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Not Just Another Joe

Steeled by trials off and on the field, Casey Weldon of Florida State not only looks like Joe Montana but wins like him too

The way it goes in the big little town of Tallahassee, Fla., like a lot of other places, is: You grow up slow, marry young and work the rest of your life at a job you don't love. Last year, this reality, that life is not a Hallmark card, struck Casey Weldon as a cruel surprise. He was the adored only son of a comfortable middle-class family, a young man with princely features and promising athletic ability. Everything had seemed arranged, so he waited patiently for his exceptional life to commence, which is to say the moment when he became Florida State's starting quarterback. Then he found himself contemplating a job in sales.

Weldon had always been a success at charming women, children and dogs, bringing a light into every room he entered and starring on the fields of play. People always seemed to say yes to him, and if they didn't, he could talk them into it. As a boy, he ruled all he surveyed in the venerable board game of Risk, conquering armies and countries. In grade school he sold toothpicks and sand dollars, as a high school student he peddled magazines, and in his first three summers after entering college he cleared a total of $20,000 selling fire extinguishers. Last summer he made more than $5,000 selling water purifiers.

Weldon has a gift for persuasion, an unrelenting quality that makes people eventually give in to him. Everybody marvels at how he can talk, with that melon-soft Florida Coast accent. "I'll argue with a rock if I believe I'm right," he says.

But in the spring of 1990, Weldon's orderly life began to come apart. Florida State's coaching staff picked someone else to start at quarterback. The other fellow happened to be Weldon's best friend. Brad Johnson. Soon after, Weldon's marriage to Lori Bembry, a Florida State student, began to fray. Or maybe it was the other way around, maybe the troubles at home came first. At Florida State they say you can chart Weldon's football career by the state of his marriage, and 18 months ago both were falling apart. His self-image was lower than a speed bump.

That was then. Today, Weldon is at the helm of the nation's No. 1 team, which he has led to a 13-0 record since regaining the first-string job on Oct. 27, 1990. Weldon, a senior, presides over the country's most elegant offense, and he is on the short list of Heisman Trophy candidates. It has gotten so the Seminoles don't worry about third and long anymore.

Weldon has also put his marriage back together, though he has never really gotten over the trauma of its near breakup. He has been left with a hairline crack of vulnerability. "I think he feels that to put on airs, to act like everything is all perfect would be living a lie," says Mark Richt, the Seminoles' quarterbacks coach.

Casey and Lori have a house for which his parents cosigned a mortgage, a Honda Prelude that the fire extinguishers purchased and a full-time baby-sitter for their two-year-old daughter, Kendall. Kendall has a charming habit of singing out "there's Daddy" at every uniformed football player she sees. It is a handsome family. The Weldons look, in fact, like a greeting card. "That's it exactly," says tailback Amp Lee. "A greeting card."

Weldon cringes at the image. "I know people look at me like I'm a family man, I'm a football player, I've got it all," he says. "But that's not it. That's not it at all."

In Tallahassee, a Panhandle city with hanging moss and old-fashioned ideas about honorable behavior, you marry the first girl you love. Weldon no longer pretends that marriage isn't hard work. "It's real hard," he says quietly.

He and Lori began dating in 11th grade. Both are from devoutly religious Tallahassee families, and both attended church-affiliated high schools. Casey was the best football player ever at North Florida Christian, while Lori was a cheerleader at Aucilla Christian, where she also played softball and ran track. They married in January 1989, when they were in their third year at Florida State. They agree that they were too young for marriage and ill-prepared for Kendall, who was born seven months later. "It's been almost like a job," says Lori. "We've had to stick it out through a lot of things."

The Weldons often begin their days at 6 a.m., and sometimes neither gets home before 7:30 p.m. "We pretty much lead separate lives now," says Lori. She takes 15 hours of classes and works part-time decorating mobile homes for her father's mobile-home sales company. Casey takes 10 hours of classes. "And I probably do his homework in six of them," says Lori.

The only time the two of them have a chance to get together with friends is on Saturday nights after games. They have dinner with either his parents or hers, drop Kendall off, and go to Ken's Tavern to meet some of his teammates. Casey and Lori don't drink. "We just socialize," she says.

They both will graduate from Florida State in December, she with a degree in child development, he with one in political science, a subject he admits he cares little about. "It's just a piece of paper so I can get out of here," he says. Weldon concentrates on football, hoping to get drafted by an NFL team that is willing to overlook the fact that he's only 6'1".

In the troubled spring of 1990, Weldon moved out of the house for a month. He was ambivalent about his marriage and in a foul mood because he sensed the starting position slipping away. After being redshirted as a freshman in 1987, he had patiently ridden the bench for two years behind Danny McManus, Chip Ferguson and Peter Tom Willis. Weldon assumed his time would come. However, during 1990 spring practice, he encountered stiff competition from Johnson, a Black Mountain, N.C., native who, besides being 6'6" and blessed with a rifle for an arm, was a varsity basketball player. Johnson won the job because he was steadier than Weldon. Weldon's aim was off; he missed too many receivers and, as a result, pressed too hard.

"I was counting on football as a way out," he says. "I was counting on it as a way of taking care of my wife and child, of taking care of my problems. It's not. My boyhood dream was right there in front of me. It was mine to lose. But instead of just playing ball, I tried to be perfect."

The coaches were confused by Weldon's performance. What had happened to the energetic, inspired playmaker they had been grooming for two years to run the offense? Weldon has a strong arm and has run a 4.59 40. He likes to sprint out, and that makes him a dangerous improvises, According to Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, Weldon is not unlike Joe Montana. "There is a point at which a coach has to say of a great player, 'No, I didn't teach him that,' " says Bowden. "He does that on his own."

In high school, Lee, who attended Chipley (Fla.) High, saw Weldon complete a 40-yard pass while dropping to his knees. The pass set up the field goal that beat Chipley by one point. "I thought they had him, and he came up throwing," says Lee. "He can do so much for himself."

According to Lori, Casey was the only thing Casey thought about during that wretched spring. "Football was all he cared about and worked for," she says. "His priorities weren't straight. But when he didn't make it, I think he fell back on Kendall and me."

After he lost the quarterback job to Johnson, Weldon became convinced that he would never be a starter. He considered transferring, but abandoned that idea when he realized it would be too expensive, particularly with only one year of eligibility remaining. He began to look around for something to sell. "I was restructuring my whole future," he says.

He also went to see Richt. "Do you really think I have a chance to make a living in this business?" Weldon asked his position coach. "Or should I quit and find a way to make a living for my family?"

Richt told Weldon he thought he had a future—if he made some changes. Weldon was relying too heavily on his improvisational skills. Richt told him that if he could adapt that ability to Florida State's pro-style system, he might eventually prove himself valuable to the NFL. "But if you're going to be just another guy running around making plays," said Richt, "then you'll probably make your last play in Tallahassee."

Richt gave Weldon one other sound piece of counsel: "Even when you're right, sometimes it's better to just shut up."

Weldon has had a hard time learning the importance of discretion and patience. "I can't stand for something stupid to cause something bad to happen," he says. "And half the time it's me doing it."

Weldon shut up, but he entered fall practice last year with a resignation that bordered on hopelessness. He had decided to focus on finishing school and finding a job. But as often happens when you give up on something, it suddenly becomes yours. Weldon relaxed and cut down on the number of his mistakes.

When the season began, Bowden inserted him for a series or two each game to keep his spirits up, and Weldon played well. Then, against Auburn on Oct. 20, Johnson failed to move the offense to a first down in the opening quarter. Weldon replaced him and produced 17 points in the second quarter. The Seminoles lost 20-17 on a last-minute field goal, but Weldon completed 20 of 30 passes for 244 yards, and earned the starting job for keeps.

Since then, he has put all the elements of his play together, and has added a dose of physicality that sometimes seems foolhardy, considering his 195-pound frame. Weldon stands in the pocket longer than he should, and if he has a choice between stepping out of bounds or turning upfield, he lowers his helmet. But the most familiar image of Weldon is that of a quarterback preparing to throw, either rolling out or with the pocket collapsing around him, oblivious to impending tacklers. "He's a quarterback with a linebacker's mentality," says center Robbie Baker. "He'd just as soon run the ball up the middle. I've seen him almost get in fights with 300-pound linemen."

As the starter Weldon has had the opportunity to go through what Johnson had experienced before him: watch his best friend get benched. Weldon and Johnson entered Florida State together and they have been constant companions and competitors ever since. "I couldn't have gotten through these five years without him and our escapades," says Weldon.

The two have never discussed their rivalry, and as freshmen they promised each other that they would not let it affect their friendship. That hasn't always been easy. As Weldon has learned, winning the starting quarterback job at Florida State is a potentially life-altering achievement, with a place in the NFL draft being one possible reward. Johnson can only hope that his natural ability and his model physique will keep the NFL interested in him.

"There's nothing he can say to me now," says Johnson of Weldon. "What would he say—'I'm sorry I'm the starting quarterback'? It's too bad we came here in the same year. You figure the starting quarterback here is going to get drafted. He had a family, and it was what he had worked for all his life, and to see it go away so quickly.... Well you can't help but think about it every night. Now things have changed; he's the one with the golden opportunity."

According to Weldon, Johnson could just as easily be the Seminoles' starter. "I honestly believe it's a flip of the coin," says Weldon.

That comes as no surprise because, as in everything else in which they compete, the difference between the two seems to come down to the width of a quarter. Incorrigible gamesmen, they engage in pitched battles in golf, bowling, miniature golf, tennis, basketball, pool, spades—the list goes on. They stage their own Olympics. "Maybe we're not the coolest guys," says Weldon. "We do a lot of dork things."

Sometimes they invite teammates to join their fun and games, but most of them have learned to leave the two quarterbacks alone. Weldon and Johnson will play all night if they have to, until a clear winner is established, and the only thing at stake—besides pride—is who buys Cokes. "There is nothing enjoyable about it," says Baker.

The reason for their competitions is to establish once and for all who is better at a certain game. If one of them begins to dominate in a sport, they quit playing it. Tennis, for example, has yet to be resolved. Johnson will leave a 10-minute message on Weldon's answering machine describing, says Weldon, "how he's going to whip me." That could be an invitation to a nightmare, because most of their sets result in tiebreakers. And they have a standing rule that if one of them has a chance to hit the other with the ball, he is required to do so. The person who gets hit buys the Cokes, regardless of the outcome of the match.

Their most memorable tennis match took place this summer in Tallahassee, when they decided that someone had to win not by two games but by two sets. For several hours, in 100° heat, they waged war. When they finally staggered inside after three sets, Weldon had chills. "We were fighting, running into fences," says Weldon. "It was nuts."

Believe it or not, they are equally contentious at Risk. Johnson complains that when he visits Weldon's parents' home, Weldon and his father, Bill, cheat, passing signals and tipping their cards. "They are the most deceiving people I've ever met," says Johnson. "They lie to you. They set that game up. They are going to make sure one of them wins."

Weldon disagrees. He says Johnson is too naive for Risk, a game that requires deception and salesmanship. "It's a lot of lying and conning," says Weldon. "Brad, that old Carolina boy, can't help but be nice. You can't be nice at Risk."

The things that Weldon did not learn about selling from Risk, he learned from The Winning Edge, a sales motivational program for college students run by former Vanderbilt assistant coach Donny Sherman. As a freshman, Weldon went through a 4½-day Winning Edge seminar in Nashville and emerged armed with fire extinguishers to sell and a sales presentation with which to sell them. He made $6,500 his first summer and, according to Sherman, has sold more fire extinguishers than anyone else since the program was started in 1986. "I made a killing," he says. "That was the easiest money I ever made. I loved making that money."

If nothing else, Weldon loved not having to haul bricks while working on his father's, uncles' and grandfather's construction projects. It was arm-wearying labor that he learned to disdain, as much for the hurried 15-minute lunches as anything else. The fire-extinguisher experience also gave Weldon a trade, something he thought he could count on last year when his future in football appeared to be in jeopardy. Weldon still may have to fall back on selling, if he gets lost in Florida State's lightning-fast offense, of which he says, "My job is just to spread the wealth around, let everybody get the ball. It's to let these athletes do the work for me."

He is something of a role player in an offense that includes such fine athletes as Lee, fullback Edgar Bennett and a host of first-rate receivers, and he may suffer in the eyes of Heisman voters and NFL scouts as a result. "To think that I've arrived, that's wrong," he says. "I don't think it'll ever get like that. It's a constant struggle."

In Tallahassee, however, Weldon has most definitely arrived, whether he knows it or not. He and Lori find it difficult to have a quiet dinner in a restaurant because everybody wants to talk to him. When he goes to Ken's, his teammates provoke profound embarrassment by yelling, "Hey, Casey Weldon's here!"

One Sunday afternoon not long ago, he was relaxing in a chair at the Seminoles athletic building. His hips and ribs wert sore from the previous day's game, and it was his one afternoon off from both family and football. If only for a moment, the pressures, the heartache and the worries of the last year and a half seemed far away. Weldon quietly exulted in the apparent fulfillment of all that promise. "It's just a carpet ride," he said. Sure.



No, you are not seeing double. On the left is Montana, and on the right is Weldon, who is undefeated in the 13 games he has started for the top-ranked Seminoles.



[See caption above.]



When Casey got beaten out at quarterback, says Lori, "he fell back on Kendall and me."



Johnson (left) may have lost to Weldon in football, but other sports are still up for grabs.



The question remains: Will the steady Weldon be overshadowed by his flashier teammates?