peete is well aware of Ware.

"You have to think that when they draft someone in the first round and pay him that money, that they're coming in to take the job and not sit on the bench," Peete said. "But I have to give credit to (Coach) Wayne Fontes. He was true to his word that the best person would get the job. I was fortunate to be that person."

The odd thing is that Peete keeps handing the job to his best friend on the team--Kramer. Kramer stepped in for Peete, who had directed the Lions to a 6-2 record last season, and hardly missed a beat, the club going 7-3 under his direction, including playoff games.

Peete and Kramer are road roommates and worked out together before last season. But the inevitable rumors accompanied Kramer's success, that the friendship was strained and that Kramer would take the job away.

"If I have the job or if he won the job, we would still be good friends," Peete said. "Our friendship is beyond football. Erik was there for me before. He helped me out when I pulled up with the injury."

Kramer talks the party line, too.

"Nothing has been talked about to me (about starting)," he said. "I just saw a couple of papers that said Rodney was probably the guy. I think that's probably the way it should be. I hope I contribute.

"Rodney and I really don't talk about (who starts). We stick to talking about going fishing and golfing."

Still, there's plenty of room for speculation.

Said Johnette Howard of the Detroit Free Press: "Peete is injury prone, Kramer doesn't have the mobility the Lions want and Ware hasn't developed the proper fundamentals."

But Fontes wants none of it.

"I just have to handle any talk of a controversy and I will," he said.

"I didn't have to talk to them about who was No. 1. They knew. Peete will definitely be No. 1 quarterback starting camp. He was No. 1 last year and was (6-2). Then the kid (Kramer) came in and did great job for us. But it's hard to take a job away just because (Peete) got hurt."

Peete, though, is not without his detractors, who point out that he has a bit of a reputation for getting a team almost to the top. For all his success at USC, they remind, the Trojans lost all four bowl games he helped them to. And after taking the Lions to the brink of success, he watched his best friend take them to the playoffs.

And then there is the injury syndrome. It has become an issue in his contract negotiations. Said Chuck Schmidt, the Lions' executive vice president and chief operating officer: "It's through no fault of his own. Rodney's a neat guy, courageous, tough, resilient. . . . It's unfortunate that he's been injured so often. You have to wonder if perhaps that pattern will continue.

"It's difficult to agree to a large contract when a player is injured so often. Injuries are part of football, but when they happen as often as this, you have to consider that when you're giving out the money."

And the Lions are giving out the money. Ware made $1.2 million for backing up Peete, who was making between $400,000 and $600,000, and Kramer, who was making less.

Peete shrugs that off. Other players' good fortunes are not his to begrudge, and negative thoughts don't crowd his mind.

Ask him if he thinks that maybe he should have gone into baseball and the answer is no.

Ask him if he ever found out why he wasn't drafted until the sixth round and he says he didn't.

"That's all in the past," he said. "It doesn't matter."

Ted Tollner, Peete's former coach at USC and current quarterback coach for the Rams, thinks that Peete's reputation for athleticism hurt him.

"I think his ability was mis-evaluated," Tollner said. "They assumed he was a runner-scrambler, and he wasn't. He's a thrower. He's not a great scrambler-type guy. He has got good feet, but he's a passer who has excellent timing and accuracy. He doesn't have a great arm, but he has a good arm and he understands timing and gets (the ball) up.

"He's in a perfect system for that. Because they believe in getting it up quick. Detroit, it's a perfect system (for him)."

This may be the year Peete has to prove it.

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