For QB Ham, Baltimore represents a fresh start


Tracy Ham was rejuvenated on the practice fields of Towson State this summer.

At the age of 30, after seven Canadian Football League seasons, he found he could rewind the clock with Baltimore's expansion team.

"Sometimes I feel like a rookie," he said yesterday, "and then I look around and see what a rookie really looks like. I'm just happy to be playing the game again. It's so refreshing to be playing with these guys."

Ham came to Baltimore to reclaim a career that hit the skids a year ago, when he fell from the CFL's most efficient passer to a spare-part quarterback on the league's worst team. It's a mystery he still can't fully comprehend.

He was the focal point of the biggest trade in CFL history on Jan. 28, 1993 -- an eight-for-eight swap between the Toronto Argonauts and the Edmonton Eskimos. Traded to Toronto, Ham's honeymoon was incredibly short. By the second week, he was yanked from the lineup, establishing a pattern that would last the whole season.

Tomorrow night, Ham revisits his personal chamber of horrors when Baltimore officially launches its CFL era against the Argonauts at SkyDome. Undaunted, he chuckled at the thought of opening in Toronto.

"This is the second straight year I opened against the team I played for the previous year," he said. "Any time you leave a team and go back, you always get booed. I was getting booed while I was there."

There are a lot of angles to the deal that made Ham an Argonaut. But the bottom line was that Mouse Davis, offensive coordinator in Toronto, attempted to make a run-and-shoot quarterback out of him. Even Bob O'Billovich, who replaced Dennis Meyer as head coach in midseason, could see that was a mistake when he arrived on the scene. Davis was fired in the mid-year purge and Meyer retained as an assistant.

"They misused him, as far as what he does best," O'Billovich said. "He's not a run-and-shoot type quarterback. He's not the type guy to beat you reading things, trying to be a pure passer.

"His athletic ability is what makes him effective as a quarterback. You have to use an offense that is moving him around, letting him be a runner as much as a passer. They weren't asking that of him. Combine that with the fact it was such a poor line, he didn't have the protection he needed."

In Edmonton, Ham had done everything except win the Grey Cup. Twice he led the league in passer efficiency. Once, in 1989, he was the league's Most Valuable Player, passing for 4,366 yards. He threw for at least 30 touchdowns in four straight seasons. And in 1990, he took the Eskimos to the Grey Cup, where they were blasted by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, 50-11.

Toronto was nothing more than a series of one-night stands, in and out of the lineup. In 13 games, he threw for 2,147 yards, eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He started and finished only two games all season -- the first and the last.

"I never felt I was given the opportunity to go out and play," he said. "I always felt like I had one hand tied behind my back."

John Congemi, Ham's backup in Baltimore and a predecessor in Toronto, said Ham did not get a fair shake.

"I think there was a lot of pressure," Congemi said. "They traded the whole shop to get Tracy, then put the burden on him by telling him to run an offense that wasn't right. It was like giving him the keys to a car that was not totally equipped."

Ham coped but didn't mope. He knew there would be another day. He was playing in the option year of his contract. When Toronto didn't make a move to re-sign him before the season, it set a dark tone.

"It was a humbling experience," he said. "I had come from being the top passer in the league to I can't play.

"I try not to have highs and lows. I didn't let it affect my life like a roller-coaster. I was able to do it because of what I believed in. I have faith in the Lord, not in football. That was the deciding factor in getting me over it."

He also had faith in Don Matthews, who had been a defensive coordinator at Edmonton when Ham had a monster year in 1989. When Matthews became coach of Baltimore's new team, Ham quickly became the team's marquee quarterback.

"Tracy is exactly what I had hoped for," Matthews said. "He's established himself as the leader. He can make plays out of our regular offense, or, when it breaks down, he can do it with his own ability. A team can have a great defensive structure, and have players in all the right places, and all of a sudden, Tracy can turn it into a big play."

Ham was the first CFL quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards (he's done it twice), but he runs as much to buy time for his receivers now as he does to pick up yardage. In last week's 45-43 preseason victory over Winnipeg, he threw two touchdown passes -- both on ad-lib runs.

Ham learned to be a team player at Georgia Southern, where he won I-AA national titles in 1985 and 1986. That he had to go to Canada to forge a career -- the Los Angeles Rams wanted to make him a running back in 1987 -- is not troublesome to him, either.

"It doesn't bother me because I got the opportunity to do what I enjoy doing," Ham said. "That's play quarterback."

NOTES: Matthews excused place-kicker Donald Igwebuike from yesterday's practice to get his U.S. passport, which he'll need for the trip to Canada. . . . Baltimore added wide receiver Darren Chandler of Georgia Southern to its practice roster.

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