Ara Parseghian, who took over as head coach at Northwestern seven seasons ago and who has had his ups and downs since then, may be the happiest Armenian in America at the moment, and all because of the presence on his Northwestern football squad of a tall, baby-faced, 19-year-old sophomore quarterback named Tom Myers. Myers, the most impressive new face—or arm—in college football this year, won the first-string quarterback job at Northwestern six months ago in spring practice, when he was still a freshman. Last month, in his first varsity game, he threw 24 passes and completed 20 of them, including 15 in succession, which may well have been the most auspicious debut a sophomore quarterback has ever made. He completed seven of 11 in his second game, 16 of 25 in the next (including four for touchdowns) and 18 of 30 in his next. Last Saturday against Notre Dame he shook the defense apart with his soft, sharp passes, and Northwestern breezed to its fifth straight victory 35-6.Myers completed 11 of 18 passes, two for touchdowns, threw two more for successful two-point extra points and then left the game halfway through the third period, his team leading 29-0 and his work for the day done.
The extent to which Myers and his extraordinary skill as a passer dominate Northwestern football can be shown in statistics, but beyond statistics, the significant impact Myers has had on this team lies in the extraordinary fact that even when he was a freshman his genius as a passer was so obvious that Ara Parseghian completely restyled his offense to take advantage of it. Where most college coaches are following Bear Bryant of Alabama and Woody Hayes of Ohio State into the conservative, close-to-the-vest, wait-for-your-opponent-to-make-a-mistake school of football, Parseghian turned to an aggressive pro-style offense with a flanker back out wide who is used only for pass receiving. The entire offense is geared to the quarterback's ability to throw the ball. Northwestern still runs with the ball two times out of three, but the rushing attack—though sharp and effective—is essentially a diversion to set up the pass patterns.
This gamble of Parseghian's—to bet everything on Myers—is paying off. Last year Northwestern was ninth in the Big Ten in passing; this year it has been leading the nation. Total yards gained has gone up from about 280 yards per game to just under 400. More important, Northwestern last year scored 131 points all year. This year that figure was passed in the fourth game of the season.
With the abundance of good passers in college football, how can one particular one suddenly erupt into brilliance? Well, the answer to that is that Tommy Myers did not suddenly erupt. He's 19 now, and he started his long surge upward to fame eight years ago when he was a grammar school kid In Troy, Ohio. Lou Juillerat, now coach at Findlay College, was then football coach at Troy High School, and he says he first became aware of Tommy when he was in the sixth or seventh grade. Tom's older brother, Mike, had shown considerable skill as an athlete, though he wasn't very big, and Juillerat, hearing that another Myers was coming along, was sort of keeping an eye out for Tommy. "At Troy we started them in the fifth or sixth grade in touch football and in the seventh they began tackling. Tommy was slightly built and I wasn't sure he'd ever develop physically but he sure could throw that ball."
Juillerat says that Tommy, a very earnest youngster, began lifting weights to build himself up and was very active in Troy's physical education program. He was a star tumbler in grammar school, a good diver, a good pole vaulter (he set a Troy High School record in the pole vault), but his prime interest was football.
"He was such a determined kid," says Juillerat. "As a sophomore he must have been a strapping 5 feet 9 and about 135 pounds, but he beat out our senior quarterback for the starting job in his first game. Bob Ferguson, who was All-America at Ohio State two seasons in a row, had just graduated from Troy and he left behind him three straight unbeaten seasons. Tommy was under some pressure in that first game but he threw two touchdown passes and he won it easily. He had such poise. I remember later that season, after our winning streak had finally ended at 35 straight, we were beating Xenia. Tom had a hot night. Late in the game after a touchdown I sent in directions for a quarterback dropkick for the extra point. We'd never drop-kicked before and I didn't do it after. It was just for kicks and I wanted to see how Myers would react. I can still hear him calling the signals: 'Quarterback drop-kick on two. Quarterback dropkick on two—who me?' But he didn't hesitateand he made a perfect dropkick for the extra point. You just don't rattle this kid."
Myers threw 73 touchdown passes in high school, 33 of them in his senior year, and made the Ohio State High School All-Stars. The question is frequently—and sometimes maliciously—raised as to how come Woody Hayes of Ohio State let this local prize escape. Juillerat says, "Well, Woody gave it a good try, but Tommy was smart enough to realize that Woody's football was not his style. I had to be honest with both Woody and Tommy and recommend that he go to a school where his passing ability could be utilized. It narrowed down to Northwestern and Wisconsin, and he finally picked Northwestern."
Paul Shoults, Northwestern's defensive backfield coach, was the talent scout who brought in this prize. "Our recruiting rules say we can talk to a high school coach once, away from the school, and get game films from him. I first noticed Myers on film when he was a junior, when I was actually looking at another kid. He was very impressive. The next year, when he was a senior, we were interested a Tommy and a boy named Vaughn, whose grades weren't quite high enough to get into Northwestern. He went to Iowa State. But Tommy came here. He gets tuition, room, board, books and standard football scholarship. He wanted to play Big Ten football and I told him that since Northwestern was the smallest school in the Big Ten—we have only 27 freshmen playing football this year—his chances of getting into the lineup were that much better."
This paragon of football virtues is 6 feet tall and weighs 183 pounds ("But he's still growing," says Paul Shoults. "He'll be a 190-pound quarterback before he finishes"). At Northwestern he is taking a business course in the school of education. His interest in classroom work is mild but he works hard because if he doesn't get passing grades he can't play football. He has a steady girl back home in Ohio named Letitia Bristley, and he doesn't date at Northwestern. In recent weeks he has been under almost constant pressure from visiting reporters and photographers—so much so that Ara Parseghian blew his top one day last week after Tommy had had a bad day in practice. Parseghian, who knows as well as anyone that Northwestern has never had an undefeated season, in effect put his star in isolation for the time being.
Despite the attention and the pressure and the lavish praise Myers remains quiet, startlingly modest and reserved to the point of shyness. In street clothes he looks more like a high school cheerleader than a college quarterback. Paradoxically, on the field he has no qualms at all about taking charge and running a team that consists in good part of experienced juniors and seniors.
Paul Flatley, Northwestern's superb flanker back who is Myers' favorite receiver this year—he caught six passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns against Notre Dame—said, "Even though he's a sophomore, Tommy runs that team. If someone comes back to the huddle talking when he's not supposed to, Tom will say, 'All right, let's be quiet there. We're in the huddle.' I don't mean you can't say anything in the huddle. If, for instance, I see from the defense that I have to alter my pattern in going out for a pass I'll tell Tom and he'll adjust to it. The thing about Tom is he can adjust even if I don't have a chance to tell him. During a play he'll see that I have to change the pattern and he'll change with me and know right where I'll be and he lays that pass there."
Flatley is a senior, a good-looking boy with poise and intelligence, a pre-law student (and a nominee for the Big Ten's all-academic team) who would like to play pro football in order to earn money for law school. He played halfback and fullback for Northwestern as a sophomore and junior, and while a capable man in both positions never appeared to be much more than an average player. This year, down range from Myers, he has developed into one of the finest pass catchers in the country, with deft moves and amazingly sure hands. He never carries the ball from scrimmage but he is the prime target—and sometimes the only target—on most of Myers' passes. Last year, season long, Paul caught six I passes for 75 yards and one touchdown. This year in five games he has caught 35 passes for 494 yards and five touchdowns.
"Tom is an exceptional passer," Flatley says. "His passes are quick but they're easy to catch. Some quarterbacks throw ' a hard pass right at you, and sometimes they're hard to hold on to. Tommy's passes get to you just as fast but they're tipped up or tipped down, and they're easy to grab. They never wobble. And he's so consistent. When you're running, out and cutting, you can concentrate ' on beating the defensive back; you don't ; have that worry in the back of your mind that you're going to have to stop or make a dive for the ball or lunge for it. The ball is right there. He usually throws it to me right at eye-level, the best place to catch it."
Two Myers-to-Flatley passes against Notre Dame were collectors' items. In the second period with the ball at Northwestern's 33, third down and seven to go, Flatley went out to the right flank, feinted toward the sideline and came straight back across the field. The ball, two defenders and Flatley converged at the same point, the ball somewhat higher than its companions. Flatley, who has great leaping ability, sent body and arm aloft, hooked a hand around the ball and fell to the ground with a 10-yard gain and the first down. "Flatley makes Myers a great passer," said a Notre Dame man in the press box. But in the third period, with Northwestern on Notre Dame's seven, Flatley went down from the right flank into the end zone, hooked around the Notre Dame secondary and sort of poked himself through a hole at the precise moment when Myers' pass shot down the middle into his arms for a touchdown. The Notre Dame man clutched his head. "Which one is better?" he cried.
Myers says, "Those catches that Flatley makes are unbelievable. Those guys—Flatley and the others—make me look special. If they drop one, it's an easy one. They catch all the tough ones. The 65-yard pass Willie Stinson scored on against Minnesota, that wasn't a good pass at all. I really missed him. He just made a great catch and a great run."
But Paul Shoults, while agreeing that Flatley and the others have helped Myers with some remarkable catches this year, insists, "Tommy is good. I can't think of a better passer in the Big Ten in the seven years I've been here. He has confidence in what he can do. One time in that Ohio State game we had first down and eight to go for a touchdown. We ran the ball once for no gain and then Tommy threw three straight passes. The first two were incomplete. But he hit on the last one for a touchdown." Lou Juillerat says that in one high school game all four of Troy's touchdowns came on fourth-down plays and all four were passes from Myers. "He knows what he's doing and he sticks with it. The three remarkable things about Tommy in high school were his determination, his poise and the softness of his passes. He made excellent receivers out of ordinary ones. He threw the easiest pass to catch I ever saw."
Northwestern coaches say there was nothing they could show Myers about passing. "We can work on his strategy and his fakes and his footwork and we can develop a line that gives him good protection when he drops back to pass, but we couldn't show him anything about throwing a ball. He had good training."
"At Troy in the off season," Juillerat recalled, "we used to give each quarterback a piece of canvas and we told them to take it home and draw a bull's-eye on it and throw a football at it 100 times a day—a training ball, which is heavier than a regular ball. Some of the boys didn't bother but Tommy wore out four canvases one winter."
Northwestern doesn't exactly keep Tommy Myers carefully packed around with cotton, but they do take good care of him. Parseghian uses him only on offense and he takes him out of the game—as he did last Saturday—whenever Northwestern gains a commanding lead. It is wise for Ara to do this. Across the street from Dyche Stadium in Evanston, Ill., Northwestern's home field, is a small office with a large sign that says, "Bob Voigts Realty." Bob Voigts coached Northwestern from 1947 through 1954 and got his club to the Rose Bowl one year. But his last three teams lost 19 out of 27 games, and now Bob sells real estate. It's not a bad life, but standing on the sidelines watching Tommy Myers throw touchdown passes sure beats it for excitement.