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He Gives, Hopes to Receive : Rams: Plagued by self-doubt as rookie, LaChapelle tries to make fresh start.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Finally, an explanation of why Sean LaChapelle appears so slow: The young man says he has been saddled with self-doubt while running his pass routes.

“Is this really what I want to do?” LaChapelle asks himself. “Am I up to handling the pressure of relentless competition? Can I find the fires that burned so hot while at UCLA? Do I have it in me to give it everything I’ve got and know I still might get cut?”

So much self-analysis, so few catches.

“I just wasn’t prepared for the pressure of what you have to go through to make it,” he said. “I was high-profile and everything at UCLA, but this is such a business. . . . I’ve thought about (quitting). I mean there are other things I want to do with my life. I think at times about wanting to play golf.

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“I’ve been away from home for six years now. I talk to my friends and they tell me they’re going camping on the weekend, and I’m saying to myself, ‘Damn, I’d like to be there with them.’ ”

LaChapelle, former UCLA wide receiver and present-day Ram, has displayed the courage to throw his body in the path of agitated linebackers, but fear and eroding confidence have stifled his progress as a professional football player.

Perched on the bubble of his own making, LaChapelle spent much of last year blubbering about his poor state of mind.

“Whining,” LaChapelle said Monday after the first of two scheduled practices at UC Irvine. “I was whining, but it was my way of being honest about how I felt.

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“I wasn’t prepared for this; you had to perform and perform every play. There was this constant inner struggle: ‘Can you do this?’ ”

The immediate answer was an emphatic no . “If they were looking for me to make an impact right away, then you’d have to say I was a bomb,” LaChapelle said.

LaChapelle, who remained a faithful companion to quarterback Jim Everett a year ago when almost everyone else abandoned him, caught two passes for 23 yards. Thanks for the memories: That’s 14 yards against the Cardinals, nine yards against the Bengals.

“Football wasn’t as important as Jim was,” LaChapelle said. “I stand by my friends, and I still think Jim has the qualities to be a great quarterback. I was there for him when he needed me. Not everyone was on his side, but the way things were going for me, it really couldn’t make things any worse for me.”

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Everett and LaChapelle found a kinship in their shaky play and resulting criticism. But at season’s end, it was obvious that Everett was headed elsewhere, leaving LaChapelle behind to fret about a career going nowhere.

“Football was fun in high school and for the most part in college, but that feeling was dead last year,” LaChapelle said. “I chose to stay at Rams Park through the off-season and work four days a week, though, to see if I could regain that feeling for the game. If I had left Rams Park during the off-season, I don’t think I would have ever returned.

“I wanted to try and find that fire I used to have, that fun I had playing the game. I haven’t had that feeling and played the game as well as I know I can since the first game of my senior year at UCLA. It’s like I can’t remember how to do the things I used to do that made me be so successful.”

LaChapelle pushed himself to lift weights and run at Rams Park. If hard work can change first impressions, LaChapelle will no longer be considered the chronic bellyacher. But then again, will it be enough to alter reality?

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The addition of two speedy receivers in the draft, two more as veteran free agents and another acquired in a trade will test LaChapelle’s rebirth.

“You figure Flipper (Anderson) is going to be here along with the two draft choices and Nate Lewis (acquired in a trade),” LaChapelle said. “That leaves everyone else competing for probably two spots. Is there enough time? Am I good enough to have them keep me?”

At first glance, LaChapelle will probably need a few breaks to remain with the team this year. However, the hiring of Steve Moore during the off-season to coach the Ram wide receivers has already provided LaChapelle with a fresh start and a sympathetic ear.

“Sean is a very honest person,” Moore said. “And when he has self-doubts or questions motivations, he speaks his mind and explores them rather than trying to stuff it. I think that’s very healthy.”

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Despite LaChapelle’s off-season dedication, at the outset of training camp nothing had really changed: LaChapelle remained a mess. He talked about the prospects of being cut as if determined to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“It just really didn’t matter to me what happened when training camp opened,” he said. “But then something started to happen. Things were different this year, and I think there’s going to be a lot of winning and I want to be a part of that.

“You have to remember, I basically did nothing the past two years in football. My confidence was shattered at UCLA after Wayne Cook went down in the opener my senior year. I went through four quarterbacks and three injured ribs after deciding to stay in school.”

Past events at UCLA have dogged LaChapelle and sabotaged his brief stay in the NFL. After his junior season, LaChapelle thought seriously about joining teammate Tommy Maddox and leaving UCLA to make himself available for the NFL draft.

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There was talk at the time that LaChapelle might have gone in the top two rounds, and while that might have been propaganda spread by agents, friends or family, it is something he has held onto ever since.

“No, no, I think I’m getting over it now,” said LaChapelle, who was selected in the fifth round of the 1993 draft. “I think I’ve matured a little bit. I feel something happening, and in the last few days I feel like I’m playing more like I used to.”

Will the Rams notice? Will it be enough to save his job? “He’s picking up his tempo a great deal,” Moore said. “He’s much more competitive than he was earlier.”

LaChapelle went hard across the middle a week ago on the final play of practice and made a tough catch while being tackled in the non-tackle drill. He injured an ankle, missed a few days of practice, but quickly responded to the pressure of having to impress and reported back for duty. They might cut him, but not without a fight.

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“There are a lot of guys on the bubble,” LaChapelle said. “It’s just a lot different in this environment. You work 9 to 5 and maybe you’re a little late or you forget to punch out. You drop a few passes here and they punch you out.

“I know I can play at this level; I just have to play with confidence. I just hope that’s enough.”


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