In 1938 the University of Nebraska had a back named Hopp. Of course he was known as Hippity. In 1977 Nebraska has a back named Hipp. Of course he is known as Hoppity. And fans, letting their hearts overrule their heads, already are permitting themselves thoughts like "Hippity hop to the Heisman shop" and "Hoppity Hipp's on a Heisman trip."
In truth, it would be one tremendous leap if Isaiah Moses Walter Hipp, a/k/a I. M. Hipp, 21, from Chapin, S.C., were some day to be named college football's outstanding player. To date he has started only three college games, and that he is playing at all is somewhat of a surprise. For Hipp was not recruited by a single college or university—certainly not Nebraska, which had not even heard of him—and ended up spending $96 of his girl friend's money to fly to Lincoln and beg for a chance. That he is the nation's fifth-leading rusher (an average of 7.8 yards for 101 carries) is just beyond incredible.
His start on the Nebraska campus in 1975 was not auspicious. After several days of practice, Head Coach Tom Osborne inquired, "Who is that little guy over there?" Nobody knew. "Where's he from?" asked Osborne. Nobody knew. But by late September Hipp had made a place for himself on the freshman team. The next year Hipp got messed up with his academics and missed a lot of early practice. The decision was made to red-shirt him. Finally, come this fall, Hipp got into his initial varsity game. It was against Washington State, and the first time he carried the ball he fumbled it. That earned him a seat for the rest of the afternoon.
But then, as his great-grandmother in Chapin who raised him says, "Lawd a mercy." Over the last month he has risen up and smitten four opponents—Baylor (Hipp rushed for 122 yards, getting his chance when the Huskers' outstanding I Back, Rick Bern's, went out with—one trembles to say it—a hip pointer), Indiana (an alltime Nebraska mark of 254 yards), Kansas State (207 yards, first time ever for back-to-back 200-plus yard games for a Cornhusker back) and Iowa State (165 yards). After Hipp ripped off runs of 82 and 66 yards against Kansas State, the story went around that he came off the field chortling, "I Hipp-notized 'em." Not true. But everyone likes the tale so much that it is fast becoming chiseled as fact.
Bestowing stardom on any sophomore, which Hipp is, is risky. Too often a young player's ink exceeds his performance; too often he decides he prefers hiking in the woods and eating berries to Saturday afternoon violence. Knowing all this, Nebraska fans still can't help themselves. In fact, it was the school's sports information director, Don Bryant, who suggested that Hipp call himself I. M. because Bryant figured that more than a few sportswriters wouldn't be able to spell Issia...Isaai...the 23rd book of the Old Testament. And a man can't be named the outstanding football player in the country if people can't spell his name. Anyway, I. M. Hipp does have a certain contemporary flair.
Mike Corgan, coach of offensive backs, inexplicably calls Hipp Ezekiel when he makes a mistake. Last week, when Hipp fouled up an assignment, a teammate said, "That's I. M. Not A Blocker." Another said, "Right. That's I. M. A Runner." Needless to say, the fans, who believe Hipp is the beacon to light the way to a Cornhusker national championship in 1978 or 1979, have joined in the word games. And one can envision an emotion-choked Nebraska coach years from now pleading with his team, "Let's go out there and win one for the Hipper."
For all the punning, Hipp is so quiet that he makes a sunset noisy in comparison. "I don't like to talk about what I'm going to do," he says. "I just like to do it." Yet, sitting in his one-room $65-a-month basement apartment recently, Hipp, a deeply religious young man, suddenly was moved to compose a prayer: "O Lord God, remember me, I pray Thee, and strengthen my body, I pray Thee, so that I may run like the cheetah and move gracefully like the gazelle and glide like the mighty eagle, O God, so that I may fulfill my dreams." Dreams? "Yeah, I want to win the Heisman three times in a row and rush for 2,000 yards three years in a row." While that may be hallucinating rather than dreaming, Hipp is not alarmed. "I don't brag but I always have felt there is nobody better than me. Now that might not be true but that's the way I feel."
It's not as if I. M. Hipp's confidence hasn't been sore tested. His parents were separated when he was six months old, and his mother left him behind to go off to Columbia, S.C. and find work as a domestic. I. M.'s great-grandmother, Cora Osby, cared for him—and once caught him in the act of tearing the lock off the smokehouse so he could get at her homemade applesauce. It was not his first raid on the smokehouse. I. M. was sent to Columbia briefly to be with his mother, but he didn't like the city ways after the joys of being disturbed only by whippoorwills in Chapin.
Back in Chapin, he became a football star, leading the Eagles to two state AA championships and amassing statistics that would make many a back break out in envy: 2,889 yards in 541 carries and 288 points in 42 games. As a senior he scored 14 touchdowns and rushed for 880 yards despite having missed half the season because of a shoulder injury.
The latter explains why Hipp was not recruited. A few colleges (Hawaii, Illinois, Oklahoma, UCLA) had shown interest in him, but the injury changed all that. The University of South Carolina didn't even care to look; the others started clearing their throats. Chapin Coach Cecil Woolbright tried to renew interest in his star, but to no avail. "The colleges said they had plenty of backs," says Woolbright, "or that he was too small or that he had been hurt. He was a great football player nobody wanted. A recruiter can't tell how much a fellow will try."
After watching Nebraska whip Oklahoma on television in that great 1971 game, then do in Alabama so convincingly in the Orange Bowl, Hipp became a Cornhusker fan. He wrote to the school and was told he could come out for the team as a walk-on, which is what they would tell positively anyone. Familiarity with the general shape of a football is not a prerequisite to "walking on." Osborne says that maybe four walk-ons will make the team every two years. The odds against playing much are far longer.
Hipp has defied the odds, just as he seems to defy the figures that list him as 6 feet, 200 pounds. Perhaps the Lincoln dust has fouled the scales, for Hipp may be the smallest 200-pounder seen in years. But maybe the strongest. He spends much of his time in the weight room, and has leg-lifted a school-record 915 pounds. Linemen consider 600 pounds a herculean effort. "Actually, I lifted 1,010 last August when nobody was in the room," says Hipp. Offensive Tackle Kelvin Clark says of I. M., "He's walking muscles." Center Tom Davis says, "People hit him in his upper body and fall off. Tackling his legs is impossible."
Although pumped-up Iowa State upset Nebraska last Saturday 24-21 when the Husker defense sprang too many leaks, Hipp was his usual self: he scored all three Cornhusker touchdowns. The first came on his second carry of the game, a 59-yard jaunt on which Iowa State defenders pretended they were about to tackle him. He bolted 17 yards for his second score and seven more for an additional TD. For the day's work Hipp gained 165 yards in 25 carries.
The winners, who ran 28 more plays than Nebraska, were led by Dexter Green, who rushed for 139 yards and one touchdown. The other Cyclone touchdowns were scored by Cal Cummins and Quarterback Terry Rubley, with the winning difference Scott Kollman's 32-yard field goal in the third period. It had been set up by a Nebraska fumble. Nebraska Guard Greg Jorgensen mused on the defeat. "Maybe we laid back and thought Isaiah would win it for us." Which is understandable. For Isaiah or I. M. or Ezekiel or Hoppity will win a lot of games for Nebraska. Like they say, it doesn't much matter what they call him, they'll call on him often.