Tuesday, July 26, 2005 | Two summers ago, not long after Kobe Bryant had been arrested on rape charges in Colorado, I was walking through a San Diego shopping mall. Mixed among the many obese kids wearing overpriced $100-plus athletic jerseys and $100-plus athletic shoes, I saw two athletic-looking, middle-school-aged girls.

One wore a Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers jersey. The other was dressed in an Allen Iverson Philadelphia Sixers jersey. This wasn’t long after Iverson had been accused of domestic violence against his wife.

“What are those girls thinking?” I wondered. No doubt they don’t read newspapers, because most kids these days don’t, but surely they watch TV and log on to the Internet.

I was reminded of that unanswered question recently when I saw national sales numbers for NFL jerseys released by the NFL. The No. 1-selling jersey was for former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss, now with the Oakland Raiders. Listed at No. 6 was Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

Let me see if I have this straight: Moss, the poster boy for selfish play, a guy who walked off the field in a fit of pique before the end of a game that Minnesota lost last year, is No. 1 in sales. Tomlinson, the personification of team player and a leader by example, the guy who didn’t make noise about abandoning San Diego following a miserable 4-12 season in 2003 and signed a long-term deal before last year’s 12-4 season reversed the Chargers’ fortunes, is five places lower than Moss in his sales shadow.

What are kids thinking? I don’t even want to know how many thousands of dollars difference we’re talking.

With the Chargers opening training camp this week and Tomlinson going back to work, I asked a high school football coach for insight. Robert Savage is the head coach at Morse, one of San Diego’s inner-city high schools with a diverse enrollment that is largely African-American, Hispanic and Filipino.

“Usually, the kids who are playing high school football see the difference between a Randy Moss and a LaDainian Tomlinson,” Savage told me. “The kids who play for me know Tomlinson is a quiet guy off the field who does his job. The kids who don’t play football, they’re the ones buying Moss’ jersey. He’s a recognizable face because he’s always in the news, whether it’s good or bad. They’re wannabes and they like that bad-boy image.”

Savage also said Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens, another poster boy for selfish play who is attempting a noisy ploy to renegotiate his contract, isn’t a favorite among his players.

“One of my best receivers is Teddy Wilson, and he sees the difference between Moss and a hard worker like Jerry Rice,” Savage said. “The kids who play for me, they say, ‘Yeah, Moss is a good player, but why did he quit on his team?’ And they’re turned off by Owens, too.”

With my faith restored in America’s football youth, I took another look at the top 10-selling jerseys:

1) Moss, bad guy; 2) Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, good guy; 3) New England quarterback Tom Brady, good guy; 4) Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb, good guy; 5) Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, good guy; 6) LT, good guy; 7) Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich, good guy; 8) Tampa Bay rookie running back Carnell Williams, good guy; 9) New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey, arrogant Miami alumnus who could still turn out to be a good guy or a bad guy; and 10) New York Giants running back Tiki Barber, good guy.

I also asked Savage’s son, Darius, a 6-foot-3, 315-pound senior and state high school champion in the discus who is one of the nation’s top college recruits in both sports, whose jersey he wears.

“I don’t have one,” he said. “I wear my own (Morse) jersey to school. The ones who wear an NFL jersey, they want to be that person. I just want to be myself. But some day I hope to have my own NFL jersey with my name on it.”

The good guys win, after all.

Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com

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