"I've known a lot of cornerbacks," said Vernon Dean, the Washington Redskins' rookie cornerback. "Some are wild, some are square . . . I'm just a kick-back guy, a low-key person. I like to kick back. People call me lazy. I'm not lazy. I just like to cool out."
Cornerback is the loneliest place to play. "You're 35 or 40 yards downfield and there's nobody but you, the receiver and the ball," Dean said.
There is no time to think. "I do what comes to mind," he said. "I never prethink a game. I go with it."
Dean was the Redskins' top draft pick last year (49th overall). He became the starting cornerback after Joe Lavender was hurt in the first game of the season. He is seventh on the team with 25 tackles and nine assists and tied with Jeris White for the team lead in deflections.
"He's certainly not playing like a rookie," said Richie Petitbon, defensive coordinator. "He's playing like you expect a 10-year veteran to play."
Although cornerbacks Rod Hill and Bobby Watkins were drafted ahead of him, Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard, said, "Vernon has turned out better than any corner in the draft."
Beathard said Dean has the ideal temperament for the position, the same temperament required of relief pitchers and quarterbacks: the willingess to expose yourself to high-risk visibility. "That's the biggest part of the battle," Beathard said. "Your mistakes are seen by a lot of people. You're going to get beat some time. If you let it bother you, you're not going to play corner for long."
But, Dean said, "I haven't gotten beaten yet."
He knocks on wood in his kitchen, where he is cleaning out the ice box and listening to jazz ("I like to funk, too"). "I'm a modest type person," he said. I don't particularly like to talk about me. I'm not a boasting, bragging type guy . . . I don't like anybody to totally know me. I don't really trust too many people as far as knowing me. You don't tell everybody everything. I'm easy going. I'm just floating along."
In college, that's just what he appeared to be doing. He was not a sleeper, Beathard said. Nor was he a well-known, well-hyped, "can't miss prospect." His route to the NFL was more circuitious. He grew up in Houston and moved to Los Angeles when he was in ninth grade. "I wasn't really into school," he said. "I didn't have the grades to go to a big college."
His first year at Los Angeles Valley Junior College, "I did real well," he said. "But they wouldn't start me. They put a guy in front of me who was 5-7, 130. I thought they were telling me I wasn't that good. It took away all of my confidence. I never was used to sitting on the bench. Coming into my sophomore year, after not playing, they expected the world out of me."
There were communications problems with the coaches. "I think they thought I wasn't interested. I guess I thought it was just going to happen for me. If you produce, someone will hear about you. That was my mistake."
He transferred to United States International University in San Diego. After his first season, the football program was dropped. "We played in a stadium that holds 51,000," he said. "Only 1,500 people came."
That spring he was recruited by several major schools, including Colorado, Minnesota and San Diego State. "It was like a second chance for me," he said.
He visited Colorado, took one look at the snow and chose San Diego State. "I was kind of nervous going to a big school with one year to play," he said. "It was like an actor with stage fright. I was scared."
He broke his wrist the second game of the 1980 season and was redshirted the rest of the year. In '81, he led the conference with six interceptions and was an AP all-America honorable mention.
He watched the draft on television with a friend who was drafted seven picks before him. "We had some champagne," Dean said. "It didn't look like we were going to drink it until later. I wasn't paying any attention. I heard the name Dean. I just knew I had been drafted. Then, all of a sudden, Bobby Beathard called. I said, 'Washington. I never expected Washington.' "
Beathard says San Diego State is known for producing good cornerbacks; Lavender, for example. "It's a tradition there," Beathard said. "I thought he was closer to being ready to play than any of the other cornerbacks in the draft."
Although Dean did well in mini-camp, he got a slow start in training camp. During preseason, he said, "They went right at me. I had a pretty rough time. But nobody got down on me. They said, 'We were rookies once, too.' Coach Gibbs said in an article he wasn't worried about me."
His confidence returned. And he continued as a starter after Lavender's return.
"He is a tough, tough guy, mentally and physically," Beathard said. "Players are aware he is very physical. That has helped our defense."
Dean is careful not to presume. He is a rookie. "You like to respect your elders," he said.