he evolution of Eric Sievers' career has followed a basic Darwinian process.

He spent four years at Maryland developing the archetypal tight end's body: thick all over, fairly agile, hard to move when planted.

He joined a veterans' team as a first-year man, and survived.

And now, finally, after a period of social insecurity, he fits. From a field of three in the San Diego Chargers' preseason camp, he alone remains. Veteran Greg McCrary was judged no better than Sievers. The old fell by the wayside. No one is sure what force ultimately took its toll on rookie Pete Holohan; he simply packed up and left at midseason.

That left Sievers the rightful inheritor of the runner-up role. Because on the San Diego club, the real tight end is Kellen Winslow.

"I don't mind," Sievers says. "I don't feel badly. It doesn't make any difference to me. I don't have the ability Kellen has, that's all. I do what I'm told, and that's what I work on. That's what they ask of me, and I try to do it well."

For an end who caught an average of 15 passes per season at a school best known for basketball, this inaugural season has suddenly blossomed like a Roman candle: Sievers has found a starting position in a two-tight-end offense, he has been honored by selection to the all-rookie team and his team has dodged enough bullets to land a berth in the AFC championship game in Cincinnati Sunday.

He has a grandfather with whom he lives in San Diego. He plays for a team that regularly muscles its way into local headlines on page one, as well as the sports page. And he plays for a city that counts its football team as its prime civic attraction, dutifully worshiping at the shrine of the stadium, attending games in suitably golden garb.

"Prior to the season, I was pretty skeptical. I had no idea it'd turn out this way. It's really exciting. You wouldn't believe the city. You wouldn't believe the bumper stickers. Or the way people paint their cars. This isn't the Chargers, it's San Diego's team."

But it's no simple leap of faith from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Pacific Coast professionals.

One of the Chargers' self-proclaimed claims to distinction is their acute sense of family. The preseason holdout of wide receiver John Jefferson and the contract requests of other players stirred this city into controversy. To demonstrate their support of their peers, the players boycotted the preseason banquet held by the team's boosters. It was a bold and serious strategy in a sun-baked city seldom ruffled by such mundane troubles as labor disputes.

Into this familial bond walked a rookie from Maryland.

"The toughest thing was the acceptance," Sievers said. "Greg McCrary was well-liked by everyone. He was such an outgoing guy that I felt a little badly. I was rejected a little bit by Winslow. Greg and Kellen were good friends, and Kellen has lost a lot of good friends through cuts and trades. It was difficult."

Until?

"I scored the first touchdown in the game (against Cincinnati in San Diego), and then all of a sudden they don't look at you as the rookie they can't count on. That's been the thing. I felt a lot better coming in after that, not just as a new guy, but as someone who can do the job."

And then, there was Holohan. Rookies naturally attract. Rookie tight ends form a special bond. Sievers and Holohan were roommates for a month during the summer, and when the seventh-round draft pick from Notre Dame left without warning after the Baltimore game, Sievers took it somewhat personally.

"He's just a mixed-up kid. He just quit. He overslept, and he was afraid to come in, afraid to face anyone, I guess. He just totally left his duties and his responsibilities. It was a real shame. Without a word to the people who thought they were his friends.

"No one heard from him for a long time. He hasn't called us. Someone said he was at home. Maybe he just wasn't ready for pro football, I don't know. I thought we were good friends."

On top of Sievers' adjustment problems came the injuries: the bone spur in his ankle (repair is imminent) and a pinched nerve in his shoulder that cut off feeling to his hand for four weeks.

Catching a football without feeling in your hand is something like painting without a brush. Add slowness of foot and the moves of a lineman running under water, and you have a tight end judged the best of the first-year men.

"I guess I've gotten to where I feel good about myself," Sievers said. "I'd have to give myself high grades. Coming in as a fourth-round pick, they probably didn't expect me to do well. And I probably put some undue pressure on myself, with so many great players here, not wanting to let those guys down. But I haven't surprised myself."