Publish date:

Rip Van Weinke Four years after waking up to his failings in baseball, 28-year-old Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke is chasing a second national title and the Heisman


The jokes won't cease, because a 28-year-old college football
player is simply too inviting a target to leave alone, even if
similar quips about him have been circulating for the past three
years. Only a couple of weeks ago Florida State's aged
quarterback Chris Weinke was on the phone with former Seminoles
teammate Kevin Long, a three-year NFL veteran who's the starting
center for the Tennessee Titans. "Don't worry about your age,
because lots of 28-year-olds are still going to school," Long
reassured Weinke. "It's just that most of them are doctors."

As Weinke moved within 128 yards last week of eclipsing the ACC
career record of 9,614 passing yards set by Duke's Ben Bennett in
1983, Bennett shrugged off the inevitable. "If somebody has to
break my record, I'm glad it's a guy who graduated from high
school in the same year I did," said Bennett, a 38-year-old
assistant coach at Duke who, in fact, graduated from high school
in '80, 10 years before Weinke.

Somewhere, rim shots echo. "I hardly know anybody older than
Chris, except maybe the coaches," says Florida State senior
wideout Marvin Minnis.

It's hard to lay off a guy who enrolled at Florida State in
August 1990, with the same freshman class as seven-year NBA point
guard Charlie Ward; who made enough money in a six-year minor
league baseball career before returning to Tallahassee in '97
that nobody questions how he can afford to drive a 2000 Ford
Expedition; who holds such sway over his youngest teammates that
when freshman quarterback Chris Rix talks about Weinke, he sounds
nothing short of reverential. "When I'm with him, I cut down on
my messing around and try to be as mature as possible," says Rix.
"I try to keep my focus, because I want Chris to respect me and
be proud of me." Are you sure you're not talking about your

Weinke, meanwhile, is laughing all the way through a brilliant
senior regular season that concludes on Saturday night in
Tallahassee when the No. 3-ranked Seminoles host No. 4 Florida.
After passing for a routine 324 yards and five touchdowns in
last Saturday's 35-6 victory over Wake Forest, Weinke has thrown
for 30 TDs in 11 games, tops in the nation, with nine
interceptions. "Physically, he has amazing arm strength, and
mentally he's become a quarterback who never makes you ask, Why
did he do that?" says Duke's Bennett, who watched Weinke throw
for 536 yards and five touchdowns against the Blue Devils on
Oct. 14.

Despite missing those six years of football while playing
baseball, despite a neck injury that nearly ended his career two
years ago and despite the many fans and even teammates who view
him as a curiosity--the Old Guy--Weinke has carved out one of the
best college quarterback careers in history. Even though he
played minimally as a freshman, he needs only 14 passing yards
against the Gators to become the second college quarterback to
pass for 9,500 yards and win a national championship. (Danny
Wuerffel was the first, at Florida between 1993 and '96.) Pending
a victory over the Gators and another in the right bowl game,
Weinke could become the first quarterback in 25 years to lead a
team to consecutive national titles. (Oklahoma's Steve Davis in
'74 and '75 was the last; Tommie Frazier played on Nebraska's '94
and '95 title teams but missed most of the '94 season with blood
clots.) Weinke also remains in the thick of a three-way,
all-quarterbacks Heisman Trophy race with Oklahoma's Josh Heupel
and Purdue's Drew Brees.

"I believe I'm a confident person, and I thrive on people telling
me I can't do something," said Weinke two days before the rout of
Wake Forest, "but I never imagined all the things that have
happened to me. Starting quarterback at Florida State? Win a
national championship? Maybe win another one? Hear my name
mentioned for the Heisman Trophy? None of it sinks in."

Last fall Weinke threw for 3,103 yards and 25 touchdowns in
leading the Seminoles to a wire-to-wire No. 1 ranking. After he
passed for 329 yards and four touchdowns in the 46-29 Sugar Bowl
victory over Virginia Tech that gave his team the national title,
it seemed certain that, at 27, he would enter the NFL draft. Yet
he heard that he would probably be picked no higher than the
third round, so he stayed put. "I felt the scouts might have been
right," says Weinke, who will graduate in December with a degree
in sports management and a 3.4 average. "I felt I could make
myself a better quarterback."

He also liked his life in Tallahassee, where the weather is
idyllic and the football is fantastic, and the social life is
full of opportunity. "Let's just say he has a lot of fans in
Tallahassee," says Long.

The 6'5" Weinke needed improvement in two aspects of
quarterbacking: short passes and foot quickness. He improved the
former with countless repetitions and the latter by dropping his
weight from 245 to 228 pounds and spending long summer hours
doing agility drills in a deep sandpit. His NFL future will hinge
on winter tryouts, but there seems far less uncertainty now than
a year ago. "Big, strong guy, looks almost like a weightlifter,"
says one NFL personnel man. "The age doesn't hurt him; might even
help him with some teams because you know he's mature. He reminds
me of Kent Graham, who's kind of a career backup, but also a
millionaire. The big negative on Weinke is his foot speed."

Another NFL executive says, "I think Weinke has more upstairs
than Graham, in terms of understanding game plans and reading
coverages. By playing for the last two years, he's shown that
he's at no unusual risk of injury. Arm strength isn't a problem.
The negatives are his lack of mobility and the question of
whether he has been made better by the system. Most Florida State
quarterbacks haven't done well in the league. He's going to be a
tough decision for some teams, whether they go second round,
third round or wait."

Weinke has seized control of a good team and made it his own.
When Duke attacked him with blitzes that the Blue Devils hadn't
shown on tape, he changed both the routes his receivers were
running and all of Florida State's audible hand signals right
there on the field. When Clemson had the Seminoles backed up on
their own two-yard line in the first quarter, Weinke called a
play-action bomb to Minnis and barked to his blockers in the
huddle, "Give me some time, and this is a touchdown." They did,
and it was.

The age difference between Weinke and some of his teammates is
wider than ever. His second-leading receiver, sophomore Anquan
Boldin, was in fourth grade when Weinke arrived in Tallahassee
in 1990. Weinke lives five miles from campus with three
housemates--ages 25 to 27--in a rented, three-bedroom home in a
family neighborhood. "I live like a pro athlete," he says. "I go
home after work."

Yet around the Seminoles, Weinke has deftly bridged the
generation gap, playing young to ease tension and old to exert
leadership. When someone jokes about his age, he laughs along
with everyone else. "He's so confident that you have to listen to
him," says Minnis, "but he can hang out with the team, too."

In the fall of 1990, Weinke was the prized freshman recruit in
what coach Bobby Bowden still calls "the most talented group of
quarterbacks we've ever had here." The group included senior
Casey Weldon, junior Brad Johnson and fellow freshman Ward, who
was behind Weinke in early workouts. Weinke stayed only five days
before signing a contract with the Toronto Blue Jays that
included a $375,000 bonus. In 1994, he invested the money as a
limited partner in the ownership of 49 rental apartments in his
native Minneapolis. His investment in that venture, he says, has
doubled itself.

The arc of his baseball career was less impressive, although not
without memories. Weinke was playing first base for the Double A
Knoxville Smokies in the summer of 1994, when Michael Jordan of
the Birmingham Bulls got his first pro hit, a single bounced up
the middle. It's one of Weinke's fondest memories that, before
each of the eight games that Knoxville played against the Bulls
that summer, MJ would mix with the Smokies' players around the
batting cage. Jordan used to call Weinke Wink-Dog. A year later,
when Weinke was still playing in Knoxville, Peyton Manning, who
at the time was a Tennessee sophomore, visited him before a
baseball game. A mutual friend had told Manning of Weinke's
football background, and during their talk he assured Weinke
that, yes, college football was everything it was reputed to be.
It was a conversation that Weinke would recall when his career
stalled at Triple A Syracuse.

After the 1996 season, the Blue Jays asked Weinke, a light hitter
with a decent glove, to move to catcher, which would have forced
him to drop back to Class A. "Starting over," Weinke says. It was
a frightening thought for a 24-year-old, six-year veteran. "I had
been looking around the clubhouse for a couple of years," he
says. "I was playing with 30- to 35-year-old guys who had done
nothing but play minor league baseball. They'd never gone to
college and had no hope of playing in the major leagues. I didn't
want that to be me."

In a story that has become part of the Weinke legend, Bowden had
told Weinke when he left in 1990 that he could have his
scholarship anytime he wanted it. "I didn't really expect him to
come back," says Bowden. Yet in late fall of '96, Weinke decided
that he wanted the scholarship. Florida State offensive
coordinator Mark Richt wasn't thrilled. "I was about to get Drew
Henson [then a junior in high school] to commit to us," says
Richt. "I tried to talk Chris out of it, not just because I
didn't think he could pull it off but also because I didn't want
him to mess up our chances of getting Henson." Weinke signed,
and Henson ended up at Michigan.

As a freshman Weinke was a mess. "He was out of shape, he had no
touch on the ball, his footwork was horrible," says Richt. "I
told him, 'You might never play here, you know?'"

In the spring of 1998, Weinke was listed as second on the depth
chart, behind Dan Kendra, but when Kendra blew out his right knee
in spring practice, Weinke was elevated to starter. He threw for
2,487 yards and 19 touchdowns in 10 games and overcame a
six-interception debacle at North Carolina State before suffering
his neck injury in a Nov. 7 win over Virginia. Weinke was
blindsided and incurred ligament damage, a ruptured disk and,
most painfully, a bone chip that lodged near a nerve in his neck.

He underwent surgery in December to have the bone chip removed
and the ligament and disk repaired. His recovery took more than
six months, including a five-day stay in the hospital after the
operation. The recuperation was worse than Weinke has ever before
described publicly. For several days after returning to his
Tallahassee house, he couldn't eat, drink or leave his bed. His
housemates left him alone, assuming he needed quiet and privacy.
A doctor acquaintance visited him four days after he had returned
home, found him dehydrated and delirious, and had him moved back
to a hospital. "She told me, another day like that and I could
have been in serious trouble," Weinke says.

He accompanied his teammates to the January 1999 Fiesta Bowl, but
suffered blinding headaches caused by leaking spinal fluid. One
day in Phoenix he tried to pick up a football, but his arm and
hand were so weak that the ball dropped to the ground. "That
scared me," he says. It would be nearly eight months before he
was tackled again.

That's all in the past now, a chapter in one of the longest
player biographies in college football history. "It would be an
understatement to call it a roller-coaster ride," says Weinke.
He's standing in his family room. The walls are decorated with
miniature football helmets, and outside the door, in the
backyard, empty beer kegs are swimming in huge plastic ice
buckets, the detritus of Saturday-night postgame parties. It's a
good life for an old man. "Even if I had the chance to go back
nine years," says Weinke, "I wouldn't change anything."





Let's Play Two

Chris Weinke isn't the only starting college quarterback with
pro baseball experience. Five others have taken their turns on
the diamond, with only Drew Henson of Michigan (below) still
pursuing a shot at a big league career. Here's a look at their
flirtations with baseball and how they've done on the gridiron
this season.

Chosen fifth in the 1994 draft by the Marlins, Booty spent five
seasons in the minors, during which he batted .198 with 62
homers and 252 RBIs in 478 games. He had three stints in the
majors, the last in '98, when he opened the season at third base
in place of the injured Bobby Bonilla. In 13 big-league games
Booty hit .269 with no home runs and four RBIs. Last year he
followed his heart back to football and his native Louisiana,
where in his second season with LSU he's tied for first in the
SEC in touchdown passes, with 17.

A second-round pick of the Cubs in 1996, Carter, a centerfielder,
batted .217 with 155 strikeouts and seven homers in 189 games of
Rookie and Class A ball. He hung up his glove one game into the
'99 season so that he could focus on football. After throwing for
5,197 yards and 29 TDs in his first two seasons at Georgia, he
has been slowed by a torn ligament in his right thumb and a
bruised left shoulder this fall and has passed for only 1,250
yards and six TDs, with 10 interceptions.

The 11th pick in the 1994 draft, the lefthanded-hitting Farris
spent five years at shortstop, third base and first base in the
Pirates' organization, advancing no further than Double A. In his
first season as the Aggies' starter, he has thrown for 2,261
yards and nine touchdowns.

Selected in the 14th round of the 1994 draft by the Blue Jays,
Hampton, an outfielder, batted .211 in Class A in '97 but gave
up on baseball when the Blue Jays asked him to try pitching. In
eight games with the Razorbacks this fall, he has passed for
1,386 yards and 13 TDs.

A third-round selection in 1998 by the Yankees, Henson, a third
baseman, progressed steadily enough in his first two summers
that the club was ready to discuss a long-term contract if he
would stop playing football. Henson refused, and the Yankees
made him part of a six-player trade with the Reds in July for
pitcher Denny Neagle. Henson hit only .172 with Cincinnati's
Double A affiliate before returning to campus for his first
season as Michigan's starter, during which he has passed for
1,549 yards and 13 touchdowns.

He bridged the generations, playing young to ease tension, old
to exert leadership.