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Go ahead, Shaun; gloat a little

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 21, 2000


TAMPA -- The most popular person in Tampa Bay, again, walked across the field of the NFL's hottest team, again.

Man of restraint that he is, Shaun King managed not to swagger.

He could have swaggered, you know. Splendor has returned to the world of King -- not to mention success -- and he could have spent much of Wednesday telling us how he had told us. He could have lectured, and he could have scolded, and he could have laughed next, if not last. He could have played the part of the long-suffering, wrongly criticized athlete.

[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Shaun King may not have to spend any more time convincing his coaches to turn him loose.

Isn't this what success grants an athlete? The chance to thumb his nose at his doubters? The chance to seem miscast, misused, misunderstood?

King? He leans back against a wall at One Buc Place. He tugs at the brim of the floppy hat on his head. And, two notches above a whisper, he says this:

"It felt good. I think it answered a lot of questions that people had."

So there.

The truth of the matter is this. The King who came off the practice field Wednesday morning pretty much seemed like the kid who has come off it the past two seasons. He shrugged a lot. He tossed around a couple of cliches. His voice never rose.

Why, then, does it suddenly seem as if King has something to say? Why, then, does the phrase "Just let me play" seem like the wisest thing ever spoken?

Oh, it might have something to do with Monday night, when Tampa Bay watched King mature by the minute. In four quarters he went from suspect to prospect to player to star. It might have had something to do with the way he competed against the Rams, almost inventing ways to move the ball downfield as he went.

Suddenly, it is possible to believe in King once more. In his future. In his present. He was dazzling. He stepped around London Fletcher and threw a touchdown pass. He took a lateral and ran 29 yards for a first down. He found Jacquez Green for 30 yards on third and 20. He led his team from behind three times, including on an 80-yard drive with no timeouts left. He turned the league's 30th-ranked offense into something to behold.

"I'll show you a lot of those games before I'm done," King said, grinning.

It was the kind of performance that restores faith and renews hope. It makes you wonder how many of these games King has in him. It makes you hope the Bucs' coaches wonder, too.

Yeah, yeah. It was against the Rams defense, a collection of revolving doors that makes every opponent look like Johnny Unitas. But this was the Bucs offense, which had turned every opposing defense into the Bucs defense. This was King, who had been criticized as appearing skittish and indecisive over the past month.

"It felt good," King said. "We won. It felt the same as any other game."

Oh, come on.

"I don't know why you can't comprehend that I'm not a selfish, worried-about-my-stats kind of guy," King said. "In the end, the team that wins gets all of the accolades."

No one has accused King of being selfish. However, it was King who was caught by cameras in the face of quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen in the team's previous game, against Miami, demanding the Bucs "just let me play." Given that, given the opportunity and the response, isn't there an extra bit of sweetness to the Rams game?

"Yeah," King finally said. "It felt good."

Though it bothers King a little -- and it bothers his mother a lot -- that his sideline outburst was caught on film, it isn't as rare a story as you might imagine. It gets heated on the sideline. King says such a scene will happen "five or six times a year." Christensen says it happens, with some players, almost every game.

"If you thought this was a big deal," Christensen said, "you're missing about 15 bigger stories where it really got hot. I wouldn't want to coach a player who doesn't have that fire."

What it does, however, is give us a glimpse of King's competitiveness, and of his frustration. Hey, if you thought it was about time King played like this, how do you think he felt?

Of course King was frustrated. It's tough enough to have the fans question you, but 15 throws a game indicates the coaches are doing the same.

"It was frustrating because you feel you can contribute more," King said. "We've won with a certain system here. For me, the challenge was to play in that system and still find a way to make a play. But I know the NFL. I knew there would come a time we would have to throw the ball to win a game, and I knew we would."

It would be nice to believe that Monday night's game heralded King's arrival as a quarterback, that this will be the player we see from now on. It doesn't work that way. He's still a young quarterback, still prone to ups and downs physically and mentally. His coaches say the off-season will be crucial for him because he has to learn the off-the-field regimen that goes with the possession.

"I think the players in the locker room always believed in me," King said. "But this probably eased some of your tensions a little bit."

King laughed. But he's right. It is easier to believe in King this week than last week. If you are a Bucs coach, it might be worth jotting a few extra words across the game plan.

Just let him play.

Again.

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