CHARGING THE COURSE
• Ex-Quaker always went for the top, so San Diego's playoff trip is no surprise
Not many former Portland Interscholastic League players have reached the NFL in the past 40 years or so. Legedu Naanee says he simply stuck with his goal to make it.
'A lot of times guys will have the talent, but because they don't have it in their goals to play at the highest level, they easily get distracted,' says Naanee, a rookie with the San Diego Chargers. 'I always wanted to play at the highest level.'
As a quarterback, Naanee led Franklin High to the 2001 prep playoffs. As a receiver, he played at Boise State and capped his career with the Broncos' exciting Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma last January.
The Chargers picked him in the fifth round of the NFL draft, and Naanee made the team. He has played in 12 of 15 games, and the Chargers are looking toward the playoffs after their regular-season finale Sunday against Oakland.
Naanee's statistics won't wow anybody -he has eight catches for 69 yards. But he plays in certain situations and plays all the receiver spots, and he also starts on the kickoff and kickoff coverage teams.
Most important, the Chargers (10-5) are heading to the playoffs as the AFC West champions.
'It's going to be very exciting,' Naanee says.
The 6-2, 225-pound Naanee says he hasn't had time to reflect on his career, which saw him start on the playgrounds and ball fields of Southeast Portland. He played with good players at Franklin High -Shem Hardnett, Matt LaFollette, Ronald Richmond and others -but only he excelled in college and only he suits up for an NFL game every Sunday.
'After the season, I'm sure I'll sit down and take a deep breath and think back on high school and college,' says Naanee, whose parents still live in Portland.
Naanee now lives in San Diego, where, he says, it seems strange to be walking around during the holidays.
'It's 65 degrees and sunny,' he says.
The Chargers beat Denver 23-3 on Monday, continuing their push after a 1-3 start. The team, he says, took some time to adjust to new coach Norv Turner and his coordinators, and then the addition of wide receiver Craig Chambers changed the offense.
But will the improvement translate into an NFL playoff win? San Diego might have to face Jacksonville, maybe the league's hottest team, in the playoffs. And, of course, the AFC includes unbeaten New England and Super Bowl champ Indianapolis.
The Chargers lost to New England (38-14) and Jacksonville (24-17) and beat Indianapolis (23-21) when Colt kicker Adam Vinatieri missed an easy field-goal attempt in the final minutes.
Patriots can be beat
All the talk in the league is about New England and whether the Patriots are beatable.
'I definitely don't think you see them as unbeatable, especially when watching film, the different breakdowns,' Naanee says. 'Three teams have gone down to the wire with them. That definitely gives you confidence, seeing other teams have success.
'We played them early in the season, and we didn't play our best game. That gives us confidence,' he says. 'We had a good game plan, but we weren't executing plays. We shot ourselves in the foot on early downs, and that put us in third-and-longs.'
The Chargers have surged behind running back LaDainian Tomlinson, whom Naanee describes as 'quiet and laid-back, confident in what he does. He's a big team player, as far as motivating the team, making sure everybody stays focused. Watching him compete, he has such determination.'
Naanee has played some slot receiver, alongside tight end Antonio Gates, another great NFL player. Naanee says he has learned by watching Gates, a former basketball player who wasn't drafted but became an all-pro.
'He has great ball skills, natural hands,' Naanee says. 'He plays the game so fluidly.'
The Chargers, led by quarterback Philip Rivers, run a wide-open offense, à la the St. Louis Rams with Kurt Warner earlier in the decade - 'The Greatest Show on Turf.'
New coach feels his way
Turner, the former University of Oregon quarterback, has been known for his offensive teams, but he hasn't won too many games as head coach.
Naanee plays the two outside receiver positions and the slot, and coaches have tried him at H-back. Although Naanee played some special teams at Boise State, he had to show his ability to tackle again to earn a spot with the Chargers.
He also plays on the punt teams.
'It definitely feels good to be part of things, especially when I'm not in on a lot of offensive plays,' he says.
It's not easy to make an NFL team, but Naanee did it the simple way: Excel on special teams and learn the offensive plays. He had nine receptions in preseason games.
'That was the biggest thing, knowing what to do, so I could execute plays and play at the highest level,' he says. 'I didn't worry if I had to beat out another guy to make the team.'