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CHARGERS' CULVER AND WIFE PERISH IN PLANE CRASH

For the second time in 11 months, the San Diego Chargers are numb with the thought that a player will never walk through the locker-room door again, share a smile, make a big play.

The Chargers found out late Saturday night that running back Rodney Culver and his wife, Karen, were on the Atlanta-bound airliner that crashed into the Florida Everglades.On Mother's Day came word that authorities called off the search for possible survivors of the crash of ValuJet Flight 592, which nose-dived into the Everglades with 104 passengers and five crew members.

"It's hard to believe," a stunned general manager Bobby Beathard said Sunday as he sat next to coach Bobby Ross at a news conference. "No matter who it is, it's hard to describe your feelings. I don't do a very good job of doing it, but he was a guy who was as solid as they come.

"If you're going to have a championship team or any success at a team level, you have to have people like Rodney. He's one of those guys that his life on the field and off the field were examples to all of us."

The Chargers didn't know what the Culvers were doing in Miami, where the flight originated. Beathard said the couple's two daughters, ages 1 and 2, were with Rodney Culver's mother, who also lives in an Atlanta suburb.

This is the second offseason that the Chargers have been hit with tragedy. Starting outside linebacker David Griggs was killed in a car crash in a Miami suburb last June 19, one week after the Chargers received their 1994 AFC championships rings in a ceremony in San Diego.

"They're just two great people, besides the football part of it," Beathard said.

"He was a good person. It starts with that," Ross said of Culver. "You can go into all of the things relative to him as a football player, but those weren't important."

The Chargers recalled Culver as being pleasant, humble, team-oriented and able to take care of his family once his football career ended.

"He was a deeply oriented family man, very proud of his two children, and had done some nice things for his mother," Ross said. "He was a good, strong Christian. Those would be the things that would stand out to me."

"It hurts down inside," tight end Alfred Pupunu said. "He was a good friend, he was a good athlete. Losing two top individuals like that, it's hard on a ballclub. We've just got to rebound."

Pupunu said he found out about the crash from defensive tackle Don Sasa, who missed much of his rookie season with a knee injury. Culver called Sasa several times in the offseason to see how he was doing.

"That meant a lot to him, a veteran talking to a rookie," Pupunu said. "Guys usually don't do that. He was there if you needed any help like that. He was a good human being, a great father. He did what was right."

Lou Holtz, who coached Culver at Notre Dame, remembered Culver as "a class act. He was a very positive, upbeat person.

"Rodney Culver was never a guy who stood out, but he was always there," Holtz said. "That's why he was one of our captains. There was more to his life than football. He was a good student and he had different things going on and he knew what he wanted to do with his life."

Culver was a two-year starter and four-year letterman at Notre Dame, and was a fourth-round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 1992. The Chargers signed him off waivers just before the start of their 1994 Super Bowl season.

"He was very proud to have been at Notre Dame, and I think Notre Dame was very proud to have him, just as we were here at the Chargers," Ross said.

Culver, 26, was at the Chargers' minicamp two weeks ago, and was expected back in town Tuesday for voluntary workouts.

"Coach Ross always says something to the players when they break after minicamp or whatever, to be careful," offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen said. "You don't know how you can avoid this one. It's something we've always continued to dread. I'm really kind of shaken up. It won't stop."

Friedgen said his oldest daughter, a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta, knew a fellow student whose grandparents were aboard the doomed airliner.

"It's doubly hard," said Friedgen, who coached with Ross at Georgia Tech from 1987-91.

Ross spent most of Sunday in his office.

"I've been wanting to get away, and yet I knew I had to stay there for phone calls and things of that nature," he said. "You want to reflect on it yourself and think about him.

"We don't ever put it to rest," he said of the loss of Griggs and Culver. "We still have memories of David Griggs and his family. Certainly the same will be true for Rodney. Anybody who's here, is here forever, as far as I'm concerned. They're still part of our family."

Culver started only two games in two seasons with San Diego, but was a versatile part of its power running game.

He missed seven games with a sprained ankle last season, then started twice after Natrone Means injured a groin muscle. He finished with 155 yards on 47 carries and three touchdowns.

Culver broke his left thumb in the season finale against the New York Giants, but stayed in the game and scored the tying 8-yard touchdown on fourth-and-two in the fourth quarter as San Diego rallied for a 27-17 win.

"That score got us into the playoffs," Friedgen said. "That spoke a lot about his character. He'll be sorely missed."

His broken thumb kept Culver out of a 35-20 wild-card playoff loss to the Colts.

"He wasn't the marquee name, but we played every bit as good with Rodney in there as the starter," Beathard said. "You look back and you think that you don't spend enough time appreciating the Rodney Culvers of the league. They don't demand any time, never cause any problem. These are the guys who hold teams together."