THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Thursday, October 6, 1994 TAG: 9410060602 SECTION: SPORTS PAGE: C1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY JIM DUCIBELLA, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: PHILADELPHIA LENGTH: Long : 267 lines
Five weeks into his 11th season in pro football, it no longer matters that William Fuller doesn't care to dance.
On the field for the Philadelphia Eagles, Fuller's straight-ahead, no-frills style has resulted in five sacks, the team high and already halfway to his average of the last four seasons.
The defensive end from Chesapeake also has two hurries, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and one pass defensed. In last week's 40-8 drubbing of the San Francisco 49ers, Fuller got his first career safety, nailing quarterback Steve Young in the end zone. Later, he tipped a Young pass that tackle Andy Harmon intercepted.
He reacted to each of those feats as he has to each play of his 133 NFL games - he rose and walked back to the huddle. No juke. No jive. No pretend home runs. No blowing the smoke off make-believe pistols.
He doesn't tap dance in the locker room, either. He answers questions about his fast start with an honest, straight-on approach.
``There have been years I got off to a bigger start in sacks,'' he says. ``But as far as making big plays; safeties, causing fumbles, batting balls, hitting guys for losses - momentum plays - I can't remember when I've played better.''
There's some small sense of wonder at how this came to be. He did not excel in training camp.
``If you asked coach (Rich) Kotite, he'd say I didn't have a good camp,'' Fuller admits. ``But I can't get up for training-camp games.
``If your house was on fire and you ran in to get your mama, you'd kick that door down to get her. But if someone tells you to pretend the house is on fire, you can't do it.''
Actually, Kotite has no complaints. He calls Fuller ``relentless'' and says, ``He has the ability to raise the level of play of people around him.''
Adds Chuck Banker, Philadelphia's director of pro personnel: ``We thought he'd be good - he's better than anyone imagined.''
Defensive coordinator Bud Carson gushes, ``He's got everything you look for. . . . He just doesn't make mistakes, a very unselfish player. The guy's a winner.''
Quarterback Randall Cunningham approached Fuller recently and thanked him for flying with the Eagles.
``We haven't had a player like you here in a long time,'' Cunningham offered. ``Unselfish.''
Such adulation. To think it began with a plane trip last March Fuller didn't want to take.
March 2, Houston. William and his wife, Precilla, are sitting at home, talking about Fuller's flight the next morning to Philadelphia. The Eagles, desperate to plug gaping holes at defensive end caused by the free-agent departures the last two years of Reggie White and Clyde Simmons, have put the full-court press on Fuller.
Three-year contract, $8 million. He's 32 years old and about to become the highest-paid player on the team. All he has to do is fly to Philly and sign on the dotted line.
``I can't believe we're leaving Houston,'' Fuller told his wife. After all, he'd spent eight years in the city after the Rams traded his rights to the Oilers when the USFL folded. From 1988 on, he'd been a valued, though underpublicized starter.
Two of the three Fuller children were in school there. There were friends, especially fellow defensive lineman Ray Childress, they'd be leaving behind.
Fuller went to bed. He did not sleep.
``I should be happy; it's a helluva deal,'' he said, rousing Precilla. ``But I'm not. I don't want to go.''
``There were all the family details, but I was coming to a team where there'd been a lot of turmoil,'' Fuller explains. ``There was about to be a ownership change; they'd let get away two great players (Simmons and linebacker Seth Joyner). I felt uneasy. I think about it now and I laugh. Since I got here, everything's been wonderful.''
The Fullers have a condo in fashionable Cherry Hill, N.J. Precilla and the girls love their new home. The Eagles are 3-1, and host the 1-4 Redskins Sunday.
The fear of mediocrity flew with Fuller from Houston. Standing before the Philadelphia media the next day, he challenged management.
``I told them I couldn't do it alone, that I hoped they were going to be aggressive in bringing in other players,'' he remembers.
The Eagles obliged. They acquired linebacker Bill Romanowski. They obtained defensive end Burt Grossman. They added another defensive end, Greg Townsend. When Fuller got a look at the returning talent, he became even more excited.
``I told myself we could have something special here,'' he remembers.
And then new owner Jeffrey Lurie walked in the locker room a few days before the season opener against the New York Giants and asked several reserve players to take pay cuts so there'd be a fund under the salary cap to replace injured players.
Fuller, set to earn a minimum of $2.8 million this season, watched in stunned silence.
``It was awkward as hell,'' he says. ``You've got these guys who don't make near as much as I make - two or three hundred thousand - and they're being asked to take pay cuts. They have families to feed, like me. It was tough to swallow.''
Fuller stewed over the impact his big salary could have on the team.
``Would they be ready to bond, to work hard?'' he says. ``Be ready to win? Or would there be a lot of animosity?
``There was nothing I could do but go out, play, and hope it said to people, `Hey, the fact that I'm here isn't anything against you. It's just the way this crazy situation worked out.' A lot of guys got screwed for me to get a big piece of the pie. I couldn't feel great about it. That's just not me.''
No one suggested that Fuller restructure his deal. He has seen no evidence of bitterness from the other players. He's thankful, because the situation could have blown the team apart before the season started.
But there was a price. Philadelphia lost to the Giants and Fuller says, ``I think it had an effect on the team.''
Despite what it's meant to him financially, Fuller is opposed to the league's collective bargaining agreement.
``You've got the haves and the have-nots,'' he says. ``You take two workers doing the same job, with basically the same success. One makes 10 times the other one. There is going to be animosity. It's a system set up for failure.
``You have to be on a team that says, `Forget it, we're going out to win.' There aren't a lot of guys like that. I'm sure there are guys around the league saying, `Why should I go out and play my all, do the same thing this guy beside me is doing, when he's making 10 times what I'm making?' ''
Among the first calls Fuller received on becoming a free agent was from Buddy Ryan, asking him to come to Arizona, where Ryan had taken over as head coach.
Fuller was tempted, though he wanted to return east, near Chesapeake, to be near his father, mother and sister.
Fuller came to respect Ryan during the year they spent together in Houston.
``I liked Buddy; there wasn't a lot not to like,'' Fuller explains. ``He was a player's coach. But would I hire Buddy if I was an owner? That's a better question.
``He pulls the whole defense together and it's us against the world, everybody. And everybody might be the opponent, the media, management. It could be your own offensive players. Some of that's good. Some of it's not. But he built a cohesive unit.''
Mention the infamous scene of Ryan punching offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride during a game last season and Fuller shakes his head. He acknowledges the absurdity of it, but there's also some bitterness at management for ignoring Ryan.
``Somebody had to step up and say, `This is crazy, this offense isn't working,' '' Fuller says of the run-and-shoot. ``It was getting us in more trouble than it was worth.
``So he leaves. Suddenly, they get a tight end - what Buddy was screaming about. They get a fullback - what Buddy screamed about all year. Buddy leaves, and now they're talking about getting rid of the whole offense. That's what he'd been talking about the whole year, that we can not win with that offense.
``Buddy was not the kind of person to hold his breath. There were lots of players on the team who felt just like he did, but didn't feel the liberty to go and say it.''
Fuller had the second-most sacks of his career, 10, under Ryan.
``He coached total aggression. We'd blitz five plays in a row. I don't agree with that, because eventually you're going to run into a team as talented as yours and you can't leave those defensive backs out there one-on-one. Somebody's going to get loose. In the playoffs, teams are going to burn you. But it's a great defense if you're a pass-rusher.''
Mention the NFL and pass-rushers in the same sentence and the first name that comes to mind is Bruce Smith.
And while every defensive end has been overwhelmed by the Buffalo Bills' perennial All-Pro, no one identity has been more obscured than Fuller's.
They attended high school at about the same time, Fuller at Indian River, Smith at Booker T.
Fuller went off to North Carolina, where he was first-team All-ACC, then the USFL's Philadelphia Stars before joining the NFL when the league folded.
Smith starred at Virginia Tech and the Bills made him the first selection in the 1985 draft.
Fuller acknowledges that Smith is a great player. He's lavish in his respect for Smith's ability. He's not jealous of Smith. He hesitates before answering whether he's felt lost in Smith's bright light, back home in Virginia or elsewhere.
``It bothered me at one time,'' he finally says. ``I think it happened because I stayed in Houston in the offseason, while Bruce came back to Virginia Beach. You got to see him, interview him, spend time with him.
``But it irked me that when I came back to Virginia, people said, `William Fuller, who?,' or `I don't remember you from high school,' or `Which college did you go to?' I don't think the fact that I didn't live there should have been as big a factor as it was.
``If it wasn't for my father, a lot of people still wouldn't know William Fuller played pro football, or that William Fuller's having a great career. The year I made the Pro Bowl, nobody knew.''
That was 1991, the year Fuller led the AFC with 15 sacks and received the nickname ``Fuller Rush Man.'' You'd think something clever like that would stick. It has not, which has nothing to do with Bruce Smith or neglectful local media.
It's Houston, a Siberian outpost of a pro football town, particularly if the guy near you on the line was Ray Childress, an old Texas A&M Aggie.
``Another hell of a football player, don't take a thing away from him,'' Fuller begins. ``But if he did something, he got more `pub' than if I did the same thing. That's just how it is sometimes. Can't have too many guys getting notoriety at the same time, I guess.
``Ray's a good friend. We talk every week and I miss him. In Houston, we had a hell of a defensive line; three Pro Bowl players, and I guess there wasn't enough publicity to go around.
``That's what appealing about here (Philadelphia). If you're a great defensive player, you're going to be recognized here. They have that tradition.''
One factor in Philadelphia's favor was Fuller's history with the city. In his two seasons with the USFL Stars, he'd won two titles. There were front-office people on the Eagles who'd held similar jobs with the Stars. There was comfort.
But there also was his father and family in Chesapeake. They're never far from his thoughts. William Fuller Sr. is a diabetic, blind, an amputee, and, 10 days before Eagles training camp opened, he suffered a mild stroke.
Fuller's 33-year-old sister, Deborah, was left unable to speak or hear after a childhood case of meningitis. Betty Fuller isn't getting any younger.
The worst injury Fuller has suffered in football was a broken ankle his rookie season in the USFL. That's the only physical pain. Fuller looks in the mirror, sees someone 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, the epitome of health, and agonizes because he can't do more to help them.
``Guilty is a good word; not that I'm healthy and my father's not healthy, or my sister is deaf,'' Fuller says. ``Guilty because I couldn't be around to help him as much as I would like, to help my mother take care of my father and my sister. We're a close family, and they've always told me, `You've got to live your life; we're going to be fine because God will take care of us.'
``But they're my biggest supporters, and that's what's really kept me going.'' Fuller continues to give $500 a sack to diabetes research, as he has for years.
Before his blindness, William Fuller Sr. attended each of his son's games, no matter where. Lately, he's kept up with the play-by-play by listening to a television hooked up to a satellite dish.
``There's nothing like calling home after a big game and saying, `Did you see it?' '' Fuller says. ``When my mother walks into the grocery store and people are like, `Man, your son was killin' today,' I know if she's had a bad week, for that one moment she feels a lot of happiness.
``Same with my father. When he turns on the radio and they mention my name, he just lights up. . . . There are times he gets so frustrated. He'll tell my mother, `Go see him play, you don't have to sit here and take care of me,' and you know she's not going to leave. If she can't go with him, she's not going. People talk about courage in football all the time, and there's a lot. But what my father does every day is a true display of courage.''
Game time. There's a band on the field, about to play the national anthem. Fuller has entered his own little world, and the day's most important conversation is taking place.
It's the Fuller Psych, and it doesn't last long. Doesn't have to. He began watching film of his opponent on Wednesday; practices have given him a good idea of what he can or can't try today. Now he's looking for an edge. He knows but one way to find it.
C'mon, Fuller, you gotta do this. Think about everything you studied during the week. Take advantage. Don't get brain-locked. Mix it up. Get it going. Get your intensity up.
``I talk constantly,'' he said. ``It's almost like I go into a different state. You hear runners talk about when they get to a point where they can go forever? When I get to a point, everything else is blocked out. It's just me, playing football.''
In Houston, Fuller looked in Childress' eyes prior to kickoff. There was a different look from the rest of the week and Fuller drew comfort and confidence from it.
He wondered whether he'd find someone to feed off in Philadelphia, someone heading for what he calls ``the next level.''
He smiles. Thus far, they've been everywhere.
``I draw strength from William Perry. Byron Evans. Eric Thomas,'' he says. ``You can see the transformation. There are a lot of similarities in how the good players prepare. They get me where I want to go.
``The best thing that happened to me, maybe a blessing in disguise, is I have had to prove to everybody that William Fuller is a hell of a player. It's fun going out, doing it, and hearing them talk about you.'' ILLUSTRATION: Philadelphia's William Fuller
Courtesy of NFL Photos
William Fuller, in his 11th season, has five sacks and a hatful of
big plays in four games as an Eagle. I have had to prove to
everybody that William Fuller is a hell of a player,'' he says.
THE FULLER FILE
[For a copy of the graphic, see microfilm for this date.]
KEYWORDS: PROFILE INTERVIEW by CNB