Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2006 | Shawne Merriman, sitting on a stool facing his locker with elbows resting on thighs to indicate his exhaustion after a practice before the start of the season, took the poke at his rock-star status with good humor.

The 2005 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year listened as I relayed a story to him. Veteran teammates credited some of his success as a rookie to his willingness to listen and learn despite his stature as a wealthy and high-profile first-round draft pick.

But at the same time, one veteran couldn’t resist a barb at Merriman’s growing off-the-field persona.

“We’ll have to keep him on an even-keel basis before he gets any bigger,” the veteran said. “We might see this guy soon as the next Samuel L. Jackson. He’s big time. He can be Hollywood. But during the season, we have to keep him focused on football. In the off-season, he can go Hollywood.”

Merriman laughed. But then he said he wanted to be known as a player who does his work on the practice field and produces between the lines no matter what celebrity status he might enjoy off the field. He said he wanted to be a role model.

Then, in an unsolicited comment, he added, “I’ll be right here in good times and bad to answer questions. I’ll always be accountable.”

Now flash forward to Oct. 23, a day after the Chargers lost to the Kansas City Chiefs and were hit by the double whammy that Merriman faced a four-game suspension for testing positive for steroids.

True to his word, Merriman spoke about the issue when other athletes would have ducked out a back door and released a statement. With his lawyer, David Cornwell, at his side to help with the legalese, Merriman explained he was appealing the decision.

“The people who know me, and I mean really mean know me, know the kind of person that I am,” Merriman said that afternoon. “I’m not going to change throughout this whole situation. It’s something that I’m dealing with. I’m going to do things the right way, the way they’re supposed to be done.”

It was the same way the rest of the week and after Sunday’s 38-24 win over the St. Louis Rams when Merriman answered all the uncomfortable questions, standing ramrod straight before his locker.

“I see all those 56 jerseys out there in the stadium,” Merriman said. “It’s the best feeling you can have to see kids with your jersey. It reminds me how much they admire me and how much I’m a role model. It’s more important for me to do the right thing.”

From now on, that means using only the NFL-approved supplements instead of the over-the-counter supplement Merriman believes he took without realizing it was tainted by steroids.

Merriman said Monday after practice he would meet with his lawyer to decide later whether to drop his appeal of the four-game suspension. Dropping it now would mean that Merriman misses only the Chargers’ first game against the Denver Broncos on Nov. 19 instead of the rematch as well on Dec. 10 at Qualcomm Stadium.

Merriman’s appeal was supposed to remain private, but someone leaked it to ESPN. With new NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ruling like a hanging judge in other NFL matters this year, Merriman has little chance of a winning an appeal that would open the door to more such appeals.

Look, I’m as dubious as anybody when Floyd Landis and other athletes come up with lame excuses for how a performance-enhancing substance showed up in their system. But Merriman’s story, it seems to me, is different and worth a second look without jumping to conclusions.

One, his athletic ability isn’t coming out of nowhere. He’s been a dominant athlete with a body ripped from stone since his high school days.

Two, he’s not telling wild stories about a shot of whiskey or eating beef from steroid-fed cattle.

Three, he’s not shooting the messenger, the standard method athletes use to deflect questions.

Barry Bonds, when asked about steroids, portrays his self as a crucified figure without ever offering a substantive answer.

Mark McGwire has disappeared into the shadows, but when forced to appear before Congress, he was a babbling, pathetic figure who looked like he was ready to be led off to jail in handcuffs for stealing Roger Maris’ home run record before Bonds stole it from him.

The late Ken Caminiti took money from “Sports Illustrated” when he told his story of steroid use – boosting him from a scrappy, average player to a slugger with home run power – and later waffled on his statements on steroid use after they were in print.

Floyd Landis didn’t make himself available publicly until he had time to get his story straight and prepare spin control in the controlled environment of selected television interviews.

They all sounded and acted like guilty men.

Shawne Merriman has stood before the public since day one. He has never blamed anyone but himself. He may be guilty of poor judgment, but he doesn’t act like a guilty man. The football player with the Samuel L. Jackson persona has left acting as only a possible future career.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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