Neil Lomax carries his right shoulder lower than his left as he moves through the crowd, stepping lightly around large pots of congratulatory plants, breathing in a piercing aroma of brand-new nylon carpeting. He has on a white knit shirt emblazoned with EAST-WEST SHRINE CLASSIC, and so remains brightly visible among the beige double-knits and dark cotton prints of the congregation blocking the path to the punch and cookies. Lomax is 6'-3", weighs a well-muscled 212 pounds and has blue eyes and a craggy red face that cannot be called classically handsome, but has lately proved to be memorable, certainly around Portland, Ore., where he has spent the whole of his 22 years. Now Lomax is about to become a notable to a nation of pro football fans. Despite playing at little-known Portland State University, he is rated by NFL scouts as one of the two best senior quarterbacks in college, along with the University of California's more heralded Rich Campbell. Both are expected to be snapped up by pro clubs in the first round of next week's NFL draft.
On this day, however, Lomax has contracted, for a small fee, to spend two hours as an added attraction to the microwave oven to be won in a drawing, helping to fill the lobby for the grand opening of a new bank on the fringe of Portland. He is good at it, although his present method of winning favor consists of simply answering questions.
"I won't get Dallas, I don't think," he says. "Green Bay and Denver have called a lot. I'm hoping for somewhere on the Coast, but it might be St. Louis or New York." His blond lashes drop a little with conviction when he says, "I'm just looking for the opportunity to play until I can't play anymore."
Lomax is the most staggeringly prolific quarterback in college history. In four seasons at Portland State, operating out of Coach Mouse Davis' double-slot "Run-and-Shoot" offense, he threw 1,606 passes and completed 938 for 13,220 yards and 106 touchdowns. All are NCAA all-division records. Now he awaits the April 28-29 draft, working away at completing his degree in communications and contemplating a new life that will be founded on an old determination, as he puts it, "to be a good Christian example."
If Lomax is chosen in the first round, his eventual contract will have a value of perhaps $1 million over five years. Thus, when a pair of bank officers take him into an adjoining conference room, one imagines they already consider him a terrific example—of someone to buy stock in their bank. And he has come here in part because he has heard that this venture, Stewardship Bank of Oregon, is a "Christian Bank," pledged to donate 10% of its profits to Christian education and missions.
Lynn Wallace Jr., an affable, energetic bank director, confirms this and asserts to Lomax that the organization is altruistic in the extreme, saying, "None of our directors see it as a means to personal gain but as a tool to further the Kingdom of Christ." He adds the arresting statement: "The key to ownership [of bank stock] is whether or not you profess Christ as your Savior," and points out such an oath of belief in the agreement of purchase.
Lomax takes all this in solemnly, without any rush to buy. He is called away to draw some prize-winning names in the lottery for the microwave and $500 cash. The money-winner is a shocked 15-year-old girl, who seems to experience a seizure of expanding dreams. "Is that...enough for a car?" she says as her parents rush to talk some sense into her.
Lomax watches intently, as the scene seems to capture in microcosm something of his next few months. Outside in the parking lot, his duty done, he says, "Making public appearances is new to me. I enjoy meeting the people, coming to know the businessmen who might help me later, and the Christian fellowship. Sure, there are people out for the buck only, but there are also the committed, helping people. I've somehow got to learn how to tell them apart."
And what does he make of this bank, with its requirement of a specific belief in order to own stock? Does it not seem unnecessarily exclusionary? Lomax says he doesn't know about that, but he is conscious that there is a good reason why "holier than thou" is a pejorative expression in our society.
"Sometimes I worry about being perceived as the big scholar-athlete-Christian hero," he says. "The press can make me sound like the greatest thing to hit Portland since Henry Weinhard's [a local beer]. People have to come to religious things on their own. Right now, I'd rather stick a football into somebody's gut than a Bible."
The Lomax house in Lake Oswego, a woodsy Portland bedroom community, is surrounded by blue drifts of grape hyacinth. Pink camellias shed thick mounds of blooms into the pachysandra, as they have done every spring for the 19 years the family has lived here. Just now all the Lomaxes but one are gathered in the living room, awaiting the telecast of a Trail Blazers playoff game.
Dave Lomax, Neil's father, is a calm, thick-waisted man who teaches music in the Portland public schools. Neil's mother, Carol, is an administrative secretary with the Lake Oswego schools. She was a fine swimmer for the Multnomah Athletic Club. "I wanted Neil to be a swimmer," she says, describing the natural efficiency of his childhood stroke, "and when he was six years old he broke Don Schollander's park pool record in a 25-yard race. Don himself was there to give him his ribbon."
"He shook my hand," says Neil, "and that was my last taste of the lake."
"Neil saw that swimmers had to get up at six to work out before school," says Dave, "and he said, 'No way.' "
"I was always a fairly good size as a kid, and played little league football and baseball, and basketball in school," says Neil, whose father coached him in baseball and eventually became president of the Lake Grove Little League. "But my freshman year at Lake Oswego High, I was too slow to be a running back and too small for the line positions." So the coaches asked him a fateful question: "Can you throw the ball?"
"I did well enough to start on the freshman team, then made jayvee as a soph and quarterbacked the varsity my last two years," Neil says. But in high school Lomax' light was hidden under a bushel known as the Power I. "We ran the ball a lot. My whole senior year I only threw for seven touchdowns." He looks at his knuckles, humility struggling against the urge to report more recent statistics. "This year I threw seven in one quarter," he adds.
Baseball was Lomax' favorite sport in high school. He pitched and played first and batted .350 for three years. "I had higher aspirations for baseball in college than for football," he says. But in the winter of his senior year, 1977, he came to feel the attraction of Darrel (Mouse) Davis. Then the head Portland State football coach and now an assistant at Cal. Davis is a small man with a voice like the middle register of a chain saw. His diligent wooing, combined with the absence of anyone else's, persuaded Lomax to sign with PSU, a Division I-AA school with a shoestring athletic budget.
"I have absolutely no regrets," says Lomax. "I have a solid education in speech and journalism. I'll be shy nine hours after this spring because I've dropped a couple of classes to travel to NFL physical exams, but I'll get that degree if it's the last thing I do."
Lomax began at PSU as a freshman fifth-string quarterback. By the eighth game he had worked up to second, and then the starter was hurt. "Someone's broken leg here, someone else's mistake there," says Dave, "and all of a sudden he was playing. It came so suddenly."
And once Lomax was playing, success came like an avalanche. In his last four games of that first season, he threw for 1,411 yards and 16 touchdowns. "I was astounded at myself," he says. "I mean, I knew I could compete. I always felt I could strike out a guy or complete a pass. I always wanted to be the dominant, the take-charge kind of guy...." But even in his wildest dreams the 18-year-old freshman never imagined the sort of game he would have in the season finale against Montana State, completing 41 of 59 passes for 469 yards and six touchdowns.
By then Lomax had begun making a very definite commitment to religion. His older brother, Mitch, now 23 and attending Trinity Seminary in Deer-field, Ill., had gone to a Young Life retreat at a camp in Canada. "He came back and said that he had accepted Christ in his life," Neil says. "I was skeptical, but there was such a change in him, nothing dramatic but obviously real, that I went up there to investigate. I eventually turned myself around." He goes on to say that his 20-year-old brother, Terry, and 18-year-old sister, Valorie, were then drawn to greater involvement in the nearby Mountain Park Church. "God's will started in the kids, and now it's working through our parents," says Neil.
"It hasn't really taken hold in Dad yet," says Dave lightly. "He's still mired in evil."
"Neil has always been a good kid," says Carol, perhaps to head off the inference that a conversion was all that kept him from a life of crime. "No discipline or academic problems."
One senses that for Lomax the appeal of fundamentalist, born-again Christianity is that it seems a natural extension of the athlete's systematic training to improve, to go from quickening one's drop-back to strengthening one's character. Perhaps Lomax finds in the church the moral counterpart to watching films with Mouse's instruction rasping in his ear, conditioning him for future moves.
Aside from some bruised ribs as a sophomore and a turned ankle as a junior, Lomax sustained no football injuries in his final three years at Portland State. He started every game except one, and his completion percentage went up (to .626 in 1980), his interceptions went down (from 22 in 1978 to 12 last year) and his yardage grew (to 4,094 his senior season). In fact, his concerns began to include that strangest of athletic dilemmas, what to do if you're too good.
In October, PSU beat Cal Poly Pomona 93-7, and Pomona's coach, the redoubtable Roman Gabriel, gave voice to understandable thoughts about pouring it on. Yet Lomax had played less than a half in throwing for three touchdowns and 339 yards. Two weeks later, in the first quarter against Delaware State, "We were hot and they weren't prepared," says Lomax. Seven passes, seven touchdowns. The final score: 105-0.
"Afterward do you feel sorry for the team you beat?" he asks. "Our job was to execute [a singularly appropriate word under the circumstances]. We were pleased to be doing our jobs. But later it seemed a joke. It hurt both teams. It was hard to take questions like 'What were they, a school for the blind?' "
It seemed to Lomax that the mismatch demeaned his personal approach to sport. "Every play I go all out to execute the best I can. That's what good players do." And yet the final result was cruel.
"I'm sure," he says, "it's not a problem I'll ever face again, not in the NFL."
Neil goes to shower before a date, and the family turns to the Blazer game, but lingers on the subject of his blessings. "He's a lucky sort of guy," says Carol with a sort of parental mystification. "Talent, but also an uncanny history of being in the right place at the right time. The other day a stewardess said to him, 'Uh, we're sold out of coach seats. Do you mind sitting in first class?' "
All the Lomax children are lean and lanky, except the quarterback. Terry, a theater arts student and mime, is persuaded to bring in a huge mouse head. For two years he has been the antic mascot at PSU football games. No matter that Portland State's nickname is the Vikings, the revered ex-coach's persona seemed the more powerful. "If they called him Lizard Davis, I'd have been out here in a lizard suit," says Terry, who proved so popular that he's probably going to return, still as a mouse, even though Davis has gone to Cal.
Valorie, a senior at Lake Oswego High, says that Johnny's Oldtown Deli named a sandwich after Neil. "Turkey, ham and cheese," she says. "Cheese for Mouse. The other two are self-explanatory. Then they retired his number."
"The school did?"
"No, the deli. As in, 'Take a number and wait your turn.' You'll never get 11 there anymore."
The Lomax parents have read up on quarterback situations throughout the NFL. "Green Bay and Chicago are said to have the greatest need," says Dave. "We're not thrilled with either of those locations, but you don't have much of a choice in this matter."
"I hope he doesn't go to Seattle," says Carol. "Jim Zorn is there. I don't want him to beat out Jim Zorn. I like Jim Zorn." She is abashed at what she has said. "Listen to me. I haven't gotten used to this. I thought just to get votes for the Heisman Trophy [Lomax was seventh] was the ultimate. But it grows and grows...."
The pro teams' interest in Lomax dates from his sophomore year, when they began sending him standard questionnaires—many with his name misspelled. Every NFL team placed him under observation this year, a task made easier because he played in the East-West and Senior Bowl games. These were Lomax' first tests against major college competition. At the end of the regular season a few NFL scouts felt Lomax might be the first player chosen in the draft, a reincarnation of Terry Bradshaw, who was the No. 1 choice of the 1970 draft after laboring for a no-name school, Louisiana Tech. But the East-West game last January in which Lomax looked shaky and unsure of himself sent those scouts scurrying back to their projectors and clipboards. "That game cost Lomax a lot of money," says one. "In three hours he projected himself from possibly the No. 1 player in the whole draft to a high-to-middle second round."
At the Senior Bowl, Lomax had, for the first time, the benefit of a pro coach, the 49ers' Bill Walsh, who runs the most sophisticated passing offense in the NFL, and just a week of his training showed tangible results. "Walsh told us, 'Gentlemen, you're here on a business trip. Let's make it worthwhile,' " says Lomax, who completed 11 of 22 passes for 167 yards and was named MVP.
"If you're talking about potential," Walsh says now, "Lomax' is unlimited. He's big and active. He has a fine arm, the strongest arm in the entire draft, bar none. He's intelligent, a good kid to work with. But you don't know how far into this potential he'll draw. It's hard to predict what kind of a professional quarterback he'd make. He came from a smaller college program with a style of pass offense that's nothing like what's played in the NFL. It was all sprint-out passing there, throwing on the run—slants and quick passes. He's not used to facing an awful lot of pressure. Neil made a dramatic improvement in four or five days. In the last 24 hours he seemed to get better by the hour. I think he showed that in the Senior Bowl game. He had a better feel for the offense. He was holding the ball longer, waiting for patterns to develop. He was going to alternate receivers. He didn't do that at all early in the week.
"Now, based on that, you have to predict how he'd be in one year, in five years. It's very difficult to do. I know he'll play in the National Football League. How good could he be? Anywhere from great to struggling."
Since the Senior Bowl, Lomax has gone, with the other 150 or so top players of the 1980 crop, through lengthy pre-draft physical exams. It has been expedient for teams to combine forces, so potential draftees' knees and kidneys need not be probed by 28 different team doctors. But Lomax still had to carry his complete set of X rays through Denver, Dallas, Kansas City and New York weekends of filling out forms, reacting to flashing lights and trying to get straight answers out of the various teams' player personnel directors.
"Gil Brandt seemed a wonderful man at Dallas," says Lomax. "He loaned me his car and said, 'We really want you but you'll be gone before we get a pick.' Dick Haley of Pittsburgh was candid about how Terry Bradshaw might not be back because of wanting to be in the movies. Sid Gillman [then of the Eagles] was kind of a crazy guy. 'You'll go in the first round sure,' he said. I tend to take that with a grain of salt.' "
Lomax was far more attentive when the pros judged his weaknesses. The NFL has a rule that teams cannot request college prospects to run or throw at these physical exams. For that, scouts must go to the player's school or home or the site of an all-star game. When they did, Lomax listened. "I have a lot of work to do on my straight drop," he says. "For four years I developed the rollout, Run-and-Shoot skills. Now it's five steps back, set up quick, throwing left and right, the posts, the outs. The part of the PSU offense that will help is those thousands of hours watching the films with Mouse. He would tell me what I should be watching for every step, every split-second. Over and over. The key to the Run-and-Shoot is recognizing and reacting to defenses. I've got that experience. Of course, in the NFL, they'll disguise defenses. There's no more shooting fish in a barrel. All I can say of the future is if God opens the door of football, I'll play it with all my heart. And if not, then I'll be excited to discover what it is He really has in mind for me."
PETER READ MILLER
Lomax will be poised by the phone in Lake Oswego, Ore. hoping to be the choice of a Coast team.
PETER READ MILLER
Carol, friend Janet Musgrove, Neil, Dave, Valorie and Terry Lomax surround the endangered Fifi.
PETER READ MILLER
Mouse—the coach not the mascot—made Lomax a film freak.
PETER READ MILLER
At PSU Lomax set NCAA records for completions, yards and TDs.