Friday, January 21, 2000

Bucs QB unfazed by rise to stardom


King so 'real' he's moved back with his parents

BY RICHARD WEINER
USA Today

        TAMPA, Fla. — They come in droves now, on skateboards and bicycles, or by foot. Sometimes, it's as often as twice a day.

        Shaun King can hear them, too, up to 12 children at a time, edging toward his parents' home in “The Fishbowl” section of West Tampa.

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        Because the doorbell is not visible in a cement wall, they fumble around until finally getting the nerve to knock.

        “You can hear them outside,” King said, imitating their voices. “"For real? He lives here? This isn't his house. This is his parents' house.' Then I'll walk outside and everybody is like, "Ahhhhhhh!'”

        The children are stunned at what they have confirmed: That the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new savior, who is one win from becoming the first rookie quarterback to start in a Super Bowl, really is back living in one of the two area homes in which he was reared. He's waiting for a house to be built in a more upscale section of Tampa.

        “I guess they tell their friends at school they live by Shaun King, and nobody believes them,” he said.

        Precious as the story is, it stands out for another reason: Fame seemingly is the only difference in King's life since taking control of the Bucs' throwback offense after Trent Dilfer suffered a broken right collarbone Nov.28 at Seattle.

        King may have gone 5-1 as a starter to lead Tampa Bay into its first NFC title game since 1979, at St.Louis on Sunday. Yet he still gets a new nickname from his teammates virtually every week. They call him “Marshmallow” or “Doughboy” because of his 6-foot, 225-pound frame. Or “Bling-Bling” because of his taste for jewelry.

        “After that pass he called on Saturday (for the game winner against Washington in the playoffs), I'm calling him "Houdini,'” guard Frank Middleton said.

        King still regularly makes plays in practice against one of the NFL's best defenses. Coaches say he rarely repeats mistakes; players notice the ability to shake off any error.

        “He's far from a rookie,” All-Pro fullback Mike Alstott said. “You can see he's in control.”

        Perhaps most remarkable is that King has yet to get nervous. Not even last weekend, when he became the first rookie quarterback to start a playoff game since 1991. Or the first to win one since Pat Haden of the Los Angeles Rams in 1976. Since the 1970 merger, Haden is the only other rookie quarterback to start a conference championship game.

        “When I go out and play, I'm having fun,” King said.

        He is equally religious as he is fun loving, and mature beyond his 22 years. That grounded nature made him the first quarterback Tony Dungy has drafted in four years as Tampa Bay's coach.

        “I have not noticed him different in any setting, from the Senior Bowl, to training camp, to coming into his first game at Seattle, to making his first start on Monday Night Football, to starting in the playoffs,” he said. “It's that same approach that makes him special.”

        Buccaneers coaches first saw how players naturally wanted to be around King while coaching last year's Senior Bowl.

        Mainly because of his size — as a youth, he used to hang from tree branches and chin-up bars, hoping to stretch his body so he could play in the NFL — he was not recruited by Florida's collegiate powers. This despite setting all kinds of records at St.Petersburg's Gibbs High School. He wound up leading Tulane to its first undefeated season as a senior, setting an NCAA record with a 183.3 passer rating.

        “Players like myself, it was almost too much, like a nonchalant,” All-Pro safety John Lynch said of King's arrival with the Bucs. “At first we were saying, "Who does this guy think he is?' But that's the way he is. And in this league, the biggest thing is that you are real. And that is Shaun King. He is unfazed by pressure. And not so much as a vocal leader, but by his presence, he's become a leader on this team.”

        It was during a preseason game — also against Washington — that King won over his teammates. The Bucs were trying to finish the schedule undefeated, and twice he had to direct a game-winning score because of a reversed call.

        “We all went to the sideline (from the bench) just to watch him,” All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp remembers. “Everybody was jumping around when they said (the first) wasn't a touchdown. But he got everybody gathered around, calmed them down and said, "We're going to do it again.' And he punched it right back in there.

        “I looked at (end) Steve White and said, "That boy is something special.'”

        King was inactive for the first seven games, actually sharing a locker with rookie kicker Martin Gramatica at the start of the season. He ran the scout team against the Bucs' third-ranked defense until backup quarterback Eric Zeier suffered a rib injury. He was promoted to the second team Nov.11.

        Dilfer, a scapegoat for the Bucs' plodding offense even though he made the Pro Bowl two years ago, was lost for the season in the third quarter at Seattle. King rallied his team for a 16-3 win and has played so well that Dungy, asked this week if he would be the starter next season, said, “You'd have to assume so.”

       



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