NO FEAR OF HEIGHTS FROM LIONS’ GNATS

“Don’t want no short people round here. . . .”

Randy Newman

This is great. This is really great. I am standing in the cafeteria of the Lions’ training camp, talking to several players, and I am looking at them eye to eye. My neck does not ache. They do not threaten to step on me. They are my size. This is great.

I am no longer in the Land of The Giants. I am in Land of the Gnats. The Lions have 16 wide receivers in camp, and the average height is 5-feet-8. The average weight is 180 pounds. Hey. I have friends who fit those measurements. Of course, most of their 180 pounds hangs over their belts.

But never mind that. This is my kind of football offense. They buy clothes off the rack. They eat one steak at a time. They fit into a Volvo. Wide receivers. Really. NFL caliber. At 5-feet-8. They told us the Lions would use the run-and-shoot this year.

They didn’t say how low they were shooting.

“I’ve been hearing I was too short since high school,” says new receiver Keith McDonald, who is 5-7. “What can I do? My father is 6 feet tall and I kept waiting to grow. After a while I figured, ‘Hmmm. Maybe I take after my grandparents.’ “

“I’ve heard it all,” says new receiver Kelley Johnson, who is 5-8. “In the USFL, they called us The Mouseketeers. In Canada, they called us The Smurfs. You get used to it.”

“This is fun,” says Mel Gray, 5-9, a return specialist who starred last year with the Saints. “For once, I’m not the smallest guy in camp.”

Smallest?

When the guys play basketball, Mel is the center.

Average height is a growing pain

This is great. This, I can relate to. I am, shall we say, of average height. At least it was average a few years ago. The darn average keeps getting taller. Alas, I do not.

Which has its ups and downs, so to speak. As a sports writer, I am constantly in the shadow of the taller man, the stronger man. Sometimes the fatter man. Always the bigger man. I have interviewed athletes from the armpit, the elbow, and once — in the case of Manute Bol — the belly button. Not fun. For one thing, I couldn’t tell when he was smiling.

No such problem in Lions camp at Oakland University. See that guy over there? Looks like a student? Oops. That is a student. See that other guy? Same height? Little more muscular?

Jason Phillips, 5-7, 166 pounds.

Wide receiver.

“Being smaller has its advantages,” he says. “Your cuts are easier, and sometimes you can escape a tackle. In college, when we (Houston) played Arkansas, a big linebacker came after me, going for my head. I ducked, he missed, and I got away.”

See? How about that?

Less is more. The Lions have tried that philosophy for years. This season, however, it could finally make sense. Imagine an offense with a pack of little water bug receivers, darting around the field. “Bzzzzzz” they could say, as they passed the defenders. “Bzzzzzz . . . bzzzzzz . . . hereIcomehereIcome . . . bzzzzzz. . . .”

Drive ’em crazy.

And it could work. As of this morning, the Lions run-and- shoot with two receivers at 5-8 (Johnson and James Dixon), four at 5-7 (Lonnie Turner, Stacey Mobley, Phillips and McDonald) and one at 5-6 (Richard Johnson). A nice camaraderie is developing among these men, partly because they form a young, vibrant offense, and partly because they sometimes need a boost to reach the upper shelf of their lockers.

Of course, height is not the real reason behind the Lions’ shift from full-size to compact. “It’s speed,” says McDonald, “the run-and-shoot requires speed, quickness. I don’t think management went looking for short people. It just worked out that way.”

Hey. The offense is coached by a man named Mouse. What did you expect? King Kong? Downsizing trend could spread

Now, it is true, the height thing can present problems for Detroit quarterbacks. When they send a guy 10 steps and turn, they have to account for smaller steps — or the ball lands in the seats. And when the receiver leaps for the pass, the quarterback must account for his height — or the ball lands in the seats. Then, of course, there’s the usual problem with Lions quarterbacks, which is: The ball lands in the seats.

But that was then. This is now. I have seen the future, and it shops in the teen department. The Gnat Attack. I like it. Think of the highlight films.

“One time in the USFL, these two big defensive backs were coming at me from both sides,” says Richard Johnson. “So I just dropped down, and they smashed into each other. Bang.”

Hmmm.

This could be a trend. I see short hockey players, ducking the stick of some big goon, and the stick hits the referee and the goon gets thrown out. I see a short man winning the heavyweight crown by taking out Mike Tyson’s kneecaps. “The winner and new champion, at five foot one and a half. . . .”

It is the retribution I have waited for my entire career. Me, and the rest of the under-six-foot crowd. “I’d say to all the short people out there, keep with it,” says Gray. “People saying you can’t make it just makes you want it more.”

Which means these guys want it real bad. The Gnat Attack. Coming this fall. Or maybe sooner. You never know.

One of us might be under your couch right now.

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