Stouffer hopes to right wrongs of '90 season


KIRKLAND, Wash. -- They stand in their red jerseys, shoulder to shoulder on the practice field. Tall, strong, good-looking athletes. Dan McGwire, No. 10. Kelly Stouffer, No. 11.

McGwire is the newest chosen one, the first quarterback the Seattle Seahawks ever drafted in the first round. Stouffer is his predecessor, the original young quarterback brought in to succeed incumbent Dave Krieg.

Late in April, the Seahawks sent a Dear John message to Stouffer. They drafted McGwire. The message seemed simple. Stouffer had failed. He wasn't what they expected. He couldn't cut it in the NFL.

Drafting McGwire seemed to be a public confession that Stouffer had failed, a statement that this quarterback of their future was becoming part of their past.

Now, three months later, it looks as if the Seahawks might have done Stouffer a favor by drafting McGwire. Stouffer has accepted the challenge. He had an eye-opening mini-camp. He has been the star of early training camp.

Maybe Stouffer's future isn't in Seattle, but he is throwing and acting as if he still has a long future in the NFL.

"I thought this camp would be tough," Stouffer said. "It would be a big challenge for me, but also it just seems like the right time for me. It's a process of maturity, you just have to come through. For one reason or another, the timing hasn't been right for me yet."

Stouffer, 27, thought last summer would be his time. Instead, everything went wrong. He lost 14 pounds in the first two days of training camp. He lost his strength. The simplest pass routes in practice were too much for him.

"I made a mistake," he said. "I thought it would be a good idea to come into camp about 10 pounds lighter. But I lost my appetite. I became dehydrated. I don't know what my thinking was. I have a hard time analyzing that. I guess I was trying to be somebody I wasn't."

He threw three interceptions in the first exhibition game in Tokyo against Denver. He started the second exhibition in Phoenix, but a freak, ferocious rainstorm ruined his audition. Slowly, his confidence leaked like air out of a balloon.

It was a testing, frustrating season. Stouffer dressed for only one game. He didn't take a regular-season snap. He had considered himself a rock-strong competitor. Last year, he began questioning his heart.

"I came to camp feeling like I was very prepared to challenge for the starting job," he said. "Then I lost a bunch of weight. Then they gave Dave a lot of work to get caught up, and it seemed like my window of opportunity went by.

"When things didn't unfold exactly as I had planned last year in training camp, I immediately began to question why they weren't giving me more work. That starts to cut into your confidence. You can't play without confidence.

"What I felt uncomfortable with in the past is the fact that I was in the midst of a big challenge and competition, and I wasn't able to put my best effort forward. I don't fear competition, but last year I did fear it because, for one reason or another, I wasn't able to put what I really had out on the table to compare with the other quarterbacks.

"Last year, it didn't unfold the way I envisioned it. You immediately start thinking, 'Do I have what it takes?' I've learned a lot from that. Now, I really believe I have what it takes."

Last year, his professional agony was very public. He was there every Sunday on the sidelines in sweats, carrying a clipboard in full view of all the fans. In interviews, he was honest about his disappointments.

"I was miserable last year," Stouffer said. "I know what I'm capable of, and to be so geared up to think that this would be the year everything would unfold and then for it not to happen was tough.

"Now I look at last year as a testing period. I'm realizing that the main thing I'm about and the thing I keep confessing I'm about is that I rely on my faith in Christ to get me through every situation. I think, for me, it's the maturity to know that your faith is something you rely on and act on and not just something you talk about.

"Now things seem to be falling into place. I think I'm dealing with things better. I'm a year more mature and able to stay focused on what I have to do, not what is going on around me."

Still, Stouffer's best chance is outside of Seattle. Krieg will be the opening-day quarterback. McGwire will be the understudy. Jeff Kemp, whose pay is about $450,000 a year less than Stouffer's, will be the ultimate insurance policy and holder on place kicks.

Stouffer is Seattle's most alluring trade bait. Wouldn't the New England Patriots love him?

"It's almost like I'm a bicycle that's been completely torn down," he said. "When it's torn down, it looks really bad, but slowly, as it begins to be put back together, you can see where it's headed. That's what's happened to me. Slowly, my confidence has been built up.

"I truly feel that I'm not here competing for a roster spot. I'm competing to start. I feel prepared to do that. That's what I'm going to throw out there and let them make a real hard decision. We'll see in a month what they've decided."

Stouffer's maturity guarantees it will be a most interesting month.

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