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Wednesday, August 5, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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From Northwest Obscurity To The NFL -- Hawks' Oliphant Has Had To Make Folks Take Notice

KIRKLAND - In a league where credentials routinely include being a high-school hero and a major-college star, Mike Oliphant sneaked in the back door . . .

. . . and ended up right at home in the Seattle Seahawks' locker room.

Quite a difference for the running back whose employment history includes stints as a shipyard welder, gutter installer and shift boss at a fast-food restaurant.

Tomorrow night, his welcome-home party begins when Seattle plays host to the Los Angeles Rams in the exhibition opener for both teams. Oliphant will be dressed for the occasion in the dark blue Seahawk uniform he adored as a teenager.

Oliphant is a four-year pro who never played varsity football in high school. He had played some junior-varsity ball at Auburn High as a sophomore, then transferred to Federal Way High midway through his junior year.

As a senior, he was a scrawny, 40-pounder who went up to Coach Doug Adkins several days after fall practices started and asked if he could turn out.

"He said, `What position do you want to play?' " Oliphant recalled.

"I said, `Wide receiver;' and he said, `No.' "

Adkins, now an assistant coach at Humboldt State in California, was the head coach at Central Washington University when Oliphant was setting records at the University of Puget Sound.

"Whenever we beat them, I was happy," Oliphant said.

The future NFL back went to welding school and held an assortment of jobs after graduating from high school.

He was hanging gutters for $4.50 an hour, lifting weights and experiencing a growth spurt in 1984 when he decided to try out for the Auburn Panthers, a semi-pro team.

He worked out for Panther coaches in May, then had to wait a month for a letter to arrive telling him whether he had made the club. He says the wait was more nerve-wracking than anything in his four-year NFL career.

"I was on pins and needles," he said.

He received a letter that said "congratulations;" and almost immediately, his open-field electricity made him a star. UPS coaches saw him rip off two 70-yard runs in one game and offered him a scholarship. He accepted and went on to rewrite rushing and scoring records for the Loggers.

The NFL's Washington Redskins drafted Oliphant in the third round in 1988. He played in eight games, then was traded to Cleveland on draft day in 1989 for Earnest Byner.

Oliphant was in Cleveland for three frustrating seasons, spending all of 1990 and 12 games last season on injured-reserve status with hamstring injuries.

The Seahawks acquired him March 31 via Plan B. Other teams were interested; but when the Seahawks said they wanted him, Oliphant told his agent, "I want to go back home."

There is a role in the Seahawk offense for a back who can isolate on a linebacker or nickel back and catch a pass. Oliphant, 5 feet 9, 171 pounds, has been flashing good hands and the ability to get open.

The Seahawks also have been testing his running ability, and he has demonstrated toughness going up the middle.

"He's showing he can run the ball," said Clarence Shelmon, running-backs coach.

As one of the fastest Seahawks, Oliphant also can return kickoffs and punts. His best NFL statistic is a 16.3-yard average on his 12 career kickoff returns. He has carried the ball only 23 times for a total of 127 yards.

The Seahawks are likely to keep five backs. Rueben Mayes and John L. Williams are locks. Chris Warren is a safe bet. That leaves Oliphant competing with Tracy Johnson, James Jones, Leroy Holt, Muhammad Shamsid-Deen and Judd Garrett for the final two berths.

Considering his slow start in football, Oliphant, 29, admits he never dreamed as a teenager of playing in the NFL.

"Back then, I had no idea I'd make it to this level," he said.

He hasn't forgotten his football roots. He still has the tape of his first radio interview, when an Auburn broadcaster talked to him after he starred in a semi-pro game.

"I listen to it once in a while," he said. "It brings a big smile to my face."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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