In Key West, Fla. the other day a barber named Onelio Alvarez got so lathered up by a customer's suggestion that George Mira of the University of Miami might not be the greatest quarterback in the history of football that he chased the customer into the street and advised him furthermore to stay away until he learned to keep a civil tongue. Onelio bought a new car last fall for no better reason than to make weekend trips to Miami to see Mira play, and when he is not accosting customers he is closing up early to assure himself enough time to get to the Orange Bowl. Mira's older brother, Jimmy, will not go near Alvarez' shop unless nature demands it for fear he will have to spend 30 minutes catching Onelio up on George's adventures at the university. "George," said Jimmy, "is costing Onelio money."
Meanwhile, life in Key West goes on as usual. Armando Rodriguez, known as G.I., gets into the U.S. Naval Base, where he works, with an identification card that has George Mira's picture pasted over his own. An exclusive autographed picture of Mira hangs on Alverez' barbershop wall, and on the walls of grocery stores, department stores and beaneries all over town. Eager-beaver City Commissioners Ismael (Terry Lee) Garcia and John (Will Rogers) DePoo have finally lived down their live-it-up trip to Philadelphia for the 1961 Liberty Bowl game, a journey they made at taxpayers' expense with flowery summer shirts on their backs and conch shells and sponges under their arms. "There was the devil to pay," says one native. "Everybody knew they just wanted to see Georgie play—which was all right—but they kept telling us how they were going to get on national TV with those shells and things to boost Key West tourism, and they didn't, of course, and then while they were in Philadelphia they had to go and get themselves lost. My Lord."
Key West is strong for naming streets after its favorite people. Truman Avenue feeds into Roosevelt Boulevard, which intersects Kennedy Drive, which is flanked by Eisenhower Drive. The latter is a pretense at bipartisanship. Key West has been irredeemably Democratic since 1832. But George Mira Street was just a temporary honor, a part of George Mira Day fun in December, and the red paint is now flaking away to reveal the true identity of Packer Street, the ancestral enclave of the teeming Mira family. "It's all right if Mira Street goes," said a neighbor. "Then we can always name the Overseas Highway after Georgie." Royal Castle, a chain of popular 15¢-a-hamburger joints, opened a shiny new hutch on Roosevelt Boulevard last month, and George was to be flown down by charter from Miami, where he was in summer school, to cut the ribbon. "I can see it now," chirped K. Don Williams, a close friend of Mira's who thinks naturally in headlines, "KEY WEST HOT DOG TRIES ROYAL CASTLE HAMBURGER." But Mira could not make it, so Miami Coach Andy Gustafson was flown in as the second luminary. Gustafson has not been much else since Mira passed into his life, but he swallows his pride with a suck of his pipe, knowing all the while that what he really is swallowing is the canary. "We were in Paris this summer, my wife and I," Gustafson says, "and we were having trouble with those Paris cab drivers. You know, blank stares. I saw this American MP and I called him over for help. I told him I was Coach Andy Gustafson of the University of Miami. 'Miami?' He shouted it. 'Mister, you sure got yourself one helluva quarterback.' I told him I sure knew it."
Gustafson was made Miami's athletic director in March and could have quit coaching this year to enjoy the sanctity away from his critics, who persist despite his 11 winning seasons in 15 years at Miami. But after carefully thinking it over for seven seconds he elected to coach one more year, or until Mira's eligibility runs out. "I've got the best quarterback I've ever had, the best passer I've ever seen" he said. "Retirement can wait."
September 22, 1963
Not all coaches believe Mira is that much of a something, of course. Some are retarded. Those who have seen him play resort to exclamation points. "Terrific!" said TCU's Abe Martin. "Fantastic!" said LSU's Charles McClendon. "Incredible!" said Northwestern's Ara Parseghian. More expansively: "He's the greatest passer I ever saw in college," said Nebraska's Bob Devaney. Devaney's team was riddled for 321 yards by Mira's passes in the Gotham Bowl last winter. "In the first half," said Devaney, "we crashed our ends, thinking we could contain him. We couldn't. In the second half I told our defense, "Whenever that monkey looks like he's going to pass, throw up your hands and retreat!' "
"Having Mira is like having a coach on the field," said Ben Martin of the Air Force Academy. "He's Willie Mays in a football uniform—electrifying," said Maryland's Tom Nugent. "The most dangerous man in football when he's cornered." Mira completed four passes in a row to accomplish 73 yards and the touchdown that beat Maryland 28-24 in the last four minutes. Nugent almost died. "We gave him the short stuff," he lamented. "What else could we do?"
In a private poll of the 22 head scouts of the American and National football leagues, 13 selected Mira as the college quarterback they would draft No. 1 among those who will play this year. The plurality is astounding, because this will be a chock-full-of-names season of Namaths, Trulls, Beathards, Staubachs and Shiners, and because pro scouts take pride in their ability to come up with somebody different. Minnesota Viking Coach Norm Van Brocklin saw Mira throw four touchdown passes in the Miami spring game and while fishing alone off Marathon the next day tried to think of all the quarterbacks in the NFL who could throw better. "I gave up," he said. "There were none."
Miami Publicist George Gallet, who can put out a release faster than he can say "George Mira was on seven All-America teams last year," issued a special 16-page booklet on The Amazing George Mira. In it he chronicled Mira's two years at Miami—3,232 yards of total offense, 20 touchdown passes—and proved conclusively that Mira's only fault is that he thinks he is 6 feet tall. Mira is barely 5 feet 11—pro scouts know it and wish he were taller—but Mira says he is 6 feet, he wants to be 6 feet, and Gallet cannot conceive of his failing. He lists Mira at 6 feet, 180 pounds.
The booklet tells, further, how Mira can throw passes sidearm (when too sore to throw overarm), left-handed (for the winning touchdown against Florida in 1961 when his right hand was being occupied by a charging end) and can even catch his own, which he did with a pass that rebounded off a TCU lineman in 1962. Gallet will not say Mira cannot be tackled, but he suggests that it is an achievement worth remembering. "Listen," says the publicist, "Alabama was after him all day in Tuscaloosa last year, chasing him out of the pocket and round and round every time he tried to pass. He always got the ball away. Finally in the fourth quarter they put him down. You should have heard the crowd. It was like a great war had ended."
George Ignacio Mira is called The Matador by Miami sportswriters, who fancy his Spanish good looks and supple, flat-belly grace, dark skin, flashing teeth, ears that stick straight out and eyebrows that appear to have been laid on by an asphalt paver. He is strong and well developed. His hands are huge. Newsmen find him attentive and eager to please ("Want to see how I run?" he asks a photographer). He is a splendidly confident, natural athlete, a good enough baseball pitcher to have been offered $13,000 to sign with the Baltimore Orioles after he won 31 of 33 games for Key West High. He is convinced he can do anything. After they played together, Miami Golf Pro Bob Toski told him he could be an excellent golfer. Later Mira announced to Halfback Nick Spinelli: "I've made up my mind. I'm going to be a professional golfer. There's big money in it." Spinelli says Mira has a new and more glamorous career lined up every month.
For all his self-assurance, Mira is a worrier who will gnaw his fingernails until they bleed. As a veteran hypochondriac he is forever in search of a new disease to try his symptoms on. Miami Trainer Dave Wike has special sugar pills that cure Mira of heartburn, heatstroke and cancer. (George says this story is exaggerated.) He is afraid of no man and every airplane. He takes pills to put him to sleep when he flies.
Once on the football field his apprehensions vanish. He thinks there is no power like the vested power of a quarterback, and when he believes he is right ("which he is, 90% of the time," says the unhesitating Gustafson) he has been known to tell tackles how to tackle, kickers how to kick and coaches how to coach. He does this with reasonable aplomb, being an education major and a man turned 21. "It's applied psychology," he says. "You don't just tell a kid he can't put crayon on the wall, you tell him why, if you know—you know?" Long ago, when George was very young, 16 or so, he made a reputation in athletic contests for applying psychology with his fists, and with his feet, too, if he could work them in. "But George has reformed," says his very pretty bride of last June, Regina, though she is not sure exactly what he reformed from, because George can show just cause for every low-down foe he ever smashed.
The social George Mira is airy and theatrical and not above asking Miami Sportswriter Luther Evans to please quit using a certain picture of him in the Miami Herald because it is a poor likeness. When he alighted from the plane on his second trip to New York he held his arms out to encompass the city and said: "This is my town!" He could hardly wait to get to Tiffany's, because teammate Leo Lillimagi told him it had "a lot of expensive things I oughta see." He plays golf regularly with Coaches Jim Root and Ed Kensler, "but the next day after a match," says Kensler, "you don't find him slouching over my desk calling me by my first name."
Not the least of Mira's assets is the marvelous Mira family. There is no telling how many Miras there are at the small, two-story frame house on Packer Street, because they are coming in and out all the time, and most of them look alike. Each day at noon there is a running caucus that may even include Deputy Sheriff Bobby Brown and is loosely presided over by Jimmy Mira Sr., George's father. He is an ex-pro boxer—he fought for combs, mostly, in Tampa, he said—who now runs the equipment at the Key West ice plant. He is a stockily built, mustachioed man who tells interesting stories and keeps youngest daughter Sylvia hopping up and down filling glasses with iced tea or limeade, your choice. All available space in the house is dominated by trophies, pictures and plaques of George, as the talk is dominated by stories of George.
A normal gathering will include brothers Jimmy Jr., who quarterbacked the Key West High team before George, and Joe, 17, who is quarterback there now and who is, by George's estimate, an extremely enviable 6 feet 1; sisters Rosie and Sylvia; and a fluctuating number of uncles, "each one a little bigger and a little better-looking," says Jimmy Sr. There are Uncle Humbert, Uncle Armando, Uncle Joe and Uncle Manuel, known as Crazy Cuban. (Key Westers are passionate nicknamers. They are responsible for grown men being called Old Ropes, Two-by-four, Flea Trainer, Bring Back My Hammer and Stinky Mitchell, but George Mira was never anything but Georgie.) Finally, the sunlight is blocked by a great figure at the door. He and his mustache are the biggest of all. This is Uncle Mario, who distributes beer. He can balance a full bottle on his tongue and will flip it to you if you are dry.
Humbert and Jimmy Sr. are former Key West golf champions and have found, like Toski, that Georgie is some hot golf prospect. "He cheats, you know," says Jimmy Sr. "You've got to watch him. He runs after the ball. Says he's got to get there fast so he can get in two or three practice swings, but how do I know what he's doing up there by himself?"
Jimmy Sr. admits all the stories about Georgie's temper are true, but you have to understand that "Georgie's got to win every time. Georgie doesn't believe in second." Since Georgie became a college man, says Jimmy, his self-control is remarkable. By contrast, he recalls a Key West High basketball game in which an opponent on a Miami team was giving him a lot of hands. When both teams and the referees turned away after one basket, Mira, as a matter of course, stopped and decked his man with one punch, then trotted casually downcourt and set up on defense.
When his baseball team was beaten in the finals of the state tournament, George ripped his hand trying to put a soap dish through the shower wall. "I fell," he explained. In one game he charged off the mound after an opponent who had made unkindly references to his Spanish lineage. In the stands Jimmy Sr., equally riled, spied a man he thought was chasing George while George was chasing the player. "Georgie got his man in the dugout," said Jimmy. "I got mine, too." Mrs. Dolores Mira, a demure, hospitable woman, has been known to squelch her son's hecklers with a blazing "You shut up!"
Jimmy Mira never played a lick of football, but he watches the pro games on Sunday and jots down plays he thinks might work for George at Miami. He advises him to "get up quick anytime you get knocked down so nobody'll think you're hurt." He offers an alternative: "If you can't get up, turn over and show 'em some cleats." George complains that for all his good advice Pop would sooner boil over than favor him with a word of praise. "After I've had a good game I rush home and challenge him: "O.K., Pop, how about that one?' and he reminds me that I fumbled once in the second quarter." "It sure makes him mad," says Jimmy Sr., cackling over his cunning, "but it also makes him try harder next time. He's already got enough people telling him how good he is."
Jimmy's best advice, uncles, brothers and sisters agree, was to set a $30,000 premium on his son's baseball talent. There rages in George a desire to pitch in the big leagues, but Jimmy Sr., who never went to college, figured wisely that a college scholarship was worth at least $30,000 in long-range returns. When no offer exceeded Baltimore's $13,000, George packed his aspirin and was off to college to play football.
Mira chose Miami more out of convenience than conviction: it is a mere 150 miles on the weekenders' beeline from the Coral Gables campus down U.S. 1 to home, and Key Westers by nature always come home. They are called Conchs (rhymes with honks), after the prevalent tropical shellfish of the same name, but they are really homing pigeons.
Key West is a contented amalgam of Spanish and English peoples coerced into togetherness by geography. The city limits are locked in by water. The 40,000 inhabitants cluster together in narrow streets of white frame houses eave to eave, many of them needing paint. Definitively, Conchs are a charming people whose let-me-mind-your-business manners are put aside for celebrities like those whose names appear on their street signs. President Truman, once a frequent visitor, walked around town unannoyed and practically ignored. He loved it.
Conchs live at three-quarter speed and have at their taste's disposal some of the finer things in life: Spanish limes (they're tangy-sweet), sour-sop ice cream (sweeter), bollos, pronounced boy-yos (they're hot), mollettes, pronounced moy-yettease (they're hotter), green turtle steak, guava duff and Duval Street on Saturday night. The Navy has always made good use of Duval Street, and vice versa. None of these things are available in such a package elsewhere, and they possess unmistakable magnetism. Key Westers who have gone off to live in Miami are known to come back periodically just for a bag of bollos and a dish of sour-sop ice cream.
Similarly, the Conch sports fan is a hopeless provincial whose heroes have never lost a game to an outside team—especially a Miami team—without being subject to trickery, terrible luck or terrible umpiring. Key West's best athletes never seem to stay gone long enough to make it big. But Mira and John (Boog) Powell, Key West High, class of '60, are exceptions. Powell made it with the Orioles, Mira with the University of Miami. Key West was beside itself with pride: two big successes at one time! Powell, however, soon fell from grace. He told Pee Wee Reese on national television that he was really born in Lakeland, Fla. "Good Conchs will never forgive him," predicted Key Wester Williams. "That finished him here. But Georgie, he's home-grown. He's black beans and well water. He's ours."
The trace of an accent in Mira's speech is more Conch than Spanish. The Spanish-English fusion over the years has produced some highly pertinent phraseology: you could say, for example, that George Mira was cocky and quick-tempered as a high schooler, or you could say he had a lot of "py-asso," which is the same thing, only more of it. Py-asso is what everybody agreed George had before he went off to be an All-America, but they adored him nevertheless.
There was never much doubt that George Mira was going to succeed at Miami, although there was some question what he was going to succeed at. For instance, there was a distinct chance that he would be caved in by his 220 pound roommates, Leo Lillimagi, Bob Strieter and Dan Conners. "When he tried to get smart we just laughed at him," said Leo, "and sat on him a little." "You don't get sassy with boys that size, you know," said George.
Flanker Back Spinelli, Mira's favorite pass receiver in 1962 (33 completions) and a young man with py-asso of his own, saw Mira first in the university cafeteria when they were freshmen. "He was at the next table, talking football. Just listening and watching him had me worried. 'What if he's a halfback?' I kept asking myself. I could hardly wait to get out to practice to make sure he wasn't after my position."
It never occurred to Spinelli thereafter that he and George were going to be anything but 1) buddies, 2) first string and 3) great. In scrimmages against the varsity, he says, "we could score anytime we wanted to. 'Whata you say, Nick?' George would tell me in the huddle. 'Let's get one this time.' And bang! he'd hit me with one of those rifle shots and we'd have a touchdown."
On the day of the opening game of the 1961 season with Pittsburgh, nationally televised from the Orange Bowl, Gustafson took sophomore Mira aside and laid it on the line: "It's your club to run, George. You can throw the ball whenever you like. I don't care if you're on the goal line. And don't worry about a thing, George, because you're the greatest." Gustafson says now that if talk like that had gotten out, people who know him as a conservative, no-nonsense coach would have recoiled in horror. Mini's response was to bite away the last trace of a cuticle and to be brilliant. So brilliant, in fact, that when he faked to his fullback and rolled out to pass for Miami's only touchdown, the ABC cameras followed the empty-handed fullback into the end zone. Pittsburgh won the game 10-7 in a second-half rainstorm, but George Mira was successfully launched.
Mira took Gustafson at his word. He told Bill Miller, the All-America end, to shut up in the huddle or he'd run him off the field. "Brownie liked to think he should catch the ball every play," Mira said, "and sometimes he got on my nerves." When Gustafson sent in a fourth-down play against Tulane that Mira found unacceptable—"It was off tackle, and we had them set up for an option pass"—the play was stopped short of a touchdown and Mira was livid. Sputtering Spanish expletives as he came off the field, he told Gustafson, "You busted up my sequence. I was setting up for the option." In the Northwestern game that year, Spinelli heard him tell Backfield Coach Root: "Look, I'm the quarterback. Let me call the plays, will you?"
Meanwhile, George was running up telephone bills of $25 to $50 a month calling home. But his outlook had clearly been broadened by college, brother Joe observed. Where once he was merely a walking hospital of quilts, aspirin and Bufferin, and honey and Pepto-Bismol and a 30-minute arm massage before every game, he now complained that the Miami summers were too hot ("much hotter than in Key West") and the winters were too cold. "It never gets cold like this in Key West," he said to Trainer Wike. His jersey was too tight. His pants were too loose. What was heartburn a symptom of, anyway? Struck by a very real virus before Miami's game with Syracuse in the 1961 Liberty Bowl, he had to be fitted for a Navy-type antarctic jacket before he would go up for the game. When he did fly to Philadelphia he had a university doctor accompany him. Gustafson was outraged. "This time," he said, "George has gone too far." But nobody ever stays mad at George Mira long, and nothing short of major excision will keep him out of a game. At Key West High he shot himself in the eye with a BB gun the week of his final game and played anyway. Full vision didn't return to the eye until weeks later. Against Penn State in 1961 his ribs were so badly damaged that he could hardly breathe, but he passed Miami to a 25-8 upset victory. In the Gotham Bowl last December, on the coldest day of his life—it was 17° in Yankee Stadium—he had his greatest day. He completed 24 passes for 321 yards. When Miami was on defense he hovered around a butane heater. Through no fault of Mira's, Miami lost to Nebraska 36-34—16 of his passes were dropped by numbed receivers.
Sportscaster Paul Christman, the ex-Missouri All-America, once told Gustafson he thought Mira threw too hard (Christman was more a lob passer). It was not a revelation. Mira's passes have been known to break fingers and damage egos. His complete follow-through once came down on a lineman's hand, cleaving the fingers apart. The wound required 12 stitches. With his enormous hands he can make a full pump with the ball, bring it back, reset and throw to the opposite side. "I'll get the ends to catch him," Gustafson said to Christman. "Anybody who tries to change his style will have to answer to me."
One professional scout will not draft Mira "under any circumstances" because of his size—"it makes him susceptible to an outside rush." "Mira's worst days," said a Southeastern Conference coach, "have been against a hard rush. You have to beat the Miami line to do it, but if you can rush Mira you can cut his effectiveness way down. It's when he scrambles out of that pocket that he beats you." Another coach questions Mira's reputation as a cool, shrewd signal-caller. "His 'imaginative calls' become stereotyped," he said. "He definitely gives you a pattern to pick up."
Gustafson deals with these doubts with a wave of his hand. "If this kid did nothing more than go on the field," he says, "we'd be inspired. I'll tell you, he thrills me to death. It got so last year that third down and 10 didn't mean a thing to us. 'Nobody hurt,' George would say, and then he'd get it all with one pass. 'Nobody hurt.' It was like a battle cry."
Mira enjoys a very special rapport with Gustafson. He lobbies for his teammates—for more food, for later curfew, for anything. "He's all the time telling me how he's going to tell Gus this and tell Gus that," says Spinelli, "and he does tell him, too, but he doesn't call him Gus, of course."
Mira makes special trips up to Gustafson's office just to talk football. "He's always studying films," says Gustafson, "and finding things he wants to tell me about. Last year he caught a Pittsburgh halfback cheating—going back too quick on every play—and swamped him with short passes. He comes in here and sits down and talks my ear off, and pretty soon I realize he has talked right through his next class. You have to watch him. He's bright, but he's no bookworm."
Gustafson once put an outsized photo-stat on the Miami field house wall: TEENAGE MARRIAGES STUNT MINDS—MARGARET MEAD. Gustafson's views on the subject were inflexible. But when George Mira married Regina Estenoz in Key West last June, Gus and his lovely wife Mandy and the entire Miami coaching staff were there, beaming all over the hors d'oeuvres.
The truth is that for all his indulgence Gustafson has kept a close operational rein on Mira. "He can't let George do everything he can do," says Root. "What would be left for the others? And what would be left of George?" Mira kicked extra points in high school but does not for Miami. He also played defense—"He could very well be the best defensive back we've got," says Gustafson—but he does not and will not for Miami because running the pro-type offense is job enough. "But I'll assure you this—he's going to run the ball this fall," says Gustafson. "He hasn't up until now, except on busted pass plays or an occasional option, and he was our best runner. We just couldn't afford to risk him. If I had the guts, and if I were 20 years younger, I'd even have him back there returning punts and kickoffs. But I'm too old to stand the excitement."
Spinelli says Gustafson has not got a worry. "We protect George, you can count on it. It would be a sin if he got hurt. This is going to be a great team, you know. George and me had a conference. We decided we're not going to settle for any second-rate bowl game this year. We're going to the Orange Bowl!"
In Key West last week the crowd at the barber shop of Sam Valdez, a competitor of Onelio Alvarez, was discussing this appetizing prospect and making plans for the season and trying to figure out how this George Mira phenomenon ever got started. All agreed Key West had never seen anything like it.
Sam, the proprietor, brightened. "I've got it," he said. "Remember when I used to cut Georgie's hair? I could never give him a true flattop because his head was oval-shaped. It rises in the middle." "You mean," said a visitor, rising in his chair, "that it is shaped exactly right for a football helmet?" "Exactly," said Sam. "Georgie's always had a head for football. Ask any barber in town."