At 25, time no longer on Merriman's side

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- He is, in this moment of repose, the image of a football mercenary, hunched at his locker, draped in towels. Shawne Merriman has adorned his body with all manner of tattoos that have been painted across his shoulders, arms, back and neck; the markings of a man driven to propel his body in any reckless manner possible without care for what damage he does, what he says or what people think.

"A warrior," the San Diego Chargers' linebacker likes to call himself as many football players do.

Only Merriman is not feeling much like a warrior as he sits here. He is suddenly old at 25, with 43 1/2 NFL sacks to his name, but more significantly a surgically reassembled left knee and nagging plantar fasciitis in his left foot that have robbed him of his ability to run pain free and will keep him out of the Chargers' game against the Redskins.

He describes himself now as "a table with three legs on it."

Then he shrugs.

"It's what you sign up for when you get into the business," he says. "It's what I signed up for back when I was 11 years old."

Not long ago, he was believed by many to the best defensive player in the game, a linebacker from Prince George's County and the University of Maryland so fast, so strong, so menacing at 22 that it was assumed he would dominate the game for more than a decade. He had his own sack dance. His own nickname of doom -- "Lights Out" -- and his own insignia instantly recognizable throughout the league: a tattoo on his forearm of a hand turning off a light switch. He was, in those days, the essence of invincibility.

But there is a price for football head hunting, for knocking flat other giant men. And there is also change. The injuries have stolen a small step of his speed. A new defense has made it more difficult to get sacks. A suspension for a banned substance left public question of the legitimacy of his dominance. His contract is up this year and the team's general manager has a replacement ready. And a summertime spat with his reality star girlfriend Tila Tequila led to accusations of battery and false imprisonment that were later dismissed. Both have filed lawsuits over the incident.

Always, it seems, a story swirls around his locker. But on an afternoon last week, he smiled and made a small brushing-away motion with his hand.

"Whatever I go through, it's small compared to where I grew up," he says.

The right choices

The story has been told before, repeated many times whenever another controversy involving Merriman arises. It tells of occasional homelessness as a child, of homes that burned for reasons not his fault, for a path to success that seemed almost impossible to imagine. It is a story of the coaches at Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro who helped pull him through, helped harness his rage to get him to here.

Recently, a writer at the San Diego Union-Tribune asked him if he had learned something about choosing the right people to hang out with in light of the Tila Tequila situation.

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