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Coming Through Led by a cool Chris Weinke, refocused Florida State sank Florida in the Swamp to win a shot at the national title


Chris Weinke's Florida State teammates danced on the big orange
F in the middle of Florida Field last Saturday evening,
celebrating a 30-23 victory over the Gators, a victory that
capped an 11-0 regular season and put the Seminoles in the
national championship game for the third time in four years. In
a corner of the stadium reserved for the enemy, the Florida
State marching band pounded out background music while fans and
players intoned their war chant and chopped their right arms
through the night air. All this was new to Weinke, the
Seminoles' 27-year-old junior quarterback, because it's possible
to be very old and very young at the same time.

He'd seen Florida State-Florida games before. In the fall of
1996, after he'd retired from professional baseball following a
six-year career that peaked at Triple A, Weinke sat in the
stands in Tallahassee and watched the Seminoles beat the Gators
24-21. A year later, in Gainesville, he was on the bench when
Florida upset Florida State 32-29, and last fall he was a week
removed from neck surgery that had ended his season--and nearly
his career--when the Seminoles beat the Gators 23-12 back home.
"I was there for all of them," he said before this year's game,
"but I wasn't in the middle of the action, and that's what you
live for."

On Saturday, though, Weinke was right in the cauldron. He
completed 24 of 36 passes for 263 yards and one touchdown; more
significant, he showed a steady hand and a clear head despite
the roars that make Florida's Swamp one of college football's
most hostile environments. His one interception was returned for
the third-quarter touchdown that gave Florida its only lead, but
the mistake only steeled him further. His 27-yard touchdown pass
to Marvin Minnis was the killing blow, giving the Seminoles a
30-16 lead with 6:03 to play and providing the cushion to
survive Florida's desperate rally. When the game was over,
football tasted sweeter than ever to Weinke. "Everything I
expected," he said, "and much, much more."

His plan once seemed so simple: Quit baseball, take up Florida
State coach Bobby Bowden on the scholarship offer he had made in
1990 and had said was good for life, and arrive in the NFL a few
years older than the rest of the rookies. Nice idea, but not
real life. Weinke sat behind Thad Busby and Dan Kendra (now the
Seminoles' fullback) in '97 and, after earning the starting job
a year ago, suffered enormous criticism for the six-interception
egg he laid in a stunning loss at North Carolina State. He hurt
his neck in the 10th game of the '98 season and, after surgery
to repair ligament damage, a ruptured disk and a bone chip
lodged near a nerve, endured what he called "three months in
hell" while the injury healed.

Even this year, while leading Florida State to its third
unbeaten regular season in Bowden's 24-year tenure, Weinke was
held up to the exacting standards of Tallahassee fans and media,
who expect nothing less than national titles and place most of
the responsibility on the quarterback. Style points are
important. After comeback wins at Clemson and Virginia in late
October, Weinke was ripped for mediocre performances (24 for 49
with one interception against Clemson; 24 for 35 with three
interceptions against Virginia). "We were winning games, and it
seemed like everything that was being said was negative," Weinke
says. "That kind of thing isn't fun." He became cantankerous
around the press, the antithesis of his persona in previous
years. "You could say he's gotten a chip on his shoulder," says
Florida State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mark
Richt. "He doesn't think he's gotten the respect he deserves."

Weinke has weathered this storm largely apart from the other
Seminoles, with whom he shares little besides football. "He's a
member of this team, and we're all close in that way," says
senior offensive guard Jason Whitaker, "but think about it: I'm
22 years old, one of the older guys on the team, and I'm still
five years younger than Chris. He doesn't hang with any of us,
and it would be pretty unusual if he did."

Weinke lives off-campus with two roommates who are not football
players. "I get along with everybody," says Weinke, "but I'm not
close with anybody on the team." It is a virtual certainty that
Weinke will forgo his final year of eligibility and make himself
available for the NFL draft in June.

Yet for now his teammates need him badly. They needed him on
Saturday to drive Florida State to 17 points on four possessions
after Florida had taken a 16-13 lead on Bennie Alexander's
43-yard interception return for a touchdown with 7:39 to play in
the third quarter. The Seminoles needed Weinke because tailback
Travis Minor had injured his left ankle. They needed Weinke
because, as the fourth quarter wound down, the Gators began
taking more defensive chances, and only an experienced
quarterback could exploit them.

Florida State, leading 23-16, took possession on its 22 with
8:02 to play. After a screen pass and a run picked up 10 yards,
Weinke hit flanker Peter Warrick for a 38-yard gain. Two plays
later Weinke and Minnis adjusted on the fly when Florida bumped
Minnis as he came off the line, and they connected on the
27-yard score that put Florida too far behind. "What made the
difference for us was Chris's maturity and confidence," said
Seminoles wide receiver Ron Dugans. "He never lost his composure."

That's invaluable on a team that has tried to commit suicide
several times this season. First the Seminoles' defense
surrendered 35 points in a narrow win over Georgia Tech. Three
weeks later Warrick was suspended for two games when he was
arrested on a felony charge after receiving what amounted to an
illicit 95% discount at a department store. (He pleaded guilty
to a misdemeanor.) Two weeks after that, cornerback Tay Cody was
suspended for one game after he was charged with possession of
marijuana. (He has not yet been arraigned.) Florida coach Steve
Spurrier's snarky 1994 jibe (inspired by an infamous Foot Locker
shopping spree by some Seminoles that was bankrolled by an
agent) that morphed the name Florida State University into Free
Shoes University was twice updated this fall by Gators fans: to
Free Shirts University and Fresh Stash University. More to the
point, the Seminoles were playing unevenly, a dangerous habit in
a season rife with upsets.

That had begun to change, though, on Monday, Oct. 18, when,
following a sluggish 33-10 win over Wake Forest, the Seminoles'
captains--Dugans, defensive tackle Jerry Johnson, linebacker
Bobby Rhodes, noseguard Corey Simon and Whitaker--called a
players-only meeting. "We'd never had a real, big-time, big-city
meeting before," says senior cornerback Mario Edwards. "We
needed it." Senior safety Sean Key cried as he begged his
teammates to come together. Dugans raised the NFL issue. "Too
many guys are worrying about how much money they're going to be
making next year," he said. He pointed out that according to
many of Florida's veteran players, the 1998 Gators stars had
spent last season planning their futures, and it had cost their
team, which finished with a loss to Florida State, eliminating
it from a possible Fiesta Bowl berth. The meeting gave the
Seminoles a purpose. "It went right to the heart of the team,"
says junior defensive end Roland Seymour.

Bowden was thrilled. "I've had players call meetings before
because I told them to," he says. "This one, I didn't tell them
anything. That means they care. They want to do something to
keep their season alive."

It couldn't be more alive. The Seminoles will rest for five
weeks before playing for the national title in the Sugar Bowl,
trying to win it all for only the second time (the first was in
1993) despite 12 consecutive seasons ranked no lower than No. 4
in the final polls. Bowden stood on the sideline late in
Saturday's win and watched Florida draw within a touchdown with
3:33 to play. He watched the Gators force a three-and-out and
get one last chance, on a pass heaved into the end zone on the
final play. In his mind Bowden saw the season-killing losses to
Florida in '97, to Miami in '91 and '92. "I thought about those
games," Bowden said. "I thought about all of them."

He watched, and his ancient quarterback stood nearby, watching
too, as the ball fell to the grass and the clock died.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Seminole on a roll Criticized by fans and media for earlier performances, Weinke completed 24 of 36 passes for 263 yards against the Gators.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Headstrong Minor made two catches for 18 yards and rushed for 31 before an ankle injury yanked him in the second half.

"We were winning games, and all that was being said was
negative," said Weinke.