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Wednesday, August 28, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Catch 42 -- Chris Warren's Modest Approach, Essential To His Success, Prevents Him From Finding Fame.

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

KIRKLAND - To find out what makes Chris Warren run, maybe you have to go back to when he didn't.

During Warren's first two years in the NFL, then Seahawk Coach Chuck Knox looked at the 6-foot-2, 226-pound kid who could run 40 yards in 4.38 seconds - a halfback in a fullback's body, Marty Schottenheimer would say six years and three Pro Bowls later - and decided he wasn't quite ready to carry the ball. He was limited to punt and kickoff returns.

Warren sat on the Seahawk bench, assumed that death stare he later refined to intimidating steeliness, and used the time to stoke the fire within.

Oh, the flame was already there, low and steady and white-hot. Maybe it was lit back in grade school, when he dominated his Little League baseball team and saw an undeserving kid take home the MVP award.

Maybe it happened in high school in Virginia, when people called him lazy because he was so superior to his competition he made it all look far too easy ("a man among boys," said San Diego Charger General Manager Bobby Beathard, whose sons played for a rival school).

Maybe it burned a little hotter after his junior year at the University of Virginia, when college stardom beckoned until he received Ds in biology and Greek mythology and became ineligible. He transferred under duress to Ferrum College, a tiny Division III school, and disappeared from the public eye.

That is a recurring theme with Warren, who is still trying to reconcile his essential reticence with his desire for proper respect. In those first two seasons as a pro, a fourth-round draft pick whose need to build respect was unfulfilled, he sat and simmered.

"I guess it's something inside of me," he said. "I have a grudge, or a chip on my shoulder. That's part of it with me. I play with a chip on my shoulder. Nobody knows that. I shouldn't be saying that."

Warren, one learns quickly, doesn't like to reveal much of himself. It is an innate part of his personality, and it has led to problems because his fame and prowess have caused people - reporters and fans, mainly - to ask many hard personal questions.

And it has led to a paradox: At the same time Warren shrinks within himself, at the same time he works studiously to avoid or at least elude the media, he wonders why he doesn't have the same public profile as Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders, the running backs with whom he has attained, in many experts' eyes, equality.

He doesn't complain, because maybe it is not such a bad thing to walk down the street or sit in a restaurant without being hounded, as friend and teammate Cortez Kennedy is. But he wonders.

"He would very much like to be recognized for his on-field accomplishments, but he doesn't have a tremendous desire to be a personality," said Rick Schaeffer, his agent. "Unfortunately, at this time in our society, they seem to go hand in hand. You have to spend as much time promoting yourself and developing a persona as honing your athletic skills to be well known.

"Chris' only gripe is that until recently, his extraordinary on-field performance was not recognized. I don't think, even with the opportunity, he would want to spend a lot of time shooting commercials, dealing with the media, in order to have Chris Warren be the first name off everyone's lips when you say, `Name a football player.' "

Respected throughout league

If one asks NFL people to name a football player who is a running back, Warren's name is liable to be, if not the first, then certainly the second or third name off their lips.

For four consecutive years (coinciding with the departure of Knox in 1992), Warren has exceeded 1,000 yards, and he has done it under difficult circumstances.

During his career, he has had three head coaches, two offensive coordinators, two running-back coaches, countless offensive-line configurations - and one winning season. Yet he piles up yards and honors at such a rapid pace that it is not hyperbole to say the Hall of Fame could be in his future.

"He's in the elite," Seahawk Coach Dennis Erickson said. "He's in the same class as Emmitt and Barry Sanders, in my opinion. I think he's special. There aren't many who have ever played in this league who are that big and that can do the things he does.

"He's not as flashy as those other guys are, and that's probably one of the reasons he doesn't get the publicity he probably deserves. Plus, it's like I tell all those guys: You want to get the publicity of Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman - win. Win a Super Bowl. That's how all that gets started."

Added Clarence Shelmon, who coaches Seahawk running backs: "Obviously, I'm biased, but I think you've got Emmitt and you've got Barry and you've got Chris. I think Thurman Thomas is on the downside of his career. Rickey Watters is a good player, but he hasn't done what Chris has done."

Lest this seem like a parochial lovefest, here's a sample of opinion from those with no local ties to Warren.

"He's one of the scariest we play against," Beathard said. "He's a combination of big back who has speed, elusiveness and is a game-breaker. He's a real force."

Gunther Cunningham, defensive coordinator for Kansas City, has spent countless hours designing defenses to stop Warren.

"He's a hell of a player," Cunningham said. "They've got good wide receivers, but he's the focal point. . . . When you go into a game against Barry, Emmitt and Chris, you have tremendous respect. If you stop them, you feel you've really accomplished something."

Said 49er Coach George Seifert, who gets a tiny taste of Warren each August during the exhibition season: "He's one of the best out there, but for whatever reasons, there's not quite as much notoriety - until you play the game. But within the league, absolutely, he demands attention."

Model of modesty

Always, he remembers the words of his father, Chris Warren Sr., who divorced Chris' mother when Chris was a young child.

"Just let your performance speak for you. There's no need to boast or brag about what you do. Everyone will recognize you, anyway. There's no need to bring attention to yourself. That's when people start designing ways to stop you."

Warren has lived his life, and his career, by those words. He believes that fame can be dangerous, because it merely raises expectations to an unreasonable level and sets one up for a fall.

"The only way you can go when you're up is down," he said. "I just like to keep everything on an even keel. When I'm done with football and into my business ventures or playing golf every day, or whatever, there won't be much of a dropoff. It won't be like I'm in the limelight now, and all of a sudden it's taken away. I just try to prepare myself for the future."

Warren, of course, has done his part to minimize his exposure. He is a reluctant interview subject, though once pinned down (which can take several attempts and some tense verbal parries), he is articulate, humorous and even charming.

Teammate Mack Strong calls him "the comedian of the team," and Kennedy calls him "a great person, an outgoing person. If you get to know him, you appreciate having a friend like him."

Said Warren's high-school coach, Nick Hilgert: "I couldn't coach a finer young man than Chris Warren. My son was on the team, and I still say I couldn't coach a finer young man than Chris Warren."

Warren has come to loathe the fact that he is best known for not being known. Schaeffer likened it to a story about former Oakland A's third baseman Sal Bando, who in his heyday was frequently called the most underrated player in the game. Finally, teammate Reggie Jackson harrumphed, "I think Sal is the most overrated underrated player in baseball." With Warren, Schaeffer calls it "a universal recognition of his lack of recognition."

Said Warren, "To me, it's a dead issue, being unheard of or being unknown. I'm not all over the television every three commercials during a basketball game, like you see Michael Jordan. If it's not like that, people say you're unheard of. Well, the only thing I worry about is my peers, my coaching staff. Of course, my family thinks I'm one of the greatest. But I can't listen to them. I would have been retired by now."

Kennedy, who came into the league with Warren in 1990 and made his name years earlier, believes his friend's disdain of fame is partly a facade, or perhaps simply a lack of awareness of how great it can be to be adored.

"Chris is a low-key guy, just like myself," Kennedy said. "He just wants to do his job and go about his business. If he was in a media market, everyone would know him around the country. But if we ever get that chance, he'll love it. He says he wouldn't, but I know he will."

Upon hearing that sentiment, Warren chuckled softly.

"I guess it's whatever is dealt to me at the time," he said. "If it's there, that's fine. But if not, I'm not going to go looking for it."

`Defining moment'

Warren did make headlines, the banner, ugly kind, in December 1994. The events of that rainy day, and the aftermath, provided "in many ways, a defining moment for Chris," according to Schaeffer.

Warren and teammates Lamar Smith and Mike Frier were heading home from a billiards hall and tavern when Smith's car swerved and hit a utility pole. Smith suffered a chip fracture in his back and a sprained ankle. Warren suffered two fractured ribs. Frier suffered a paralyzing neck injury and remains a paraplegic.

In the confusing wake of the horrible accident, Warren was identified as the driver and arrested on investigation of vehicular assault. Although Smith, through his agent, later admitted he was the driver and eventually was charged with vehicular assault (his trial in February wound up with a hung jury, setting up a possible retrial next year), the media and police handling of the event still rankles Warren. It took nearly two months before Kirkland police concluded their investigation and determined Smith was the driver.

In Warren's mind, the police dragged their feet, and media coverage was sensationalistic. There seems no doubt it has caused him to close up even more.

"It was something that never should have been that way," he said. "A lot of things came out that were premature."

There are many who believe Warren's single finest moment as a pro came less than 72 hours after the accident, when he put on a flak jacket to protect his ribs and rushed 23 times for 81 yards against the Colts.

"To have suffered the physical trauma of being in an accident, and the psychological trauma of seeing a friend and teammate paralyzed, only to have heaped upon you a truly malicious untruth, was really a very compelling and unfortunate experience for him," Schaeffer said.

"I think the effect of seeing Mike Frier paralyzed is something that will remain a scar and bother him and hurt him as long as Mike Frier is not fully recovered. I think it showed him it doesn't matter how much money you make or what job you have, those types of horrible situations can come into anyone's life. I think Chris suffered for that for a long time."

The incident, Warren said, helped him separate his true friends from "the people who are just there. It's something that made me think about who are the people that are important to me, and the people who really care about you. It's something that made me thankful for the family and friends you do have. . . . It harmed me at the time, but I'm still living. I'm thankful for that."

Rare status

As he enters his seventh season, which begins Sunday in San Diego, Warren, 28, has reached the level of respect at which defenders will sometimes let up on their hits or decline to take an open shot at his knees. It's a courtesy bestowed only upon the great ones, an unspoken acknowledgment of their status. Still, Warren is wary, always wary.

"It works both ways," he said. "When it gets to crunch time, they want to take you out of the game, so they don't have to deal with you. It's a double-edged sword."

Warren let out a laugh.

"I just have to protect myself at all times, anyway, so I don't worry too much about it."

---------------- CHRIS WARREN BIO ----------------

Position: Running back.

NFL experience: Seventh season.

How acquired: NFL Draft (fourth round, 1990).

Ht./Wt.: 6-2, 226.

Age: 28. College: Ferrum.

Seahawk career: Has strung together four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, one of only 14 players in NFL history to do so. Has been to the Pro Bowl three times. Had a franchise-record 1,545 yards rushing in 1994.

NFL rushing stats:

Year Team Yds. Avg. TD

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1990 Seattle 11 1.8 1

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1991 Seattle 13 1.2 0

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1992 Seattle 1,017 4.6 3

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1993 Seattle 1,072 3.9 7

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1994 Seattle 1,545 4.6 9

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1995 Seattle 1,346 4.3 15

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Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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