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Charles Puleri no longer works the bars in the Bronx for a living. This fall he's serving up his best stuff to defensive backs throughout the West.

In the tradition of former Bronx bombers like Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio, Puleri has become a phenom as the quarterback on a New Mexico State team that is 3-0, it's best start since 1974.Puleri, who two years ago was serving drinks and bouncing drunks in bars from the Bronx to Yonkers, has thrown for 840 yards and five touchdowns in the Aggies' victories over Weber State, New Mexico and Texas-El Paso.

Going into this week's game at Utah State, he ranked ninth in total offense with an average of 278 yards a game.

Puleri grew up in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx and threw for 800 yards and 14 touchdowns his senior year on a Lehmam High School team that ran an option-oriented offense.

He spent one year at Westchester Community College in New York, then spent the fall of 1989 and spring of 1990 tending bar and playing in touch and touch tackle leagues. When his parents moved to Arizona, Puleri enrolled at Scottsdale Community College and attracted the attention of New Mexico State assistant coach Henry Stroka.

But while Stroka convinced New Mexico State coach Jim Hess to recruit Puleri strictly off game films, Puleri had to wait until the final three games of the 1991 season before getting the starting job.

He rallied the Aggies from a two-touchdown deficit against Long Beach State by leading NMSU on a pair of late fourth quarter touchdown drives.

"Not playing him may be the worst coaching decision ever made," says Hess. "Charlie wanted playing time and he kept himself prepared. When the opportunity came, he stepped right in."

Puleri's stock with Hess has steadily risen this fall.

"He's come in and done things I've never had anyone do," Hess said. "It's obvious we're not the smartest coaches in the world because we waited so long to play him."

Puleri, whose only major college recruiting offer came from New Mexico State, has tempered his contributions to the team.

"I just want to be known as a winning quarterback, because that's what every quarterback is known by," he said. "I figure if I can just move the ball, hopefully good things will come."

As the Aggies try to bury the past - one winning season in 24 years - and work on the future, Puleri figures prominently.

"He has consistently made the plays," Hess said. "The thing I admire most about Charlie is that he can only get better."

Puleri has adapted to New Mexico's slower lifestyle, blue skies and rural atmosphere. But his introduction to southern New Mexico and Las Cruces - population 65,000 - was a little shocking.

"I got off the plane, and I was coming in from El Paso," Puleri said. "And then I saw all these cows on the side of the road. I just couldn't believe it. I thought `What am I getting myself into?"'

That question remains, but for now, the former bartender has found a home, and possibly a future, in the land of cactus and cowboys.