In his previous life Chris Weinke would have slumped in a backseat
and quietly endured the bus ride from the stadium. It was after
midnight, and he had played a decent game on Monday--not great,
not bad, nothing to keep him awake. In his former career this
would have been another day of running in place, of playing the
sport for only one person--himself--and wondering if he would ever
get off these darn buses and into the big time.
In this life the bus ride was part of the fun, and no one cared
that he had been mediocre on the field. His team, Florida State,
had won 23-14 over Texas A&M in the Kickoff Classic, and nothing
else mattered. So does it make sense now? When Weinke (pronounced
WINK-ee) gave up a six-year career in minor league baseball two
years ago to chase a dream in college football, some people
thought he was crazy. But at Giants Stadium on Monday night, the
reasons for his unusual career decision were on display.
While his much-anticipated debut at quarterback was less than
spectacular (21 for 36, for 207 yards and one TD), one thing was
clear: He may be 26 years old, but as a quarterback, he has some
growing up to do--and the Seminoles are just the team to allow him
to do it. "Obviously, I didn't have a great performance, but we
still won the game," said Weinke. "I didn't want to do too many
things, and with the athletes I have around me, I didn't have
With Weinke showing the rust from not having started a game in
nine years, his teammates picked up the slack. Sophomore tailback
Travis Minor carried the ball 34 times, for 146 yards, and junior
wide receiver Peter Warrick made nine catches, for 106 yards. The
Florida State defense held A&M to 133 yards, including a mere 20
in the second half. Weinke may not be ready, but he may not have
to be. Once again the Seminoles have the type of athletes who
make their opponents look like they're running in oatmeal. You
need some time, old man? Take all you need.
On the first play from scrimmage Weinke completed a 30-yard pass,
his first as a starting quarterback for the Seminoles. He was
relieved to finally put up some numbers because the words were
starting to grow mold. "I know it's an interesting story, but
I've told it a million times," he said on Sunday. "It's getting
old." Not that there's anything wrong with old. Weinke is so old
his teammates call him Old Man or Gramps. He's older than the DH
or Monica Lewinsky. He's older than 10 projected starting NFL
quarterbacks, including one of his predecessors at Florida State,
Danny Kanell, who's in his third season with the New York Giants.
A quick review: Weinke spent four days at Florida State in August
1990 before signing a contract with the Toronto Blue Jays and
banking a $375,000 bonus. Before Weinke left school, Seminoles
coach Bobby Bowden told the kid he would save him a scholarship
in case he changed his mind. Bowden kept his word, although
Weinke was no longer a kid when he reappeared in Tallahassee in
'97. "He played six years of pro ball," says Bowden. "So what if
it wasn't football? It still was pro sports."
To Weinke, it still wasn't Florida State football. A first
baseman, he made it as far as Triple A in the Blue Jays'
system--his batting average as a pro was .248--but he never lost
the desire to step up to the line of scrimmage and feel like he
was standing at the center of the sports universe. "I liked
baseball, but football gets in your blood," he says. "It's much
more intense, more exciting. No matter where I was playing
baseball, I'd get up on Saturday and watch all the preview shows.
Then I'd come back after my game to my apartment or hotel room
and watch all the wrap-up shows."
Weinke twice appeared in a mop-up role for Florida State last
season and was expected to spend another year as an understudy,
until Dan Kendra tore the ACL in his right knee in the spring
game. He gave himself a grade of C for his debut performance but
awarded himself an A-plus for leadership. With the Seminoles
leading 10-7 with less than a minute left in the first half,
Weinke rolled right and looked downfield, unaware of rushing
Aggie linebacker Christian Rodriguez, who drilled him and forced
the fumble. Cornerback Jay Brooks scooped up the ball and
returned it 21 yards for the TD that gave A&M a 14-10 lead at the
half. "When things got tough, I didn't get down," said Weinke.
"We were losing at the half, and no one expected that. We never
quit. We went back out and won."
Bowden says Weinke is "wiser than any quarterback we've ever
had," and apparently that wisdom extends to the way in which he
invested his baseball bonus, in real estate and stocks, among
other things. He has none of the money worries that plague most
sophomores. He's investing wisely still: To help 6'8", 300-pound
offensive tackle Ross Brannon stay beefed up, Weinke filled
Brannon's freezer with a dozen steaks. He took his wide receivers
to dinner at the restaurant of their choice. "Red Lobster," he
says, rolling his eyes. "Hey, it was their idea. Don't blame me."
"Wink Dog's old, and he's got more money than any of us," Minor
says, "but he acts like everyone else, goofs around, has a good
time and plays hard. I think we're going to grow together this
Growing is fine, but at Florida State it usually coincides with
winning. The Seminoles are on a remarkable streak of 11 straight
top four finishes, and here's more bad news for their 1998
opponents: Bowden says that this year the Seminoles have "more
speed than any other team we've had." They need more speed like
Mark McGwire needs a One-A-Day.
Strangely, the quarterback who may have played the pivotal role
in Monday night's matchup wasn't even at the Meadowlands. He was
in Indianapolis preparing for his NFL debut this Sunday with the
Colts. While Peyton Manning is well known as the guy whose
presence persuaded Branndon Stewart, the Aggies' starting
quarterback, to transfer to Texas A&M from Tennessee, he also
helped convince Weinke to return to campus life before it was too
late. "I met him one day in Knoxville in 1995," says Weinke. "I
was in Double A, and he came to one of our games. He told me he
was loving life in college, that I'd be crazy if I didn't give it
a shot. And he was right. Nothing compares to playing quarterback
in a big college-football game. Nothing."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN IACONO UNRELENTING Tommy Polley made a team-high five solo tackles for a defense that held Dante Hall and the Aggies to 133 yards.