With every mile George Mira Jr. can feel the weight lifting. His pickup truck speeds along U.S. 1 above the emerald waters of the Florida Keys, headed southwest over a thin necklace of mangrove islands and bridges toward the end of the road, Key West.
"In Key West nobody bothers you," says the 6'½", 230-pound Miami middle linebacker. Beside him is his fiancèe, Janet Hernandez, a delicate and quiet woman with dark eyes and raven hair. Occasionally Janet and George touch hands, as though for strength. They could be an '80s version of Bonnie and Clyde, lovers on the lam, riding into the sun. "In Key West," Mira says, "nobody cares who I am or what I've done."
At the Orange Bowl last night Miami whipped East Carolina 36-10 in the Hurricanes' final game of the regular season, and Mira certainly is not fleeing that event. The win left Miami 11-0 and ranked first in the nation. Against East Carolina, Mira had six tackles and two near-interceptions, while playing his usual role as the signal caller and the glue that holds the ferocious Canes defense together.
He finished the regular season with 117 tackles, making him Miami's leader in that department for the second straight year. And though the defense is loaded with bigger, faster and flashier performers, it is the 21-year-old Mira, a fourth-year junior who expects to graduate in 1988 with a double major in criminal justice and communications, who hits the hardest and gets fooled the least.
"He's the quarterback, as valuable to the defense as Vinny is to the offense," says defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt.
Says Miami head coach Jimmy Johnson, "George doesn't have great size or speed, but he's really, really into being totally prepared. He never takes a false step. He's a worker, an over-achiever."
But Mira has taken a false step, one of many by the Hurricanes in a dream season that has threatened, at times, to turn into a nightmare. The telephone credit-card scam, the alleged shoplifting, the assault charges, the near-riot in a parking lot—there's enough dirt about this team to build a ramp from the players' dorm to the middle of the Everglades.
And Mira knows how he is getting billed: as a vicious, cop-assaulting, steroid-crazed maniac. The impression springs from the night of Aug. 19, when after an argument with Janet, Mira was arrested by campus police and charged with disorderly conduct, battery on a police officer, assault, fleeing a police officer and possession of a drug without a prescription. The drug, found in a small vial in the glove compartment of Mira's truck, was testosterone cypionate, an anabolic steroid commonly prescribed for patients deficient in natural testosterone and sometimes used illegally by body builders and football players.
In September Mira was cleared of all charges stemming from the incident except a misdemeanor count of simple battery (of the police officer), which also will be dropped after he completes 100 hours of volunteer work with patients at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital. The state's attorney determined that the steroids belonged to a friend, a non-football-playing student who was ill and had a prescription, and who had left them in Mira's truck after George had helped him move to a new apartment.
Joe Frechette, the director of public safety for the university, contends, "George is a nice kid. I didn't think the things that happened were of any consequence."
But today all that seems far away as Mira drives the 160 miles to Key West for the weekend.
"I feel good when I'm here," he says on arrival in the sweltering island town. Mira is a "Conch," meaning he was born in Key West of Key West parents, and his bond to the locals is soothing to him.
"Being a Conch, there's just a feeling of closeness you get down here," he says. "Everybody is like family. They don't baby me, they don't treat me like a star, they know the true me and they let it go at that."
Mira's father, George Sr., was a 5'11" All-America quarterback at Miami in the early '60s and a pro for 13 years in the NFL, the CFL and the defunct World Football League. Called by former Nebraska coach Bob Devaney "the greatest college passer I ever saw," George Sr. never quite set the big leagues on fire. But he scrambled and clawed and worked miracles in college, and his greatest moment came in 1961 when he threw a left-handed pass for the winning TD against hated Florida while being dragged down by his right, or passing, arm. He is one of only two Miami quarterbacks to have had his jersey retired, the other being Vinny Testaverde.
George Sr. is in Key West when George Jr. arrives at Grandpa James Mira's house on Packer Street. James, 70, bought the place back in 1943 for $650 in war bonds, and it sits so close to the adjacent houses that one could reach out any side window and open a neigbor's curtains. The three generations of Mira men sit on the front porch and chat, with grandpa lounging in a barber chair that was once frequented by Harry Truman during his Key West days.
The subject of toughness comes up, and the men agree that the trait goes back to George Jr.'s great-grandfather, Jose Mira, who was only 5'3" but totally fearless. George Sr. recalls that Jose once decked 235-pound Uncle Mario for some impropriety or other, after which the old man told Mario, "If you ever say that again, I'll knock all your teeth out." Grandpa James himself was a prizefighter in Tampa before moving to Key West during the Depression to work in the city icehouse. Five years ago he coldcocked a 33-year-old man with a left hook. "He said I was too old," shrugs James.
George Sr. knew that Junior had "a little mean streak in him" at age three, when the youngster would continually slam headfirst into a sliding glass door at the family home. "You've got to have that streak to play the position," says Senior.
And how tough is George Jr. now? Tough enough that he firmly shakes hands with acquaintances even though the little finger on his right hand is broken. And tough enough that in the spring of '85 he survived a 65-mile-an-hour motorcycle crash on the Dixie Highway with only a separated shoulder and road burns.
"A truck hit the front wheel of my Kawasaki 750, and I started tumbling over and over," he says. "My helmet came off, but as I was bouncing I kept working my way to the curb. When I finally made it, I retrieved my cycle and rode to a gas station to call Dad. The guy running the station saw the whole thing and he looked at me and said, 'I can't believe you're alive.' "
And what did Dad say? "I said, 'You have two choices: Sell the bike or scrap it.' " George sold it. It would have been nice if Dad had said the same thing to Testaverde right then, a year and a half before the Heisman winner-to-be swan-dived off his bike, a motor scooter, and caused enough damage to keep him out of the East Carolina game. But at Miami it seems you crash first, then you take precautions.
Junior and his Key West friends are out on the flats in two boats that skip like stones across water so clear and calm it can only be seen as spray. Along for the ride are Janet, Mira's cousins Alan and David Averette, fellow Conch and Miami teammate Danny Mariscal, two other local friends and a dog. The boats race through tiny azure channels, past diving cormorants and a dazed hippie in a canoe that nearly capsizes from the motor-boat's wake.
The group anchors off Harbor Key at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, and everyone dives in. Mira, who is called "Georgie" by his pals, can free-dive to 45 feet. Carrying a spear gun that looks like an automatic rifle, he searches the bottom for prey. He hops back into the boat after a while, complaining about how cold the water is, and puts on a wet suit. The water temperature is 81°, and one can't help being amazed at different people's notions of pain.
It was in the ocean near Key West that Mira learned his first serious lesson about fear. "I was 13 and David, Alan, me, my mom and my Uncle Peter were out on the Sand Key reef. My uncle speared a bunch of yellowtail and stuck them in his pockets. Then he started feeding barracuda with them, and then sharks. In 15 minutes we were surrounded by sharks. They were swimming through my legs, bouncing off me. Little sharks, but big to a 13-year-old. I got so scared that when I got in the boat I got an awful cramp in my hamstring. My uncle was crazy. He put me through hell. But it was good because I'm not afraid of anything now."
He considers the similarity between that shark-and-barracuda fest and playing middle linebacker in the Hurricanes' 4-3 defense. "Looking at it now, it is similar. Guys coming down, across, pulling from everywhere, getting double-and triple-teamed, getting surrounded. I was scared back then, and I'm scared now when I take the field, because you never know what is going to happen. But the difference now is that my biggest fear is of being embarrassed, not hurt."
Mira has an uncanny ability to read defensive keys and calmly, almost casually, home in on the ballcarrier, then explode like a grenade in the man's face. He rarely takes a fake. He doesn't even make those nervous, twitching stutters almost all linebackers make before they react. He has worked on his first step maniacally.
His father and mother are divorced now and both live in Miami, and George makes the most of their proximity to campus. From his dad he gets insights into offensive theory. From his mother, Regina, he gets practical assistance. "I'll practice with her in the house," he says. "We face each other and she takes one step sideways and I react. Again and again."
The following morning George and his cousin Alan eat Cuban steak sandwiches at the open-air 5-Star Sandwich Shop on a quiet Key West back street. A young man comes out of the house next door, a rooster tucked under his arm. He climbs on a moped behind a woman and they drive off.
"Going to fight him," says Alan.
"My Uncle Mundy used to raise roosters, and I helped him," says George. "They had fights up on Key Largo." Did Mira watch the fights?
"I saw them. People say it's cruel because one rooster dies, but I liked it. It was like boxing. To train the roosters Mundy put boxing gloves on them and let them spar. Sometimes he would have parties at his house and bring two out in the yard and let them box and there would be friendly betting."
Football, like cockfighting, is not a sweet game. Jimmy Johnson was asked recently why he didn't just order his team to stay out of trouble, to act like choirboys, or else. Johnson shot back, "Because they're not choirboys!" He has a point.
Still, Mira regrets his run-in with the law, and he wants to clarify matters. He and Janet were arguing, but that was all. He did not shove or punch the policeman, he only pushed his arm aside. He is not, he says, on steroids. His work at the hospital with patients who have spinal cord injuries has been fulfilling to him and made him thankful for the freedom he enjoys.
"I'm not nuts—people who know me know I'm a nice, easygoing guy," he says. "I'm a fiery competitor, but I don't get superhyped-up and out of control. When it's first and goal on the two, I'm calmer than ever. I don't spear. I don't cheap-shot. I don't jump on piles. I'll plant one on you—you better believe that—but I play smart and I try to play as clean as Mike Singletary.
"I'd like for us to be known as guys who maybe made some mistakes, who do some things wrong, but on Saturday we are men who perform well, who are doing a good thing for Miami. I want people to know we're trained athletes. When a ballcarrier is out there, I'm trained to seek and destroy. Don't throw your weight in my face, because I'm trained to beat the hell out of guys who weigh 300 pounds."
It is Sunday afternoon now and time to go back to Miami. Before they drive off, Janet says, "We respect each other deeply. If people saw us together, they'd know that. He's a very caring, very family-oriented person."
That is a side of George Mira Jr. that, whatever his public image, shows up clearly enough at home in Key West.
Back at his old Key West haunts, Mira was able to find much-needed respite.
Mira (45) led the Miami defense in tackles for the second straight year.
Grandma Dolores keeps a close eye on three generations of tough Mira men.
Janet says her ferocious fiancè "is a very caring, family-oriented person."