Before pro football begins envying its college neighbor, before the Heisman Trophy balloting begins, before the All-America teams are named, before the White House calls, let's make one thing perfectly clear. Gary Huff, the Magic Dragon, does not smoke or drink, nor does he put young damsels or fair maidens into distress. No, Gary Huff will never be another Joe Namath.
And yet Huff, presently issuing fire and brimstone as a senior quarterback at Florida State University, aspires to be even better than Joe. As he puts it: "I want to play pro ball and be the best quarterback there. If it means making All-Pro, that's what I want to do." Sound cocky? Not to anyone who saw him against Miami in the Orange Bowl last Saturday night. Huff passed for four touchdowns and 329 yards and set up another score with a bullish run that had Florida State Coach Larry Jones crossing his toes in anxiety. Before leaving the game with a 30-point lead early in the fourth quarter, Huff completed 22 of 34 passes and outanalyzed his press box spotters as well as the thoroughly befuddled opposition, frequently changing the prescribed calls either in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage. The uninformed, wandering by chance into the Orange Bowl, could be excused for assuming the pro season had started a day early.
Although better than some, it was a performance not far from typical for Huff. He led the nation in total offense last season, but quarterbacks such as Pat Sullivan, Jerry Tagge and Jack Mildren played for better teams and received far more recognition. (This year FSU has switched its home games from nights to the afternoons, hoping to get Huff's exploits into the Sunday papers.) Only twice in a regular's role has he failed to complete more than half of his passes in a game, once when he was weakened by a week-long attack of influenza. In his first cameo appearance as a sophomore he came off the bench and threw three touchdown passes—in the fourth quarter. That motivated an alumnus to compose a whimsical poem about "Huff, the Magic Dragon."
Florida State football has a vein of passing that runs deep in its history. Beginning in 1962 with Quarterback Steve Tensi and Receiver Fred Biletnikoff, the Seminoles have produced a series of fine throwers and receivers. For the last five years FSU's passing attack has led the nation—by 29 yards a game over second-place Stanford. It was this environment that attracted Gary Huff when he graduated from a Tampa high school. It also attracted many others. When Huff first arrived in Tallahassee the Seminoles had 12 quarterbacks (nickname: "the dirty dozen") on the freshman team, and Gary spent most of his time serving as a "dummy" for the varsity. From just another dummy among a dozen, he has progressed to being a candidate for the honor of top college quarterback in the country.
Off the field, Gary Huff hardly resembles a dragon, magic or otherwise. He is the atypical youth, a model for the slogans of another time. People refer to him as the dedicated, hardworking, clean-cut, all-American type of individual, just the type we like to have on our football team. "He's always getting his hair cut," laughs Barry Smith, the leading receiver on the team.
Huff began dating his fiancée, Susan Atteberry, while they were in high school back in Tampa. Sigh. Recently she took a sample of his handwriting to be analyzed, and the results agreed with the consensus: he is the honest, open, forthright person that his prominent jaw and clear eyes suggest.
Pro scouts at FSU practices are accustomed to being accosted by an earnest Huff wanting a frank comparison between his ability and that of players already calling signals in the NFL. He would seem ideally suited for such a job. He can throw the ball 50 yards while down on one knee, and 80 yards when more conventionally positioned.
"Gary can use pass patterns that some pros can't," says Coach Jones. He sets up quickly in the pocket, a trait he developed out of desperation when he played behind a high school line that averaged 155 pounds. With the adroit setup, he welcomes the blitz because his straight overhand spirals usually are on their way well before the linebackers get close. In addition he is adept at recognizing and solving defenses, the result of hours spent scanning films. "He can definitely play pro ball," says Steve Sloan, the offensive coordinator at FSU last season before moving to Georgia Tech. Sloan played two years of pro quarterback after a college career at Alabama and once, in a burst of enthusiasm, confided to Huff that he had a better arm than Namath.
Finally, Huff is respected as well as liked by his teammates. Usually you have only to look as far as a star's backup to find a dissident voice, but Mike Cadwell, Huff's replacement, went so far as to make a television commercial parodying his dilemma. Cadwell was shown patting a bench and saying, "I've got my seat for the season, how about you?"
Those searching for at least one negative Huff component can point to his height: he is only 6'1". "At first I thought I might be too short—then I met Johnny Unitas," says Huff.
In the Miami game the Magic Dragon started off poorly, throwing an interception that spotted the Hurricanes a quick 7-0 lead. Miami was in a combination man-for-man zone defense, another in the series of arcane, deceptive barriers opposition coaches devise for Huff. "People throw a lot of crazy defenses at us and try to confuse him," Coach Jones had said earlier in the week. "Until Gary gets adjusted to them, it throws him off."
He did not take long to adjust. The Hurricanes' defense forced a linebacker to cover Tight End Gary Parris, and Parris slipped into the seam of a zone to catch seven passes in the first half as Florida State took a 17-7 lead.
Sloan maintains that one of Huff's strengths lies in his concentration, which allows him to ignore charging linemen as well as the score. He recalls how last year South Carolina jumped off to a 10-0 lead against FSU. Huff eventually threw five touchdown passes in that game and State won 49-18.
In the second half Saturday night Miami tried a more conventional defense, but it was to little avail. With the lead, Huff could afford to be discriminate, so he threw only seven second-half passes and completed all of them. "It feels good, it feels good," he exulted on the bench after one touchdown pass.
"It's the pressure that's on you at quarterback that I like," Huff had said earlier. "When you win in football it's such a great, great feeling. You work all week for it." Actually all year. Huff spent last summer in Tallahassee throwing passes to Parris and Smith.
In the dressing room after State's 37-14 victory, a scout from the Houston Oilers stopped by to congratulate Huff on solving Miami's pass defense. "Using your tight end was exactly the right way to beat it," he said. Gary Huff appreciated that.