As Buck Belue, quarterback of No. 1-ranked Georgia, approaches a car-rental booth at the Valdosta, Ga. airport, the woman behind the counter lights up. "Do you know how proud Valdosta is of you?" she says.
"Yeah," says Belue, "but tell me again anyhow." And then the all-American boy from Valdosta flashes his all-American grin. The Grin. It's The Grin that stirs the coeds who frequent The Mad Hatter bar to scribble saucy messages on the ladies' room walls, saying what they'd do to Belue, were they lucky enough to get their hands on him. And it's The Grin that has an anonymous group of girls at the University of Georgia—they call themselves the Buck-ettes—writing doggerel to Buck in the classified section of the school paper:
Most Bulldogs are red
But these three are blue
'Cause we are alone in our beds
And you had better be, too!
We love You,
"I might be glad I don't know who they are," Belue says. And he switches on The Grin, which is Buck Belue. He will be a key figure—perhaps the key figure—when the Bulldogs play Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, in their quest for a national championship, and rarely does a player ascend to such heights while seeming to rely more on style than substance. For style, give Belue an A-plus. For substance and ability as a football player, give him a C-plus, which at least shows improvement over the previous two years. Consider:
•He doesn't have a great arm. "I'm not one of the most powerful passers around," says Belue. Indeed, he didn't even throw enough to qualify for the NCAA passing rankings. No matter, he wouldn't have been high among the leaders, anyhow; for example, during the regular season he completed 77 of 156 throws for 49.4%—the seventh-best percentage in the SEC.
•He doesn't have great speed or running ability. Belue rushed for 63 yards in 95 carries (including sacks). "My forte is not my powerful running ability," he says.
•He's not big (6'1", 185 pounds) or physical. "I'd rather he was 6'3", 215 and a lot stronger, but he's not built that way," says his coach, Vince Dooley.
•He calls only the plays sent in from the bench, no audibles. "Unless audibles are done well," says Dooley, "they hurt as much as they help."
Belue's high school coach, Nick Hyder, patiently listens to this list of the quarterback's shortcomings, then smiles benignly and says, "That's real good and you're right, but you forgot to look inside and check Buck's heart." Gil Brandt, player personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys, says, "He's one of those guys who don't do much—except get the ball in the end zone."
Georgia's Offensive Coordinator, George Haffner, adds, "He's not comparable to the guys the pros are drooling over. But he's best at the intangibles, and he knows what's needed. Buck has been playing for winning teams on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons most of his life."
No arm. No legs. Only The Grin and a big heart. Small wonder the Irish—like the female clientele at The Mad Hatter—can hardly wait to get their hands, not to mention their helmets and shoulder pads, on Belue. If he doesn't keep Notre Dame off balance with his passing, the rugged Irish defense could stop Georgia's freshman running back, Herschel Walker, glorious though he is. And if that happens, you can color Georgia's No. 1 hopes very blue, too.
"I've got to be good," says Belue, "or they just might beat the stew out of us." They just might. Indeed, some football people were chewing the fat in Birmingham before the recent Notre Dame-Alabama game, and their consensus was that there wasn't a team in the Top 10 that Georgia could beat. That, of course, is the snide view; it doesn't put much stock in the fact that the 11-0 Bulldogs were the only major undefeated team in the land this year and they didn't get there by mailing in their scores. Yet, there's suspicion that, although the Dogs won the SEC, they just aren't that good—they were fourth in the conference in both offense and defense. And there are those who argue that without an extraordinary amount of luck, Georgia would be 7-4. On top of that, one staunch Bulldog fan says, "Honestly, their quarterback's not that phenomenal." That fan is Belue's father, Ben.
Overshadowed by Walker, Belue has been operating in general, but not total, oblivion:
Roses are red
Violets are blue
The hell with Herschel Walker
We love Buck Belue.
Being unnoticed much of the time may have been a blessing. In Georgia's opener against Tennessee, for example, Belue fumbled three snaps and was tackled for a safety. The Dogs barely escaped, 16-15, when the Volunteers fumbled on the Georgia two late in the game and at least a field goal seemed imminent. "For us to go, Buck has to go," says Dooley. "Buck didn't exactly go in the first game." In a 20-16 win over Clemson, Belue didn't exactly go again, completing two of seven passes for 31 yards. Georgia's offense was generated by the defense, namely Cornerback Scott Woerner, whose long punt return and interception scored one touchdown and set up another.
Still, as the season rolled along and Walker kept getting all the attention, Belue was steadily improving. He erupted for 228 passing yards against Kentucky; he threw a miracle pass to Lindsay Scott from deep in Georgia territory for the touchdown that beat Florida with :59 left to play; he annihilated Auburn with a lights-out, 176-total-yards performance.
All of which is more like it for a guy called Buck Belue. If ever there was a swashbuckling name, this is it. It belongs in bright lights and big letters. Belue should be riding off into the sunset with the girl at his side and the credits rolling down his back. Men give him no lip. And, appropriately, he is a cocky player in the Roger Staubach mold, and with some justification: in games Belue has started, the Dogs are 16-2. Bumper stickers in Athens read: ME AND YOU AND A DOG NAMED BELUE. In sum, Belue can't do anything except win.
His father planned it that way. Benjamin Franklin Belue Jr. peered into the crib of Benjamin Franklin Belue III and decreed, "We'll call him Buck. That sounds athletic." For his first birthday, Buck got a rubber bat and ball. By age five, he wasn't just playing catch with his father—he was running pass routes in the backyard. In midget football he was forced to be an end because of a rule that said if a boy weighed more than 100 pounds, he couldn't play in the backfield. Thus, Buck's coach devised an end-around pass; Belue led the league in passing.
Growing up in Valdosta was an advantage, too, because there are few towns in America that take football as seriously as Valdosta does. "Everybody cared so much about football that it made me care," says Belue. How much do they care? A recent coach for Valdosta High went 17-3 over two years and was fired because of his poor record.
Buck attended spring practice the year before he entered high school. In the span of three days, the starting quarterback hurt his knee, the backup broke his ankle and the third-teamer got so frightened when he saw what was happening that he quit. "So there I was, the new coach with a 142-pound eighth-grader named Buck Belue as my quarterback," says Hyder. "See, it wasn't as if I had a choice." The older kids repeatedly teed off on Buck. At practice one day blood was running from his nose, he had cuts under his eyes, and his jersey was ripped to shreds. Hyder said, "Buck, I have to take you out."
"Coach, you can't do that," said Buck.
"Because you don't have nobody else."
In his four high school seasons Buck never missed a practice. That includes showing up at 6 a.m. on winter mornings for conditioning because, as Hyder says, "Our philosophy is that we work while our opponents sleep. He has always been the kind of guy that if everyone else is going 90 miles an hour, he'll go 91 and win. All he is is a battler." In Buck's first year as quarterback the Valdosta Wildcats were 3-7. In the next three their record was 31-6; they finished No. 2 in the state in Buck's senior season. No wonder Buck eyed his old high school field the other day and shook his head. "It was a lot bigger when I played on it," he said.
Soon football recruiters from most of the big colleges were hanging around Valdosta, but Georgia won out because Dooley agreed that Belue could also play baseball. Indeed, baseball very likely is Belue's first love. An outfielder, he was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in the second round in 1978, but their paltry offer of $22,000—reluctantly increased to $30,000—didn't turn Buck's head. He led Georgia in hitting as a freshman, with a .373 average and a record 13 homers. But in the 1980 season Belue, who was coming off a slightly fractured left fibula suffered late in the 1979 football season, tried to split his time between spring practice and baseball. He hit .274, poorest on the team. In 1981 Belue won't play spring football, on the eminently logical grounds that "spring is for baseball and fall is for football." He even says that a big dollar offer from baseball might entice him to forgo his last year of college football. That already has the Georgia faithful wringing their hands.
Belue has come a long way since 1978 "when I didn't know if I could play football on the college level or not. But after a couple days, I found out I could. Then I was sure disappointed to be on the bench. Heck, all those recruiters kept telling me how great I was. Now I realize that what they said wasn't true."
Late in Belue's freshman season, Georgia fell behind Georgia Tech 0-20 and Dooley called on Belue. "I couldn't believe they were doing that to my child," recalls Buck's mother, Sandra. At which time Belue went crazy and led the Dogs to a 29-28 victory, the greatest comeback in school history. A legend was born. Yet, that performance became a burden for Belue, too, because it established what he could do. However, because the Georgia coaches still looked upon him as the No. 2 quarterback, he often found himself on the bench. He was so distressed after getting minimal playing time in the 1978 Bluebonnet Bowl that he nearly quit the team. "I wasn't a real happy person," he says.
When the 1979 season began, things got worse. Belue shared playing time with Jeff Pyburn. "I was playing them both, neither was playing very well, and we were losing," says Dooley. Indeed, Dooley's irrepressible wife, Barbara, who considers Buck "the cutest thing ever to hit this campus," says that when her husband would toss and turn at night over who should play quarterback, she would whisper in his ear, "Buck Belue, Buck Belue, Buck Belue." As the year progressed, Belue emerged as the starter, but then came the broken fibula. Little was made of the injury outside Athens. "When you're quarterback of a 6-5 team and throw 11 interceptions, you're not much of a celebrity," says Belue.
Asked if he had any concern about Belue as his quarterback before this season began, Dooley says, "Not at all." Barbara, however, laughs and says, "Vince was in a nervous panic over Buck." Who do you believe?
As a leader, Belue is flat out terrific, the rare kind of quarterback who is one of the boys and can still inspire his blockers. His high school baseball coach, Butch Brooks, says, "He just looks at you, doesn't say anything, but you think, 'By George, I better straighten up.' " Belue is no classroom star, but he had the good sense to travel twice to Wrightsville to help recruit Walker. Why? "We wanted him," Belue says. "More important, we needed him." Walker says, "Buck's real smart."
The non-celebrity at 6-5 is hounded for autographs at 11-0. Belue is enormously courteous about signing them, because as an inveterate autograph collector himself he knows the sting of a snub. Rick Barry's unwillingness to present young Buck with a signature is still remembered unforgivingly. Tempted to slip out the back door after a poor effort in last month's regular-season finale against Georgia Tech—8 for 16, but three interceptions—Belue realized that wasn't right and walked out the main door into the waiting throngs.
Nobody works a crowd better than Belue. He howdies everyone. Along the streets of Valdosta, he greets a mart warmly and then, out of earshot, says, "That guy is the worst umpire in Valdosta. He struck me out a couple of times. People like that stick out in your mind." In a restaurant he stops to buy peppermint candy—3¬¨¬®¬¨¢ each. The money is used to help support a baseball team Belue played for, the Valdosta Red Sox. He takes three peppermints and leaves a nickel. A goody-goody companion points out the cash shortfall, and Belue says, "Those peppermints are overpriced. Besides, read the sign. It says, 'Your donation is appreciated.' It doesn't say you have to give anything." Quarterbacks are so doggone smart.
And Belue is lucky. Driving down a highway at 80—no cops come; passing on a hill—no cars come. Speeding past a sign indicating the shortest route to Plains, the billboard on which the farmers of south Georgia apologize for sending Jimmy Carter to the White House, and a billboard advertising a restaurant that has a 29-item salad bar, he reflects, "I do have a lot of confidence in myself. If we lose I get the blame, and if we win I get the glory. Quarterback isn't one of those positions that's real stable. I'm not going to tell you how good I am. I'll just play and let you form the opinions. I love to throw but I know there are better throwers. Still, I've got a pretty good arm. The difference this year is that when I drop back I know what to do. If the pass isn't there, I know not to throw. I'm not a great runner but I am mobile. What I love about football is the challenge of winning. It's a game that's not worth playing unless you win because it's so hard. I'm not saying we're one of the greatest teams that ever played. I just say we play hard and we mix that with some talent and good things happen."
John Kasay, an assistant offensive coach for the Bulldogs, says, "We can't compare to Notre Dame—on paper. You wouldn't bet on Georgia—statistically. The only thing we have is persistence." Another assistant, Rusty Russell, says, "The best thing you can say about these guys is they haven't got beat." Mostly because they're opportunistic. They lead the nation in turnover margin: they've got the ball 44 times on interceptions or opposition fumbles and turned it over themselves only 21 times.
Meanwhile, more Georgia pines and red clay are blurring past Belue's car. "You know, the main thing is to be happy," he says. "And I'm happy." And then Buck Belue flashes The Grin.