Sam Shade has had his moment in the sun now. He has been exposed to the heat, and emerged without burns. He has covered the run, and not run for cover against the pass.
If he never attains anything else in pro football, the Cincinnati Bengals second-string safety will always have this: When he absolutely, positively had to produce, he did.
The Bengals' 21-14 victory over Baltimore Sunday was not settled until the Ravens' last offensive play of the afternoon. Shade stopped fullback Carwell Gardner one yard from the goal line on a fourth-down pass to preserve a victory and (probably) secure Bruce Coslet's job.
Excluding special teams, it was only Shade's third solo tackle of the season. He gets in on goal-line defense, or when the other team is using two tight ends. His playing time falls somewhere between seldom and sporadic. Sunday's stop was a shining moment mighty long in the making.
''It means a lot,'' Shade said. ''It's been a tough season for me. I came in with high expectations and I haven't made the plays that I wanted to make. But I just keep working and trying hard, try to contribute and, you know, be accountable. I felt like on that last play, I was accountable.''
From a technical standpoint, there was nothing special about Shade's tackle. Gardner had to turn his body to catch Vinny Testaverde's pass, and Shade struck the Ravens fullback before he could redeploy his 240 pounds in the direction of the end zone.
''If I couldn't make that play,'' Shade said, ''then I shouldn't be here.''
Maybe so, but if Shade hadn't made that play, Sunday's game probably ends up in overtime. Ordinary efforts are often elevated by their time and place. When that place is the one-yard line and the game clock shows 30 seconds remaining, a routine hit can be regarded as heroism.
So it was that a heretofore obscure safety changed into his street clothes Sunday afternoon surrounded by cameras and recurring questions. In his locker lay a telephone message from a national radio program. Dave Lapham stopped by to solicit him for an appearance on Bengals Line. When the post-game crowd finally dwindled, Bengals cornerback Corey Sawyer inquired about an autograph.
''I'm hanging with Sam tonight,'' Sawyer announced. ''He's going to have all the women around him.''
Sam Shade has known celebrity before. He played on Alabama's national championship team in 1992, and set the tone for the Tide's Sugar Bowl triumph with an early interception of Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta.
Shade's place with the Bengals, however, has been precarious. He was selected in the fourth round of the 1995 draft, and reached the last preseason game that fall in urgent need of being noticed. Shade made six tackles that night to earn a backup spot over the more seasoned Fernandus Vinson. Until Sunday, this was his biggest breakthrough as a Bengal.
''When he does play, we like what he does,'' said Bengals defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello. ''I think we've got to get him in the game more. It's about time we see what he can do.''
Slowed by injuries
Shade thinks his progress has been delayed because of his troubles with tendinitis early in the season. He says he is now healed, but his place on the depth chart is unchanged. Shade has been stuck behind strong safety Bracey Walker for nearly two seasons.
''Whenever you're trying to take somebody out of a job, (injuries) are devastating,'' Peccatiello said. ''It's not so much that it sets you back time-wise, but it sets you back in trying to win the job. It's like the heavyweight championship - you've got to knock out the champ to win.''
Sam Shade is not going to take Walker's title on the basis of a single stop. Still, Sunday had its solace.
''It was time for me to step up and make a play and I made it,'' he said. ''It was a pretty easy play to make, but I haven't had many in this uniform. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to do better.''