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For Ravens, a rookie year of pain, gain Starks, Johnson overcome bumps as season ends road; 'A learning process'; 20-game pro schedule doubles the workload


Duane Starks has dealt with back pain, a hip injury and hamstring problems. He has faced weekly mountain climbs, trying to cover the likes of Tim Brown, James Jett, Randy Moss and Carl Pickens. And at this moment, the Ravens' prized rookie cornerback is losing his battle with a splitting headache.

With the end of his first NFL season at hand, Starks tried to put a happy face on a 5-10 record, his own, up-and-down performance and the pain of it all.

"It's a gift and a blessing to be in this situation," Starks said. "It means a lot to know you can compete at this level. I knew each week would be a learning process for me. I can't say I know everything. Mentally, I'm still strong and ready to play. But

physically, I feel the wear and tear of a long season."

Most players on every roster in the league are hurting right now. Five months of brutality will do that to you. But you're a rookie only once. For the first time, players like Starks and wide receiver Patrick Johnson have confronted a 20-game season (including preseason games), basically doubling the workload of previous years.

Fatigue and December go hand in hand, especially with rookies. Just look at Johnson, seated on a stool in front of his locker and staring at the floor. Part of Johnson is thinking about what he can do to help the Ravens win their final game, against the Detroit Lions. Another part of him just wants to skip one more week of meetings and practices and take a long nap.

"The best part about your rookie year is that it's over, and there's next year to get ready for," Johnson said. "It's been like a journey. Right now, I feel overloaded, but I'm still here. There's so much going on. My legs hurt. I've got pain throughout my whole body.

"But here it is, the 20th game, and I'm not folded up somewhere. My brain is not about to crack. This year has been a trip. It went by fast, but I took a wrong turn."

Johnson, a second-round draft pick out of Oregon, was referring to the rookie mistakes he made. After a training camp that alternated between strong and dazzling, he played more often than coach Ted Marchibroda usually uses rookies. But, by midseason, Johnson had dropped too many critical passes and had pretty much forfeited his chance to dazzle as a wide-out.

Johnson did salvage a highlight moment on Dec. 13, when he returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings. Mostly, though, Johnson will remember 1998 the year he played through hamstring injuries, struggled to adapt to the swift pace of the pro game, and finally figured out he could hold his own.

"I did a lot of good things this year," he said. "I played on every special team there was. I played [as a receiver] inside [in the slot] and outside. I learned a lot. I know I'm only going to get better."

Starks, the first-round pick who took over as a starting cornerback at midseason, expects the same of himself.

The former University of Miami star had his moments as a rookie, like the spectacular interception he made against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart in the season opener. In that same game, Starks ran down running back Richard Huntley from behind and punched the ball out of his hand and through the Ravens' end zone, forcing a touchback. And how about the crunching block Starks threw to spring Jermaine Lewis on a punt return for a momentum-turning touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 27?

But, as so many rookies have done, Starks faded in the late going. After taking over as a starter, he was burned for four touchdowns in a three-game span. The NFL clearly knocked some of the swagger out of him.

"He has been initiated," veteran cornerback Rod Woodson said of Starks. "[The Ravens] threw him in there, he learned over the course of time, and he was very poised. He's a good competitor and he won't give up. He has all the necessary tools to be a good corner. He'll keep progressing."

"The frustrating part of this season was not making enough big plays, not being able to help the team enough," Starks said. "You've got to fight every week not to get down on yourself. If you have a bad game, you have to bounce back."

Other rookies, like defensive linemen Lional Dalton and Chartric Darby, would love to know what Starks feels like. Unlike the team's two top draft picks, Dalton and Darby have been far less visible.

They each made the team as undrafted free agents. Dalton was a star at Eastern Michigan, Darby was a two-time, first-team All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference player at South Carolina State. In Baltimore, they're just guys.

Dalton, who has spent the year on the 53-man roster but finally got his first taste of game action in last week's loss in Chicago, has collected the league rookie minimum salary of $158,000. Darby has toiled on the practice roster all year for $68,000. That's a world away from Starks' territory -- he pocketed a $3.1 million signing bonus -- but it's still not bad for the first year out of college.

"I came here with $40 in my pocket," said Dalton, who sent his first game check home to his mother in Detroit, where he said a copy is still framed. "When I saw that first check, I went crazy.

"The hardest part of this year was getting ready to play every week, then having [the Ravens] tell me I was [inactive] for the game. That's depressing. When I come back next year, I know I have to work twice as hard."

Darby, who envisions himself in the team's defensive line rotation one day, remembers one rookie initiation phase well. About a month into the season, all the team's rookie defensive linemen (including Martin Chase, Larry Fitzpatrick and Kareem RTC Robinson) had to take the veterans out to eat at a posh, downtown steakhouse. The bill was huge.

"I just want to get established. The big money will come later," said Darby, who has fetched his share of breakfast items for the likes of James Jones and Tony Siragusa this year.

"This has been very different from college. Everything moves much faster. I broke a couple of records in college, but those records don't mean much around here."

Next for Ravens

Opponent: Detroit Lions

Site: Ravens stadium

When: Tomorrow, 1: 01 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 45/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)

Tickets: Sold out

Line: Ravens by 1 1/2

Pub Date: 12/26/98

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