If Charley Taylor, the retired all-pro receiver, wasn't an admirer of the Cowboys' Robert Newhouse, the Redskins probably would never have become interested in an obscure running back from Bethune-Cookman named Rickey Claitt.
But Taylor, now a Redskin scout, has seen enough of Newhouse the last years that he wasn't turned off by Claitt's lack of size and speed, factors that contributed to the rejection of the young fullback by many pro scouting combines.
"I think Newhouse is a player, and when I saw Rickey, I said, 'Hey, this guy can do a lot of things Newhouse can do.'" Taylor said yesterday. "His quickness just catches your eye right away.He stood out from everyone else."
Claitt (as in cat, because that's the way his family always has pronounced it) has emerged as one of the Redskins' main running threats as a rookie, even if he was only 5 feet 10 and 210 pounds in college, hardly ideal proportions for a pro fullback. In college, he also was overshadowed by a halfback, Bennie Leverett, considered talented enough to be selected by the New York Jets in the seventh round of last May's draft.
Leverett was the reason Taylor was watching Bethune-Cookman game films late last fall. "He was given a pretty good rating on the combine lists," General Manager Bobby Beathard said, "and we wanted to see if we thought he was any good."
Taylor, however, came back to Washington raving about Claitt.
"He said he had found a player," Beathard' said. "So we got some films from Bethune and all of us sat down and watched them. We were impressed right away and we decided we would try to sign him as a free agent. We didn't even need to work him out."
The redskins were convinced no one would draft Claitt, since he could run a 40-yard dash in just 4.9 seconds, slower than most professional linebackers.
"He didn't fit the computer sizes," Taylor said.
"And there were a lot of running backs around last year to satisfy teams. Why should they take a chance on a guy like Rickey?
"I thought he was quick and strong, and he also was a tough kid who believed in himself. He thought he could play pro football and he wanted the chance. You have to look at someone like that and admire them.
"But the one thing on my mind was, would he embarrass himself if I gave him a chance? Did he know enough, coming from a small college and all, to have a shot im camp? The more I watched him, the more I thought he would be okay."
Claitt was interested in signing with Washington from the very start, but he also had feelers from Pittsburgh. The thought of playing for the Super Bowl champs intrigued him.
Right after the draft, when Taylor called Claitt and asked him to come to Washington and sign a contract, Pittsburgh had a man already in Florida, looking for Claitt.
"I decided that I had a better chance with Washington," "claitt said. "With John Riggins being near the end of his career, a spot might open up for me quicker."
So Claitt, who didn't have an agent, flew to Redskin Park and became one of the first free agents signed by the club. Still, the odds of this small, inexperienced back surviving the final cut were about as long as Green Bay winning the Super Bowl this year.
But Claitt's play during the preseason -- everytime he was given a chance, he'd rip off a few substantial gains -- and the retirement of Riggins combined to give him his unexpected break. And when the Redskin running game bogged down in the opener against Dallas, Claitt and Wilbur Jackson were asked to provide some much-needed offense against New York Sunday.
Claitt responded by gaining 77 yards on 15 carries. He picked up nine yards on his first pro rushing attempt, and followed that with bursts of 7, 16, 6, 13, 10, 6 and 11 yards. Only two fourth-quarter fumbles at the goal line marred his afternoon, preventing his average from being higher than an already impressive 5.1 yards per carry.
"Rickey won't go 40 yards for you that much," Taylor said, "but he'll get 10 for you a lot. He has a low center of gravity and great accereration. He just bursts by people."
Says Beathard: "Rickey just plays faster than he looks. He doesn't need much of a block to get going."
Claitt told his linemen before the Giants game, "Just give me two seconds on your block and I'll be by the line.' I had confidence in their blocking. It's like driving a car. If you think there are curves coming up, you slow down. But if you know you can go full speed, it makes it easier."
Claitt is a cheerful, outgoing type with lots of confidence. He also wonders why scouts did not think he could play but were so high on Leverett, who was cut this summer by the Jets and couldn't beat out Claitt for a starting spot at Bethune.
"I led the team in rushing the last two years," Claitt said, "one as a fullback and then as a tailback my last year. But I had spent a lot of time blocking at fullback and I think that helped me when I came here. They were looking for someone who could block as well as run.
"Just the fact I had faith in my ability and I was convinced I could make it in the pros helped me an awful lot. I've always believed in myself and I've never quit."
Claitt attended high school in Avon Park, Fla., where he earned 10 letters playing four sports. He said he received college scholarship nibbles from such schools as Alabama and Princeton, but decided on Bethune-Cookman because it was in Daytona Beach, only 160 miles from home "and I liked the family atmosphere there. I just didn't want to go a long way off.
"I don't regret going there. It may be a small place but they have a good football program and it gave me a chance to start for four years (after redshirting one season). I just hoped I'd get someone to give me a chance in the pros. It was something I've alway wanted."
Much like Newhouse, Claitt probably faces a career of fighting off bigger, faster rivals. The Redskins would love for him to be a few inches taller and a few pounds heavier and Coach Jack Pardee hasn't always been pleased with Claitt's durability. "He wants to come off the field after two or three plays," Pardee said. "We need him to stay in there more."
But none of the Redskins are complaining about Claitt's performance against the Gaints. He came through when the team desperately needed a lift and the running backs coach, Fred O'Connor, now believes he'll keep improving.
"Rickey is still very inexperienced," o'Connor said, "and he'll make mistakes. He made some in the Giants game. But he's a talent. He can get you yards in a hurry because he doesn't need a lot of daylight to work with. He can get from one point to another really fast and that helps an offensive line."
"You look at him and you just wonder how everyone could have been so wrong about his pro prospects," he said. "But from our standpoint, we're just glad they were."