The Odyssey Of Little Homer

In an epic season, Homer Jordan of Clemson led the Tigers to the top of the polls and the Orange Bowl
December 28, 1981

Homer Jordan's moment has arrived. Bear Bryant has his record; Marcus Allen has his Heisman; Herschel Walker has his future. Now it's time for Homer Jordan to discover if his star can light up the entire nation on New Year's night, or if he and his Clemson teammates were a supernova that could exist only in the firmament of the ACC.

As the quarterback for the No. 1 team in college football, Jordan will be exposed for all the world to study. Is Clemson's meteoric rise to prominence a fluke in a fickle football season? Or is it a destiny made manifest by a nearly silent, polite-beyond-belief but fiercely determined soul from, of all places, Athens, Ga., home of the Georgia Bulldogs? These questions will be decided in the Orange Bowl when Clemson meets Nebraska with the opportunity of achieving a 12-0 season and locking up the Tigers' first national championship.

If Jordan, a junior, should emerge as the hero of the game, as was regularly the case this season, it probably won't even faze him, at least not outwardly. Homer's mother says that when he was the star quarterback for 11-1 Cedar Shoals High School in Athens three years ago, he would come straight home Friday nights after games, and kids from school would be lined up along the street in front of the house to greet him. "I don't know how he makes so many friends," says Alice Jordan, "because Little Homer doesn't say anything—even around home."

Little Homer hardly resembles a quarterback, at least in the way the image of a quarterback is fixed in the public mind. Think about it. Is there any position in any team sport that has a more firmly fixed stereotype than quarterback? First of all, if the quarterback is black, he's usually not really what we think of as a quarterback at all, but one of those wishbone-option juke artists such as Thomas Lott or J.C. Watts. We think of a college quarterback and we think of Jim McMahon or Art Schlichter or John Elway or Dan Marino. Not only are they white, but they're also big and strong.

Homer Jordan—a skinny 6-footer, listed at 180 pounds by the grace of the Clemson sports information department—just doesn't fit this prototype. Nor does he fit any other one. He simply gets the job done in whatever way is necessary. Jordan is willing to fit the game, and doesn't waste time trying to make the game fit him. He thinks, he sees, he moves—about as unobtrusively as a stalking cat, or, in this instance, Tiger—until the moment comes to pounce. Then he zips the ball like a bullet, or shakes his hips this way and that, and Clemson's on the move.

"Homer controls what we're going to do," says Clemson Coach Danny Ford. "How he plays is how we play. The games that he's had a little trouble in are the ones we had a hard time winning. But when your quarterback can play bad and you still win, then he's got to be pretty good. And we think Homer is pretty good."

For the record, Jordan has played quarterback regularly only since his senior year in high school. This season he was selected first-team All-ACC at the position. Either sprinting out or dropping back, whatever the occasion demanded, he threw for 1,496 yards and eight touchdowns, completed 96 of 174 passes (55%) and suffered only eight interceptions. He was also Clemson's third-leading rusher with 440 yards on 152 carries, and ran for six more touchdowns. Against Georgia, he completed 11 of 18 passes for 135 yards and ran for 59 more in a 13-3 win that was the Bulldogs' only loss of the season. He was 20 for 29 and threw for three TDs in a 21-7 win over Maryland that clinched the ACC crown. Against North Carolina State, though, Jordan passed poorly (completing only four of 13 throws with three interceptions) but ran for 104 yards.

"I have quick feet and can throw when I have to" is about all Jordan will say when asked to describe his own game.

But others are quick to supply the words for him, most notably senior Wide Receiver Perry Tuttle, who is as garrulous as Jordan is taciturn. A projected first-round NFL draft pick—"Thanks to Homer," he says—Tuttle caught 47 passes for 827 yards and seven TDs this season to break nearly all of the Clemson receiving records held by Jerry Butler, now with the Buffalo Bills. "I love the way Homer throws," says Tuttle. "You go across the middle, he threads it. He has the touch. You go long, he never overthrows. And sometimes you can slow down a step and let the defender get a little past you, because you know Homer'll get it to you."

"Seems like I came along at the right time for everything. That's the way I figure it," says Jordan, in what for him amounts to an oration.

There is also the matter of persistence, because all along coaches have been inclined to make Jordan anything but a quarterback. At Cedar Shoals, he began his freshman year as a running back but, he says, "One day I threw a halfback option pass and it looked pretty good so I decided I wanted to be a quarterback." School tradition dictated that only seniors got to start at quarterback, so Jordan bided his time in the defensive secondary. Even though as a senior quarterback Jordan led Cedar Shoals to an 11-1 record, recruiters from the University of Georgia didn't think much of him as a quarterback. Neither did the people at Clemson, for that matter. "We knew he was a football player," says Ford. "We didn't know he was a quarterback." There was also another factor: The only black quarterback that Clemson had ever had was for a half-season in 1975. Curiously, his name was Willie Jordan (he is not related to Homer), but he became a defensive back in 1976.

None of that mattered to Homer, even though it seemed to matter a great deal to most everyone else. Jordan was merely obsessed with the idea of playing quarterback in college. "Clemson told me I'd have a shot at quarterback, so I took it at that," he says.

As a freshman Jordan played back-up quarterback to Billy Lott, but before the 1980 season he was penciled onto the Clemson depth chart as a defensive back. He insisted on trying out for quarterback. He began practice that fall as the third-stringer, but three days before the season opener against Rice, Ford named Jordan as his starter—and stuck with him all season. The Tigers went 6-5, and it wasn't an easy year for anyone. There were rumors of discontent among the players, and Ford got a lot of unsolicited opinions from cocktail party coaches. Much of the talk concerned his choice of quarterback, and some of it was plainly racial. A lot of folks didn't think highly of Homer Jordan as a quarterback.

"The fans around here didn't know much about Homer," says Ford. "Early on he was very, very quiet—very, very shy. Didn't talk much. There was never a question of his having the ability. But he was always like this." Ford makes a clenched fist. "Nervous, tight. And in the beginning he deserved criticism, 'cause he was coming out there like he was playing basketball—dribbling the ball. The thing I did that probably hurt him was start him against Georgia in Athens in the second game. [Jordan had a miserable afternoon and Clemson lost, 20-16.] He was back home, playing in front of all those people. If I was smart, I would have figured all of that out. Unfortunately I'm not that smart. But you got to put yourself in his position. He was under a bunch of pressure. When you're one of the first black quarterbacks at a school, you're going to hear things and get criticized and face a pretty gigantic burden.

"But, you know what? He's so good a kid, he probably wasn't thinking about it near as much as I thought he was thinking about it. And I was sure thinking about it a lot."

Jordan refused to let a little adversity get in his way. His determination has always been far greater than his ability to express it. "There was a lot of talk about that...racial stuff...last year," he says. "It just made me want to work harder and prove that no matter what color I am, I can go out and do the job." As for starting the Georgia game, Jordan says, "Nervous? A lot of people said I was. But I didn't feel nervous. I played in front of all those folks all my life. Why would I get nervous then?"

Why indeed? You don't hear anyone around Clemson criticizing Jordan these days, and it's clear that Homer is enjoying the acclaim. Not long ago his luncheon with a note-taking journalist was interrupted by a glad-handing businessman who blurted, "Homer! You're not signing any contract, are you?"

"Yeah," said Jordan. "I'm gone. Montreal. Taking [Vince] Ferragamo's place."

"Uh-uh," said the man. "You got to come back. You got to go 11-0 one more time."

"Oh, I'll go 11-0 again," said Jordan, his straight face intact. "But I'm going to do it for the Alouettes."

"Now Homer's been our quarterback two years," says Ford. "His leadership, field generalship, confidence in himself, confidence the kids have in him—I have in him—you just don't get that in two years. Not when you're a defensive back one day and a quarterback the next."

Unless, apparently, you're someone like Homer Jordan. Off the field, on first impression, it is hard to imagine him as a quarterback. He doesn't pretend to be a scholar, having chosen Industrial Education as his major, taking classes like Materials of Construction, Coaching Education and Dairy Science—"You learn about different kinds of milk, cheese, ice cream...all the dairy products," he says. He admits he'll pick up a book "only when I have to."

But Jordan gets along academically—most important, he gets along with people—and he is surely a better person for having had the opportunity to attend college. Gradually, the shyness is dropping away. He always goes to class, even if he never says a word. His ambition in life—after football, that is—is to own a men's clothing store, and his dormitory room resembles one: suits and shirts neatly arranged in his closet, shoes perfectly placed in pairs on the floor, and not a scrap of paper out of place. Homer takes great pride in his dress, and spends much of his free time strolling through shopping malls, checking out the threads.

His teammates rib him for all the time he stays alone in his room listening to his music and—how does this sit when it comes to the image of the quarterback on the No. 1 team in the nation?—ironing his shirts. He rarely goes out socially. The primary reason is that he is very much in love with a girl back home named Deborah Arnold, whose brother Anthony, a receiver for Georgia last year, is a Denver Bronco rookie currently on the injured reserve list. They plan to marry, says Jordan, "when the time is right." Jordan puts plenty of mileage on his 1976 Mustang II commuting the 75 miles between Clemson and Athens. For kicks back at the dorm, Homer and Tuttle often will play dress-up: donning outrageous costumes like T shirts with bow ties and "funk glasses," playing deejay, taking pictures of each other—just for the hell of it.

His teammates also love to make fun of Jordan's diet, which seems to consist of 98% chicken and 2% peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. For that they call him "Bird."

In the light of the reports that the NCAA is investigating Clemson for alleged recruiting violations, Ford contains his down-home enthusiasm when telling people about Jordan's simple tastes. "Why, you can take Homer to the...uh, he can go...uh, you can't take him, that's against the rules...but you can go to the best steakhouse in town and he'll maybe eat a hamburger. He'd rather go to Wendy's for chicken than the finest steakhouse or the finest lobster house in town."

It has always been this way when folks speak of Jordan. "He's picture perfect," says high school teammate Jimmy Payne, now a defensive tackle at Georgia. "I mean, he doesn't do anything. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke. I never saw Homer come to school in jeans. He is so clean-cut. Nothing but dress pants, a nice shirt and sweater. Teachers fell in love with him 'cause he was such a hard worker and he never cut class."

All of the credit goes to Jordan's mother, Alice, who for 13 years worked two full-time jobs to support Homer and his three sisters, Bettye, Daphne and Iris. Alice's husband, also named Homer, was a diabetic, and in order to help pay his hospital bills and make her household's other ends meet at the same time, Alice Jordan worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. as a cashier at an insurance agency and from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. as a nurse in several Athens hospitals. When her husband died in 1970, she kept up the same pace in order to put Bettye and Daphne through the University of Georgia.

"My time for sleep was after dinner was through and the dishes were done," she says. "But on football nights that was impossible. Little Homer would come to me and say, 'Momma, you're coming to the game, aren't you?' And I'd say, 'Yes, Little Homer, I'll be there.' But here's something I never told him: A lot of times I'd just watch the first few minutes of the game, long enough for him to look up and see me in the stands. And then I'd go back to the car and rest until the fourth quarter."

Despite, or maybe because of, Alice Jordan's schedule, the family is unusually close. "I was just so concerned about Homer—about him not having a father, about me not being able to say the things I needed to say to him, the things he needed to know about life—that I think I may have paid a little extra attention to him," says Alice Jordan. "I knew the girls would come to me, but I wanted to make sure that Homer and I were close. And we are. In fact, our whole family acts more like we're brother and sisters to each other. We really sit down and talk to each other, and the kids have always listened to me. I always felt I could reason with them. I don't think I spanked any of my kids more than twice in my whole life."

Which isn't to say that Alice Jordan's only son doesn't have a mind of his own. Particularly when it comes to playing football and his responsibilities to his teammates. "I used to rub Little Homer down when he'd come home tired and sore in high school," recalls his mother. "Then one night Jimmy Payne and a couple of other friends carried Homer into the house like he was on a stretcher. I rubbed him down and later that week I said, 'Little Homer, you're not going to try and play, are you, when you're so hurt and all?' And he said, 'Yes, Momma, I am.' And that was that."

Jordan never goes anywhere without remembering to pick up some sort of souvenir to bring home to Momma ("It may be just a little old something," she says, "but it's still precious to me"), and many times she has watched Clemson play on TV Saturday afternoon only to see him come walking in her door in Athens a couple of hours later. When Homer is in Athens, he and Deborah—joggers both—spend their time quietly at his mother's home. Occasionally they will go out, and this can present something of a problem to a man who sets such store by his appearance. Homer, you see, hasn't mastered the fine art of getting a neat knot in a tie. "He has to go across the street to get Mr. Hunter to tie his tie for him," says his mother. "Little Homer doesn't like to talk much about Clemson being undefeated, but Mr. Hunter grills him about it and apparently Homer has to talk or he can't get dressed up."

If Homer Jordan has ever done anything to disappoint his mother, it would be his refusal to stand up and confess his faith in God and ask to join the Ebenezer West Baptist Church like the rest of the family. In her son's defense, Alice Jordan says, "I think he's bothered by the fact that because of athletics, he hasn't been able to go every Sunday, to commit himself to church as much as he would like. I've told him, 'Little Homer, you don't have to be perfect to join the church.' But something is still bothering him about joining the church."

"Homer's grown up so much this year," says Tuttle. "He's the story of our success. It really started with the last four games of 1980. Before that he was never really sure of himself. When it was time to check off a called play at the line, Homer didn't know what to do. I would put my arm around him and say, 'Homer, don't worry. The coaches have confidence in you. Go with your instincts.' "

To illustrate his lack of confidence last year, Jordan cites the 1980 North Carolina game, which Clemson lost 24-19. "We had first-and-goal on their one-yard line with a minute and a half to play. The coach called the same play—fullback up the middle—three times. I saw their ends crashing and I knew it wouldn't work. But I wouldn't check off the play."

This year Jordan became a take-charge quarterback. In Clemson's ninth game, a 10-8 win at North Carolina, Jordan was told to run fullback up the middle on second-and-short. When he lined up, Tuttle saw his defender cheating up, and thought, "Come on. Homer. See this guy? Check off. Take a chance." Jordan did. "I checked off," said Jordan, "because I thought Tuttle could beat his man long. The pass was incomplete. I looked over at the coaches and thought they'd get on me, but they didn't."

"Shoot," says Quarterback Coach Nelson Stokley, "where Homer has improved most is at the line of scrimmage. In the Maryland game, he checked off running plays probably six times on first-down situations and I think he completed passes on every one of them."

No one questions Jordan's leadership anymore. "It took him a good while before he opened up to his teammates," says Free Safety Terry Kinard. "You'd ask him his name: 'Homer.' Where you from? 'Athens.' End of information. Now, he'll cut up and joke with us."

Says Tuttle: "The thing about Homer is he's quiet. But understand, when Homer talks, people listen. Like E.F Hutton. One time, late in the first half of the Georgia game, it was 0-0, everybody was panicking, going crazy. Homer walked into the huddle and yelled, 'Shut the hell up!' Oh man! Everybody went whaa! Nobody ever heard Homer cuss before. And then everybody cracked up. I said 'Homer...?' 'What...?' 'That's not you, man.' " Jordan looked at Tuttle icily. A few moments later, he threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to Tuttle to spark Clemson's victory.

"We kid around an awful lot now," says Tuttle. "Like one day before a game I said, 'Now, Homer, I'll give you one hundred dollars if you give me six passes.' And he said, 'I'll give you fifty back if you catch 'em all.' " Another time Ford sent Tuttle into the game with a running play but Tuttle, as he says, "went into the huddle and said, 'Homer, 42 Blast.... But, remember...you can check off.'

"Another game," says Tuttle, "Maryland game, we were on their 14-yard line. Homer got under center. He looked at Jerry Gaillard, the other receiver. He was thinking about checking off but he wasn't real sure of himself. Then he looked at me and I made a tiny nod with my head. Homer called out 'Purple' and once he said that I knew what the deal was." Purple meant fly. Tuttle flew, and Jordan took one step back from the center and lobbed it toward the right flag. Tuttle caught it for the touchdown, one of 10 passes he caught that afternoon.

Jordan believes he can be a pro quarterback, and Stokley agrees, although he feels Jordan's best chance to play the position will be in the Canadian League, where the field is wider and the game is more conducive to run-pass quarterbacks, as former Oklahoma wishbone quarterback J.C. Watts proved this year for the Ottawa Rough Riders. Homer also thinks he could be an excellent receiver, even though he has never played the position. What the heck. He figures he can do anything athletic.

"Hard work will get you somewhere sooner or later," he says. "Get you to the place you want to go. That's the way I figure it."

Right now Clemson is exactly where it wants to be—No. 1—and Homer Jordan is figuring he will keep the Tigers there on New Year's night.

ILLUSTRATION TWO PHOTOSPassing or running or all duded up, Jordan makes big tracks for the undefeated Tigers. PHOTOAlice Jordan slept little—she worked two full-time jobs—while raising Little Homer. PHOTODeborah Arnold is where Homer's heart is. PHOTOCoach Ford (center) and Receiver Tuttle (right) talk up Jordan at every opportunity.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)