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Jitterbug

The Cowboys hope that John Avery can help them suck less this year.
Gary Lawson

He opens his arms wide, accepts the ball, then skitters through the line of scrimmage past two would-be bodyguards into open field. Pausing for a second, he jumps right, then left, bouncing unpredictably, like one of those Super Balls you were so mesmerized by as a child. All eyes strain to stay on him.

Linebacker Orantes Grant waits, practically salivating at the opportunity before him. He has the running back dead center before him, and he lunges with a menacing grunt--the precursor to what you're sure will be a vicious hit and the resultant end to all this fancy dancing. Instead, Grant ends up facedown on the browned practice-field grass, left to wonder what happened to the ball carrier while finding little solace in a tirade of obscenities.

After throwing a few more jukes, John Avery sprints toward the end zone--even though the play has long been whistled dead. You've got to give that extra effort, he says. Got to show them you belong, that you always did, even if they kept saying you didn't.

"They" were, and still are, the NFL decision-makers. The coaches. The general managers. The front-office guys with power. Whoever had final say over his life and career. Whoever kept telling him he wasn't going to make it, that he was too small for the NFL. Avery knows the pain. He remembers it, even wears it to practice--as much a part of the uniform as the armbands or the white socks he pulls up to his bony knees.

"It was tough, hearing that I couldn't play," Avery says. His mini-fro is matted and misshapen, a byproduct of two hours spent under a helmet in the oppressive Wichita Falls sun. An absurdly thin, black goatee outlines his mouth, as though he penciled it on with eyeliner. "I didn't give up, though. I couldn't."

Perhaps you've heard of Avery. More likely you haven't, even though he was once, and not that long ago, chosen in the first round of the NFL draft. He was smooth as satin coming out of Mississippi, a scat back with evasive footwork and a sense of self-preservation that could make career politicians green. The Miami Dolphins, forever in need of warm bodies to carry the ball, took him 29th overall in 1998. Avery was ecstatic. So were the Dolphins.

It didn't last long.

He finished second on the team that year and third among rookies in the league, with 503 yards on 143 carries. Then it happened: He was traded. Shipped off to Denver for wide receiver Marcus Nash. Played in a few games with the Broncos but was inactive a lot, too. Went to camp with them in 2000 before being cut. So much promise, so much talent, kicked to the curb, abandoned without an afterthought.

A castaway, Avery finally washed ashore in the XFL with the Chicago Enforcers. It all seemed so surreal. In the NFL one moment, marooned in some sensational, overhyped start-up league the next. It taught Avery a lot about realizing potential and even more about modesty. He played for a pittance salary, but really he played for redemption.

"Sure, it was humbling," he admits. "It was a situation where I wasn't surrounded by a lot of egos, or guys who think they're better than everyone else because they had more money. Everybody was making the same thing, and it was just guys playing ball. That's what you learn to appreciate, the ball. I mean, you see some people in wheelchairs, see some people who are maybe missing a foot or something, or a limb, and they can't do this. That's humbling as far as letting me know that I can be an athlete and participate in these types of things."

Only 25 years old, it looked as if his career might be finished--save for his work in Vince McMahon's bastardization. Until, that is, he ended up leading the XFL in rushing. That's when people began to take notice again, to think that the Dolphins and Broncos had been remiss in giving up so abruptly on the diminutive runner. Avery got plenty of interest from other teams, but only one club had its owner call. That's what sealed it.

"To get a call from Jerry Jones, I mean, it did a lot for my spirit and my confidence," Avery says as bird-sized dragonflies dive all around, plowing into people like World War II kamikaze pilots. "He really made me believe that I could come here and make some things happen."

Despite his small frame--he's 5-foot-9, somewhere around 180, 185 pounds--Avery is converting disbelievers. He's spent most of his time taking handoffs when Quincy Carter or Anthony Wright is under center--that is, taking handoffs as part of the second or third team. It hardly matters. It's only the second day of camp, but already he's inspiring second glances and reverent whispers among the press corp. It doesn't hurt, either, that the Pokes are desperate for help of any kind and that Avery could moonlight as a running back and kick/punt returner.

"He's a number one pick who, you know, some people felt he hasn't done it yet," says coach Dave Campo in one of his daily news conferences at Midwestern State University. "But he'll be given every opportunity. He's one of those guys who you have to look at. We like his ability--what he's shown us. He's got great speed and quickness, and that's something you can't coach. We're looking at all those young guys. We're looking for whoever can play, whether they came from the XFL, Europe, Arena League...anybody. They'll get their opportunities."

It's less a testament to Avery's ability than an appraisal of the Pokes and their dismal predicament. It's hardly assured that, with eight running backs in camp, Avery will be among those left with a chair when the music stops playing and the rosters are finalized. Still, he's one of those "change of pace" backs beloved these days in the NFL, and with Emmitt Smith slowed a bit by age and countless hits taken over a lengthy career, the need for a young, fast understudy is evident.

"I think he could help us out right now," Smith says candidly. "He's quick. He works hard. I do; I think he can really help us."

It's nice, Avery says of the endorsement Smith and some of the other veterans have offered, but it's not enough. He knows too well how ephemeral the feeling of security can be, so he'll just as soon keep on keeping on as listen to the praise. He'll keep running out the practice plays, putting in that something extra. To show them and remind them.

This time, to keep all eyes fixed.


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