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Vets look to Grey Cup return

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Now, the real camp begins.

For five days, the practice fields at Towson State had been teeming with rookies trying to get noticed, looking to earn a limited number of available jobs with the Baltimore Football Club. Yesterday, the team's veterans reported to camp to begin preparations for what they envision as a return to the Canadian Football League's Grey Cup game.

Returning fullback Peter Tuipulotu, looking fit at 5 feet 11, 215 pounds, has plenty of football to look forward to, although he still thinks about the way Baltimore's memorable inaugural season ended in November -- with a 26-23 loss in the Grey Cup to the B.C. Lions on a field goal with no time left.

"It left a bad taste in our mouths," Tuipulotu said. "This off-season was so long. I'm itching to get back out on the field."

Baltimore opens the 1995 regular season in four weeks in Vancouver, where it gets an early shot at revenge against the Lions. Over the next three weeks, a list of 80 players now in camp will be pared down to a final, 37-man roster. Of the 32 veterans who reported yesterday, 30 played in the Grey Cup last year.

And the veterans are taking nothing for granted in terms of job security, which assistant general manager Jim Popp said is the right attitude, judging by the improved quality of rookies in this year's camp.

"There are players [rookies] we're looking at who are better than some of the players we carried last year," Popp said.

"The name of the game is competition [for jobs]," said quarterback Tracy Ham, the team's marquee player who has four players fighting for two backup jobs behind him. "Being a veteran, I know it [the season] is a long haul, but the habits you build now are what carry you to the Grey Cup. It's important that we talk about winning a championship now. It's going to be disappointing if we don't get to the championship and win it."

Jearld Baylis sure looks ready. Baylis, a nine-year CFL veteran who anchored Baltimore's defense at nose guard last year, had surgery on his left knee in December to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Fresh off five months of daily workouts, the 6-0 Baylis reported to camp in excellent health at 260 pounds, 20 lighter than his playing weight last year.

Baylis said he senses the high expectations surrounding the team in only its second year of operation.

"The fans are feeling that way, and we feel that way, too," Baylis said. "We think we can go back [to the Grey Cup] and win it, and not leave any doubts."

Coach Don Matthews has been upbeat throughout a rookie camp that has produced such solid prospects as slotback William Pollard, offensive lineman Mike Withycombe, wide receiver Shannon Culver, rush end Grant Carter and linebacker Jason Bryant. Yesterday, Matthews was glowing at the sight of his veterans as they went through two crisp, two-hour workouts.

"Compared to last year, it's like night and day," Matthews said. "We had days last year where we had trouble running a play and getting in and out of a huddle. Now, the veterans can come back and pick up right where they left off. Now, it feels like football is starting again, getting all the guys back who we went to war with last year."

Offensive tackle Shar Pourdanesh, an All-CFL player who trimmed 15 pounds during the off-season and is at 280, spent several days watching the rookies practice before officially reporting yesterday.

"I've always dreaded it. But for the first time, I'm looking forward to training camp," Pourdanesh said. "We're going to be a heck of a team."

The news wasn't all good for the veterans. Offensive guard Keith Ballard, who started 14 games last year, then had surgery done to repair a broken leg and remove loose cartilage from his right knee, failed his physical after coming to camp 30 pounds over his playing weight of 300.

"I'm going to suspend him [Ballard]. His one leg has a 40 percent [strength] deficiency," Matthews said. "I don't think he'll see any of training camp, and he may miss some games early in the season. He's already started an eating program."

NOTES: Baylis and Pourdanesh aren't the only veterans who have slimmed down. Defensive tackle Robert Presbury dropped 20 pounds and reported at 265, and 6-7 right offensive tackle Neal Fort, who played at 390 last year, came to camp weighing 350 pounds. . . . Several players have bulked up noticeably since last season. All-East Division center Nick Subis came in at 280, up 35 pounds from last year. Rush end Grant Carter added 20 pounds of upper-body muscle to his 6-2 frame and now weighs 230. . . . Halfback James Bullock is trying to become a Baltimore player for the first time, but he's no rookie, as Bullock reminded veteran wide receiver Joe Washington in yesterday's workout. The two got into a brief shoving match in one-on-one drills after Washington made a catch, and Bullock told Washington, "I ain't no rookie. You don't have to push me." Bullock and quarterback Len Williams, who were selected by Baltimore in April's Las Vegas dispersal draft, reported early with the rookies. . . . Veteran linebacker Tracey Gravely and rookie linebacker Maurice Gravely, just out of Wake Forest, are distant cousins who met for the first time this week.

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