His bones aching, his body bruised, Natrone Means looks at the next human wave descending on him and wonders if he'll make it safely through once again.
Another carry by the Jacksonville Jaguar running back?
Nah, that's the easy part. Battling through opposing defenders isn't that tough when you're built like a tank and move like a sports car.
No, the toughest part for Means is getting through an ever-growing number of journalists who always seem to work their way around to the same question: How does it feel to prove the San Diego Chargers wrong?
Putting his foot in the end zone is one thing. Putting his foot in his mouth is quite another.
Means sees no reason to bad-mouth the Chargers, although they gave up on him a year ago, cutting him loose without receiving so much as a draft pick.
"It does not do a bit of good to talk about the Chargers," Means said. "I just knew I would be my old self and things would work out fine."
That they have.
With the Jaguars' incredible run--from 3-6 in the regular season to an unbeaten December, to playoff upsets of the Bills in Buffalo and the Broncos in Denver, to Sunday's AFC championship game against the New England Patriots in Foxboro--the spotlight has shone brighter and brighter on Means, whose return to form has coincided with Jacksonville's late charge.
It's a return to form some doubted would ever happen. Count Charger General Manager Bobby Beathard among them.
It was Beathard, one of the league's most respected judges of talent, who plucked Means off the campus of North Carolina after Means' junior year with a second-round pick in the 1993 draft.
Two years later, Beathard's judgment seemed as sound as ever. Means had gone from a 645-yard, eight-touchdown rookie season to 1,350 yards and a dozen touchdowns.
More important, Means had carried his teammates on his back all the way to the Super Bowl in that second season. Those who saw San Diego's second-round playoff victory over the Miami Dolphins that year won't soon forget Means' 24-yard touchdown run, the barreling back transferring the ball from his right arm to his left to stretch it across the goal line with two Dolphin defenders all over him.
But a year later, the image of Means was quite different. He had ballooned from 245 pounds to who knows how much. The trademark smile had turned into a frown. The tank sometimes looked as if it were stuck in mud.
Means was a holdout at the start of the 1995 season. When he finally came back, he suffered a groin injury that left him struggling all season. He wound up appearing in only 10 games, gaining 730 yards.
Still, despite his difficulties, no one was quite prepared for it when Beathard put Means on waivers last spring.
Finished at 23?
Beathard said the primary reasons for the move were that the team was unwilling to pay Means the kind of money that would put a huge dent in the Chargers' payroll and feared yet another disruptive holdout.
"We didn't feel like we would be able to satisfy Natrone's people," Beathard said at the time.
There were also rumors that Means had been a disruptive force in the locker room.
When you're a second-year team, however, such concerns fall way down on the list of priorities. There isn't often an abundance of talent on an expansion team, so you take what you can get and hope you can smooth out the personality problems.
"When I first got released, my initial reaction was shock, followed by anger," Means said. "But that lasted about an hour. Then, I had about 20 teams contacting me."
It didn't appear at first that joining Jacksonville would end Means' troubles. For one thing, he was going to have to beat out James Stewart, the starter.
For another, Means would have to do so with yet another injury. He hurt a thumb during the exhibition season.
"It was very frustrating," Means said. "I felt when I came [to Jacksonville], it would be the year I got back on top."
Two games into the season, Means still hadn't played. Four games into the season, he had gained 12 yards.
Beathard was looking better by the yard.
But then, Stewart got hurt. He sprained a toe in the Jaguars' 12th game and Means finally got his chance. The results have been spectacular. Means went from 56 yards in his first start the following week to 67 yards to 92 yards to 110 yards in Jacksonville's regular-season finale.
As it turned out, he was only warming up. In the Jaguars' two playoff games, he rushed for a career-high 175 yards against Buffalo, then gained 140 yards against Denver for a total of 315 in two weeks.
He has the old speed and burst of power at the line. Buffalo defensive lineman Bruce Smith thought he had Means in his grasp in the playoff opener, but Means ripped loose and ran 30 yards to a touchdown. Backs don't normally do that kind of thing against Smith.
"Natrone has turned a negative into a positive," his coach, Tom Coughlin, said of the year his new starting back has had. "It's the kind of story you like to see."
But for all the positives, Means can't quite escape the negatives. When reporters start peppering him with questions about his past, he tries to ignore them. Or he turns the focus on himself.
Was he determined to prove the Chargers wrong?
"More so, I wanted to prove to myself I was right," he said.
But in the locker room last week, he finally spoke candidly, the hurt and anger evident in his voice.
"If you can go out to San Diego and find anybody in that locker room who would say that I was a bad influence, a bad apple, I would be very surprised," Means said.
"Games like this, where you can stick it in everybody's face, I love it."
He wouldn't say it, but you just know there was one person's face in particular that Means was thinking about.