Louisiana Tech quarterback Tim Rattay, the most productive
passer in the college game this year, isn't what football people
like to call a specimen. He stands an inch over six feet, and he
weighs a little under 200 pounds. That's about average for a
quarterback. But Rattay does have one amazing physical
attribute: his sideburns.
Observed from any angle, they look as if someone has peeled
rubber on either side of his face. Fat Elvis would have loved
the look, as would any pool hustler or pizza delivery guy worth
his pepperoni. "I don't know what Tim's deal is with those
things," says his roommate, tight end David Newman. "They're
big, though. Huge."
"Oh, he's a nerdy little guy," adds Tech defensive lineman Otis
Pitts, "but don't be fooled by appearances. Tim can shock the
world. To look at him you'd never guess he's the best
quarterback in the country, would you?"
In Kentucky they're sitting up tall in their porch swings right
about now. The best quarterback in the country? Hey, what about
the Wildcats' Tim Couch? And at Central Florida you can bet
they're damned near heat-stroked: Rattay better than Daunte
Culpepper? "Our guy is up there with both of those, absolutely,"
says Louisiana Tech coach Gary Crowton, who's in his third
season at the helm of the independent Bulldogs. "They might have
more size than Tim does, but productivity is the key to being a
great quarterback. Remember Doug Flutie? Remember Ty Detmer?
That's the class Tim's in. He's just one of those rare magical
players who come along every now and then."
They learned that in Lincoln, Neb., back in August, when Rattay
passed for a staggering 590 yards in a 56-27 season-opening loss
to the Cornhuskers. No quarterback had thrown for as many yards
against Nebraska. Senior receiver Troy Edwards produced most of
that yardage, making 21 catches en route to setting an NCAA
record with 405 yards, and when he left the field, Cornhusker
fans came to their feet and cheered.
"Did you ever imagine in your wildest dreams that anyone would
pass for 590 yards against Nebraska, in Lincoln?" says Mickey
Slaughter, a former Tech quarterback and coach who played for
the Denver Broncos in the 1960s. "Had Tim's receivers caught all
the balls they should've caught, he'd have passed for 700 yards.
It was absolutely overwhelming. Tim's passing right now at a 67%
completion rate, and he's throwing more than 45 passes a game. I
coached here for 12 years, and back then we couldn't complete
67% against anybody--not even against high weeds."
Last season, as a redshirt sophomore, Rattay led the nation in
total offense, and his showing in Lincoln announced his
intention to dominate the statistical wars in 1998. After nine
games this year he is averaging 392.2 passing yards a game
(chart, page 68) and has thrown 31 touchdowns, both tops in the
nation. He has passed for 3,530 yards even though in three of
the Bulldogs' four victories (against five losses) he played
little in the second half, having put his team so far out of
reach that Crowton pulled him to keep him safe and the score
Until Rattay passed for a season-low 227 yards and had four
interceptions last Saturday in a 32-17 defeat at Auburn, his
least-productive game had been a 28-7 loss at Texas A&M, which
had the good fortune of facing him in the throes of tropical
storm Frances. In that game, despite the wild conditions, Rattay
passed for 239 yards. "As far as college quarterbacks go, he
doesn't look up to anyone," Terry Bowden said last week, a few
days before resigning as Auburn coach.
Whether intentionally or not, Bowden identified Rattay as a
"college" quarterback. Mainly because of their size and arm
strength, Culpepper, a senior, and Couch, a junior, better
resemble pros biding their time in a game of amateurs, as Peyton
Manning and Ryan Leaf did last year. Rattay's football destiny
is less certain. Since the beginning of the year pro scouts have
come tramping through Ruston in droves, but their mission has
been to see Edwards, the All-America playmaker who leads the
country in receptions a game and receiving yards a game and is
likely to be a high pick in the draft. "I've talked to almost
every last one of the scouts," Edwards says, "and they all ask
me about Tim. 'How good is he really?' they all want to know. It
seems they're trying to decide who's responsible for his big
numbers--whether it's Tim, the offense we run or me. I tell them
to come see us play and let that decide it. The most amazing
thing about Tim is that teams we play know he's going to throw
the ball and still can't stop us."
One NFL scout who has seen the Bulldogs play says that there's
room for Rattay in the pros. "He has been in a sophisticated
passing offense and has gotten great coaching," says the scout.
"His arm seems like it's good enough to make an NFL team. He'll
get his chance to play."
Rattay, keen on becoming a high school football coach after
college, is hardly worried about whether his future includes the
NFL. He's just thrilled to be playing. In high school he didn't
start at quarterback until his senior year. College recruiters
ignored him even though at Phoenix Christian High in 1994 he
passed for an Arizona-state-record 40 touchdowns, seven of them
in one game.
Without a scholarship, he enrolled at nearby Scottsdale
Community College, home of the Artichokes and the same school
where quarterback Joe Germaine of Ohio State had played the year
before. Rattay beat out seven other contenders for the starting
job. "I don't know how I got it," he says. "I was probably the
smallest and the weakest of the bunch. They were classic NFL
types, 6'4" and 240, with big arms."
"Tim was never the sort of athlete who just jumped out at you,
but neither was Joe Montana," says Tim's father, Jim, coach at
Desert Vista High in Phoenix. "Even when Tim was playing Pop
Warner, the coaches were putting bigger and stronger kids ahead
of him. He'd start at tight end or someplace, but eventually he
would take over and be the quarterback, and he always won for
In 1995, as a freshman at Scottsdale, Rattay led junior college
quarterbacks in passing yards with 3,526 and touchdown passes
with 28. He also threw 18 interceptions, which explains in part
why no school but Louisiana Tech made him an offer. "I watched
Tim on film, and he had no pass protection," says Crowton, who
was the Bulldogs' offensive coordinator at the time. "Every time
he threw the ball he'd get crushed. They'd hit him so hard you
wondered how he could take it, then he'd pop up and complete
another pass. I thought, This kid is tough. Then I visited
another school, Mesa Community College, which had played against
him, and the players there told me they were taking bets on the
sideline to see which of them was going to knock him out of the
game, because they were pounding him every play."
Crowton called Rattay at home and left a message on his
answering machine identifying himself as an assistant at
Louisiana Tech, where Terry Bradshaw had played. "I'd never
heard of Tech, and I'd never heard of Ruston," Rattay says. "I
didn't even know the school was in Division I-A."
Rattay flew out for a visit and quickly became enchanted. The
people of Ruston (pop. 20,000) were as friendly as any he'd ever
met, the cuisine was better than any he'd ever eaten, and the
way the girls spoke with a delicate Southern drawl...well, to
his way of thinking, they couldn't have been more appealing.
Everywhere you looked there were pine trees and red dirt. And
come dinnertime, people really liked their peas. "I never knew
there were so many kinds of peas and so many ways to eat them,"
Rattay says. "In Arizona I was used to just green peas. Here
they have have black-eyed peas and all these other peas. I don't
know if that counts as a cultural difference, but it certainly
was new for me, and I liked it."
Rattay also liked Crowton, the mastermind behind what some
people in football call a "global offense" for its anything-goes
approach to moving the ball. As a journeyman assistant, Crowton
studied under LaVell Edwards, Mike Holmgren and Tom Coughlin,
among others, and at Tech he has established his reputation as a
formation geek who really likes to chuck the ball. Having run
out of numbers with which to label his plays, Crowton, who
became head coach in 1996, turned to the heavens for
inspiration. "We've got formations called Moon, Sun, Stars and
Mars," he says. "Something we did looked like a star, so I
called it that. I know our offense is unique, and people are
starting to take notice. We had about 200 college coaches come
visit last year to learn what we're doing."
After his redshirt season Rattay quickly showed that he was the
perfect leader for Crowton's sophisticated passing game. "I
remember in Tim's first scrimmage, he was about to be sacked,
and he turned and fired the ball upfield to an area where he
knew the receiver was going to be open," says Pete Carmichael,
the Bulldogs' quarterbacks coach. "It takes great vision to do
that, and Tim has it. He's also as smart as anyone you'll find
at his position."
The Tech offense requires Rattay to call many of the plays at
the line of scrimmage, a task he completes with hand signals
rather than verbal calls. As he taps his helmet and pads and
waves his hands, he looks more like a third base coach than a
football player. In particular, he's developed a symbiotic
relationship with Edwards, who understands Rattay's intentions
simply by looking at him. "They have a kind of ESP," says Jim
"It comes from hours and hours of work," Tim says. "Over the
summer Troy and I worked out together four days a week. I would
throw it, and he would catch it, over and over again. You get to
where all you have to do is look at each other to communicate."
Rattay also puts in lots of time off the field. Nearly every
night he studies game tapes at home for two hours, this in
addition to the two hours he spends watching tape before
practice. Rattay shares an apartment with two of his teammates,
and so as not to monopolize the living room, he has moved the
VCR into his bedroom. He falls asleep not to Leno or Letterman
but to videos showing the upcoming opponent's defense. He has
Bulldogs film coordinator Mitchell Wilkens edit the tapes to
highlight blitzes, red-zone fronts and packages used in
third-and-medium and third-and-long situations. On road trips
Tech brings an extra VCR and sets it up in Rattay's hotel room
for late-night viewing. Often Rattay finds something that the
coaches overlooked. And he's devised plays of his own. Against
Nebraska the Bulldogs used one of them, 82-All Slant-R Flat, to
score a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
Rattay, a secondary-education major with a 2.96 grade point
average, is so focused on offensive strategy that he
occasionally grows distracted during classes and begins
diagramming plays in his notebook. "Like five or six pages of
nothing but plays," says roommate Newman. "He does that all the
time. At the table at home he'll just sit and draw up plays.
When there's nothing to do, that's what he's doing. Sometimes I
wonder how we got him down here. He could be starting for any
team in the country, and at a big school he'd be a certain
There couldn't be a less self-impressed one. In his spare time
this fall, which has been little, Rattay has been coaching a
sorority flag-football team, the Sigma Kappas. He works them out
on Sunday afternoons on the same field where the Bulldogs
practice, and he runs an offense remarkably similar to the one
he operates for Crowton. "He has all these fancy plays," says
Tara Johnston, a cornerback on the team, "and he writes them
down on cards. I remember running into him in the student
center. He pulled me over and said, 'Hey, Tara, guess what? I've
got some new plays.'"
Rattay has thrown 65 touchdowns in less than two years at Tech,
more than any other quarterback in school history, including
Bradshaw, who had 39 during his career. Yet off the field he goes
largely unnoticed. On those rare occasions when fans recognize
him, they find he's easy to approach. Want an autograph? Sure.
Want to sit and chat for a few minutes? Why not?
"The great thing about Tim is that he's so modest and so real,"
says Johnston, "and you just don't expect that out of a big-time
"Let me put it to you this way," says O.K. Davis, a sportswriter
for The Ruston Daily Leader who also covered Bradshaw 30 years
ago. "If somebody delivers a pizza to your motel door, he just
might be Tim Rattay. The guy is that unassuming. You look at him
and kind of want to laugh. Those sideburns and all. I mean, why
isn't this guy off somewhere playing a piano?"
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Well armed Though Auburn held him to a season-low 227 yards last Saturday, Rattay has had three 500-yard games in 1998. [Tim Rattay throwing pass in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [Tim Rattay being tackled in game]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES SOuthern comfort Rattay, an unassuming sort who was raised in Arizona, finds the country feel of Ruston to his liking. [Tim Rattay signing autograph for girl]
With games remaining against Nicholls State, Arkansas State and
Tulane, Tim Rattay (above) is on pace to finish with 4,700 yards
passing, good for third on the single-season list behind BYU's Ty
Detmer (who threw for 5,188 yards in 1990) and Houston's David
Klingler (5,140 in '90). Here's how Rattay stacks up against this
season's other top passers.
NAME, SCHOOL G ATTS.COMPS. PCT.INTS.TDS YARDS
Tim Rattay, Louisiana Tech 9 412 276 .670 11 31 3,530
Tim Couch, Kentucky 8 399 286 .717 10 27 3,108
Chris Redman, Louisville 8 371 229 .617 13 20 2,976
Daunte Culpepper, Central Fla. 7 259 190 .734 2 19 2,571
Drew Brees, Purdue 8 350 235 .671 12 20 2,620
Tim Lester, Western Michigan 8 311 178 .572 15 15 2,422
Walt Church, Eastern Michigan 8 322 194 .602 12 13 2,420
Todd Husak, Stanford 7 304 161 .530 6 13 2,107
Chad Pennington, Marshall 8 301 200 .664 3 18 2,359
Chris Weinke, Florida State 8 243 122 .502 6 16 2,006
[NAME, SCHOOL] YARDS PER
[Tim Rattay, Louisiana Tech] 392.2
[Tim Couch, Kentucky] 388.5
[Chris Redman, Louisville] 372.0
[Daunte Culpepper, Central Fla.] 367.3
[Drew Brees, Purdue] 327.5
[Tim Lester, Western Michigan]] 302.8
[Walt Church, Eastern Michigan] 302.5
[Todd Husak, Stanford] 301.0
[Chad Pennington, Marshall] 294.9
[Chris Weinke, Florida State] 250.7
Rattay has thrown for 65 touchdowns in less than two years, more
than any other Tech passer, including Bradshaw.