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SUPER BOWL XXIX : Persistence Lands Him on His Feet

He was team captain at Cal State Northridge and that’s not a bad thing to be, but get a load of him now, shoulder to shoulder with some of the greatest football players ever born. This is the biggest thing to happen to Bryan Wagner since the day he took second place in the Desenex most-valuable-foot contest.

Wagner is the punter for the San Diego Chargers and that makes him a Super Bowl player same as Jerry Rice and Steve Young and Deion Sanders and everybody else hanging around Miami this week. The guy they call Wags is having the time of his life and so will Mrs. Wags as soon as she can get off work, he says.

“What’s your wife do?” I ask.

“She’s the queen of Cleveland,” he says.

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Wags goes to the Super Bowl. It sounds like a new book from Doctor Seuss. He turns 33 in a few weeks and has been a punter for the Bears, for the Browns, for the Patriots and for the Packers, making a living as a football player with only a limited amount of actual playing. But inscriptions on diamond rings rarely say, “Super Bowl XXIX. Never Played Much.”

It wasn’t so long ago that Wagner meandered into a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys, looked around and wondered what in the world he was doing there.

“I thought, ‘Me, a Dallas Cowboy? ' I looked at those guys and my eyes were like saucers.”

Having begun his collegiate career at Cal Lutheran, where the Cowboys once trained, Wagner says he couldn’t bring himself to believe that he belonged on the same field with those great stars from Dallas. How he actually puts this is, “I couldn’t put myself on their peer level.”

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“And later?” I ask.

“Well, when I got to the Bears, I figured I could play for them.

Wags has been to more camps than Smokey the Bear. He was a free agent with the Broncos and then they traded him to Chicago for an “S. Humphries,” which makes you blink while looking into the record book until you realize that this was an offensive guard named Stefan and not the current San Diego quarterback.

Funny thing is, Chicago was superior to Dallas back in 1987, when Wagner was breaking into pro football. Nevertheless, no longer intimidated, Wags boomed a 71-yarder against Green Bay and did a whale of a job until a week before Christmas, when he injured his back while playing against . . . gulp, the San Francisco 49ers. See, punters do really play.

By the time he got to Cleveland, nobody in the NFL punted the ball more often during the 1989 season or put it inside the 20 more often. Somebody actually kept track of such stuff. Matter of fact, people thought Wags got robbed when the New York Jets’ guy nipped him by seven-10ths of a point for that Desenex thing, which apparently is the Heisman of punting.

Cleveland had one benefit, though. Al (Bubba) Baker, a former pro turned broadcaster, was working a TV newscast one night when anchorwoman Robin Swoboda saw a picture of a football player. She asked Bubba, “Who’s that?”

“Bryan Wagner,” Bubba said.

“He’s cute.”

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Wags tells this story with relish and I ask, “Did you watch her do the news?”

“No, I’m not the kind of guy who watches the news,” Wags says. “I’m the kind of guy who watches Andy Griffith re-runs.”

They were married, had two children and a month ago, Robin left her full-time mommy duties to return to Ohio to her anchor desk.

I gather that she is, quote, a big star in Cleveland and am corrected by Wagner, “No, I was serious. She is queen.”

*

There are stars and there are stars. Bryan Wagner is the punter for San Diego, but what few people know is, the Chargers have more than one. Just in case anything happens to Wagner--and punters do get hurt, you know--they do have Darren Bennett on their practice squad and Darren Bennett is ready.

Bennett knows who the 49ers are and who the Cowboys are. He just doesn’t know who anybody else is. His last team was Melbourne in the old AFL--the Australian Football League. He just turned 30 and he wouldn’t know Vince Lombardi from Crocodile Dundee.

“Australians only know four or five teams--the 49ers, Raiders, Dallas Cowboys and probably the Chicago Bears,” Bennett says. “We don’t watch much of your TV.”

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Neither does he.

Given a pop quiz to see if he knows which channels Connie Chung, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings are on, he guesses ABC, ABC and NBC, in that order.

Greg Gumbel? Bennett says, “Fox.” Brent Musburger? “Wouldn’t have a clue.” Mike Ditka? “Fox.” Joe Gibbs? “Fox.” Jimmy Johnson? “Everyone knows he coached the Cowboys. Where’s he now, ESPN?”

Told that he is now officially 0 for 1995, Bennett laughs and says, “What do I know? All I do is kick a ball.”


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