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New attitude helps Culver get second look


The scene looks familiar to his coaches and teammates. Wide receiver Shannon Culver, 165 rangy pounds of mostly arms and legs, breaks from the line of scrimmage with a burst of speed, gets open and snares a pass. His athletic ability is obvious, his hands and concentration impressive.

And yet, Culver presents a different picture in his second time around with the Baltimore Football Club.

Gone is the Culver who complained in last year's camp if the ball didn't come his way enough. Gone is the guy whose pass routes left much to be desired. Gone is the guy who ended a promising rookie season last summer by walking off the practice field in a dispute over his role with coach Don Matthews, who suspended and ultimately cut Culver.

After reaching a truce with Matthews five months ago and re-signing with Baltimore, Culver, 25, is back again as a rookie in an unusual position. He was good enough to make the team last year, good enough to return a missed field goal 91 yards in the season opener against the Toronto Argonauts and unwise enough to ruin the rest of his season.

"I'm glad they wanted me to come back and be a part of a winning team. I'm more mature now," said Culver, 5 feet 10, who aptly is nicknamed "Skinny."

"I had a whole off-season to think about it. Coach Matthews is straight-up with you. He likes hard workers who perform on the field. He made me understand that football is not fun and games anymore. It's a career that could come and go just like that. He put me in my place, and I'm glad he did. He made me mature as a man."

Matthews said the team kept in touch with Culver's agent during the off-season, knowing he was interested in returning. When Culver dropped by Memorial Stadium in January to congratulate the coaching staff on reaching the Grey Cup, Matthews made him an offer.

"I asked him if he wanted to give it another shot. I told him he had a clean slate, that he could start all over," Matthews said. "The skill is the same [this year]. But he's taking it way more seriously. He's trying to learn not only what to do, but why. That's the maturing process."

Culver said he did plenty of growing up in the off-season. He went home to Los Angeles to be with his family, including his girlfriend and his baby daughter. He stayed in shape while mulling over his hasty decision to leave the team, which was sparked when Matthews told Culver he would have to compete for a backup receiving job. Culver said he was ready to be a starter.

He since has split up with his girlfriend, leaving his parents to help raise his daughter on the West Coast. Back East, Culver, just two years removed from Oklahoma State (he recorded 64 catches for 975 yards and five touchdowns in two seasons there), is determined to win a job and keep it.

Two weeks into camp, Culver is making a fine second impression. His speed and leaping ability are there. He routinely has made excellent catches, such as the one he made last week while stretched out parallel to the ground after running a crisp post pattern. But it's Culver's approach that has grabbed the attention of receivers coach Don Hill.

"He's a totally different person," Hill said. "I think being out on the street and realizing not everybody gets the opportunity to play this game helped him. Last year, he was just a big ball of speed who didn't run good routes. This year, he's one of the best route runners on the team, and he runs hard every time. He realizes it's a team effort."

The team has welcomed Culver back, although it's been gradual.

"He's building up that teammate relationship again, and it's tough," said quarterback Tracy Ham, whom Culver sought out soon after Ham arrived in camp. "He has an uphill battle. He knows it, and everybody around here knows it.

"He's better mentally. We don't hear him [complain] this year. It's still a feeling-out process. I know he can play. But as a professional, there's more to it than just playing. It's a demanding sport. It tests your mental capacity. Last year, we played 23 games together. And we want someone we can depend on for 23 games, because we intend to play 23 games again. We want to know if Skinny can handle it."

Culver said he hears Ham, loud and clear.

"He [Ham] felt like I quit on him, which I did. I just want to prove to him that it's not going to be like that," Culver said. "I want to help us win. I want to produce every day, make big plays, make my name very known and bring a Grey Cup to Baltimore. And I want people to say Skinny was one of the key people we needed."

NOTES: Baltimore reduced its roster to 59 players, 57 of whom are practicing, by cutting four rookies and signing one more yesterday. Defensive backs Dee Grayer and Kareem Bacon, defensive end Travis Jones and wide receiver Jason Davis were released. The team signed 6-1, 185-pound cornerback Melvin Crawford, just out of Hampton (Va.) University, a Division II power where Crawford broke up 26 passes last season. He is the school's all-time interception leader with 20. . . . Baltimore's roster, which includes injured linebacker Ken Benson (ankle) and guard Keith Ballard (knee), must be cut to 55 by Monday. . . . Matthews said rookie quarterback and former Towson State star Dan Crowley will start Saturday night's exhibition opener against Ottawa. "It's not because he's a local favorite. He's done very well and he's earned the chance. Plus, he's from Towson State," Matthews said. Crowley is competing with Shawn Jones and Len Williams for one of the two backup jobs behind Ham.

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