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Battle-Scarred Hester Passes On Knowledge to Young Receivers : Football: Former Raider helps rookies like Bruce while trying to catch on with Rams.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ram receiver Jessie Hester watches the hazing of rookie receiver Isaac Bruce every day during training camp and can’t help but smile.

It’s a rite of passage in the NFL, one that every receiver must endure. Twice a day, Bruce is schooled by Ram cornerbacks such as Todd Lyght and Robert Bailey on the art of running pass routes, the bump-and-run, when to make a cut.

They can be painful, frustrating lessons, as Hester discovered nine years ago as a rookie with the Raiders.

“It was tough,” Hester said, smiling. “It was real tough.”

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Especially when you’re lining up against two all-pro cornerbacks such as Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes. For one summer, they pounded Hester as he had never been pounded before.

That’s Mike Haynes, an all-pro in 1984 and ’85.

And that’s Lester Hayes, author of the book “They Call Me Assassin,” one of the hardest hitters and trashiest trash talkers ever to put on a helmet. He was an all-pro in four of the five seasons before Hester arrived as a first-round draft pick from Florida State.

Let the punishment begin.

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“Lester and Mike came at me every day,” Hester said. “They just shut me down. I couldn’t get off the ball against them.

“Haynes was pretty quiet, didn’t talk much. Lester, he talked all the time and he always backed it up. That was really intimidating, especially for a rookie. It got to the point where I would laugh when it was over, but it wasn’t funny at the time.”

Day after day. Practice after practice. Hester couldn’t get open. Hayes would knock him back, take him out of his route. Haynes would come out of nowhere to knock the ball away.

More talk. More intimidation.

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“It got to the point where I was starting to wonder if I belonged in the NFL,” Hester said. “I was never so frustrated in my entire life. That’s the way it was in my early days. Everyone thought I was getting burned all the time.”

But a funny thing happened to Hester on the way to his first exhibition game--he started getting open.

“By the end of camp, the bump-and-run didn’t phase me at all,” Hester said. “Still doesn’t.”

“I got off to a pretty good start (in his first exhibition game, against the Washington Redskins). I ran an out-and-up pattern and caught it for a long touchdown, but it got called back on a holding penalty. But I’ll always remember that one. It was still a score.”

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Hester started 16 games that first season, setting Raider rookie records with 32 catches for 665 yards.

Nine years later, Hester enters the Rams’ camp as a well-traveled veteran, having played one season for Atlanta and the last four with the Indianapolis Colts.

He’s competing with 12 other receivers for five or six roster spots. And he’s working with the Rams’ younger receivers, such as Bruce and fourth-round pick Chris Brantley.

Hester’s best piece of advice? Patience, patience and more patience.

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“They (rookies) tend to rush things,” Hester said. “In this league, you have to be under control, patient when you run your routes.”

Bruce has been listening.

“Yeah, I’m learning to be patient,” he said. “I know I have to take it a little slower and read the defense. The big thing is how they disguise the defenses.

“It’s not so much where the defender starts, but where he finishes. I’ve learned a lot about that from Jessie. Now, I’m trying to get closer to the defense before I make my break. I’m trying to run more precise routes.”

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Hester and Bruce share a common thread entering today’s exhibition opener against Green Bay in Madison, Wis. Bruce, a lock to make the team after the Rams drafted him in the second round, wants to show he can contend for a starting spot. So does Hester, who is battling to make the team.

“I just want to remind the coaches here that I can still play,” said Hester, 31. “I might be a little older than some of these guys, but I can still run and catch the ball.”

So does Bruce find it a little strange, getting advice from a veteran he’s competing with for a roster spot?

“It’s not strange to me,” Bruce said. “We all help each other out.”

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The Rams hope Hester, Bruce and a rejuvenated Flipper Anderson can make up for their failed attempt to trade for Dallas’ Alvin Harper and inability to sign free-agent Haywood Jeffires of Houston.

In Hester, the Rams get a durable, consistent receiver who has started 48 consecutive games in the past three seasons, averaging 59 catches a season during that time.

In Bruce, the Rams get a smooth, athletic route-runner that some draft analysts rated ahead of some first-round picks. He led Memphis State in receiving last season with 74 catches for 1,054 yards and 10 touchdowns.

And after a week of mini-camp workouts and two weeks of training camp, Bruce is ready to show what he can do as a pro.

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“I’m ready to give this a try,” he said. “I really look at this as a win-win situation for me.”


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