As a dedicated Christian, Curt Warner is practiced at handling temptation. As it does with any superior athlete, it comes looking for him all the time. If Warner happens to be taking a pitchout seven yards deep in the Penn State backfield, there's no problem. If he can, he'll skip-step one way or another to find an opening and then speed away, with would-be tacklers sprawled on the field behind him. If he must, he'll tighten up his muscled body—all six feet, 205 rock-solid pounds of it—then uncoil and sock it to the defense.
It's when he isn't carrying a football that temptation confronts Warner. It invites him to supplement his deeds with words, as though the deeds themselves are not proof enough of his worth. It is as if two straight seasons of 1,000-plus yards rushing (preceded by one 78 yards short of 1,000), the breaking of 11 single-season and 10 career Penn State records set by the likes of Lydell Mitchell and John Cappelletti, are less meaningful because Warner hasn't won the Heisman Trophy, because Penn State hasn't been No. 1, because Warner might have done a whole lot more if not for recurring hamstring pulls and leg cramps—if not for this...if not for that. Warner knows he could have done a whole lot more in his four years at Penn State, and he is very often tempted to say so. something he knows isn't right, especially for a dedicated Christian. At such times, the only thing for him to do is plant himself resolutely and go eyeball-to-eyeball with the temptation, until it is defeated.
This is all the more difficult because Warner, intelligent and well spoken, loves to talk. He's a speech communications major interested in a broadcasting career—or possibly the ministry—when an expected hitch in the NFL is completed. In the weeks leading up to his team's date with destiny—the battle for the national championship against unbeaten and top-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's night—Warner has been sorely tried. Wait for the game, he keeps telling himself.
Here he was, fooling around one day on campus at the statue of the Penn State mascot atop the Nittany Lion Shrine trying not to think about Georgia or New Orleans. In the gray cold of the December morning, the animal and the man seemed to have been sculpted from the same stone. Then Warner's face melted. Temptation. He tried to fight it off but couldn't this time. Warner couldn't resist becoming playful. He scratched the mountain lion's limestone ears and said, "Tell me, if a lion was going to fight a bulldog, which one would you want? No contest. The lion is the meanest animal in the business."
"Herschel Walker is a pretty mean Bulldog," someone said.
There it was: the red cape brandished. Temptation heaped upon temptation. Herschel Walker! Warner rolled his eyes. He coughed a couple of times into his fist. "Oh, yes. I've met Mr. Walker," he said.
"I've met Mr. Walker."
A shrug signaled end of comment. But then he added, "We'll see on January first." Warner has confronted superstars before.
A year ago Marcus Allen of Southern Cal, the Heisman Trophy winner, was the bait. Penn State had a New Year's date with USC in the Fiesta Bowl, and Allen was the focus of pregame attention. Warner might be lucky to attract a reporter or two looking for a sidebar. Mind you, Warner had had big games of his own—238 yards against Nebraska and 256 against Syracuse—and had rolled up 1,044 for the season despite missing two games and half of two others because of injuries. Once he went so far as to say he felt "stabbed" because he hadn't even received enough votes to finish among the Top Ten in the Heisman balloting. But the reporters kept trying to get him to say something specific about Allen, and finally, on New Year's Eve, he succumbed. "I haven't told anybody else this," he said to The New York Times. "But...I'm going to steal his spotlight." On the following afternoon he outrushed the Heisman winner 145 yards to 85 and scored two TDs in Penn State's 26-10 victory.
But that was only the Fiesta Bowl, after all; no national championship was at stake. This year it's another story, and another test, against the 1982 Heisman winner, Walker. "Yes, I've met Mr. Walker," is all Warner will say for now.
The lesson of last season spurred Warner to work harder than he had before; he wanted to gain strength and to avert the nagging muscle pulls that kept him from being all that he felt he could be. He forsook spring football practice to run the sprints in track—not to win but to get his legs in better shape. He stayed in State College over the summer, running twice daily and lifting weights religiously, adding 10 pounds of muscle to his chest and shoulders. He knew his yardage would be tougher to come by in the '82 season, because the Nittany Lions had graduated four outstanding offensive linemen—Sean Farrell, Mike Munchak, Jim Romano and Vyto Kab—but Warner felt his new strength and determination would offset the losses.
The early result was bitter disappointment. Although Penn State won its first four games, it did so not on the strength of the running game, but on the passing of junior Quarterback Todd Blackledge, Warner's roommate and best friend.
In the opener against Temple, Warner carried just 13 times for 49 yards, while Blackledge threw for 203 yards and four touchdowns. In the locker room Warner was badgered by reporters. Was Warner disappointed? Was he jealous of his roommate? Did he think his Heisman hopes were dashed? He tried to contain himself, but couldn't. He was seen crying. He complained about the coaching. Everything he said and did made the papers, and things only got worse for a while. Against Maryland, Warner gained 45 yards; Blackledge threw four more TD passes. Against Rutgers, Warner had 49 yards; Blackledge threw four more TD passes. In the Nebraska game, Warner finally got on track, rushing for 69 yards in the first half, but in the second his legs cramped up so badly because of the tight elastic girdle he wore to protect his thick thighs from muscle pulls that he hardly played at all—and the game was won with a last-minute miracle drive led by Blackledge and a touchdown pass, his third.
Warner was torn up and his relationship with Blackledge had inevitably become difficult. They have been the closest of friends for three years—"Curt is the brother I never had," says Blackledge—and do everything together. They go to practice together, come home together, eat dinner together, play together, pray together. They are leaders in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter on campus. The one thing Warner couldn't do was let his own disappointment cast a pall over Blackledge's success. "I'm happy that Todd had a great year this year. I really am," Warner says now, though a measure of his own sacrifice is audible in his words.
"For a while, I was afraid I wouldn't even gain a thousand yards for the season," he says. "When you're carrying 13 times for 49 yards a game, you don't think of yourself as a top-caliber running back. I really got down. I had set goals for myself and, one by one, I had to let them go. After the first three or four games, there was no further use in me even thinking about the Heisman. By that point I just wanted to have one good game—forget about a great year. I'd get to the middle of a ball game and not feel like playing anymore. There were times when I really, honestly doubted myself, everything that I had thought about myself up until that time. All of a sudden I found myself wondering how good I really was. What was going on? It would have been different if I had been hurt, sure. Then I would have had an excuse. But I had no excuse. I'd go to the sidelines saying to myself, 'Hey. What's going on? Had I thought too much of myself before? Was my ability an illusion?' That shook me because I had never lacked confidence since I was about 15 years old."
"It was kind of a trying time," says Blackledge. "We tried running in the early part of the season, but the holes just weren't there, and I think Curt may have put a little too much pressure on himself, thinking there was something with him. He was full of doubts, while I had never felt more confident about myself."
Although the team was winning, the two friends couldn't discuss matters comfortably, so they discussed them not at all, creating periods of embarrassing silence in their three-bedroom off-campus apartment. "Curt's the kind of person who doesn't open up real easily, except with me," says Blackledge. "But that was a time when he was closed for a while. He was happy that I was doing well, but he had to fight through his own disappointment alone."
Seeing Warner sulking and doubting himself troubled Coach Joe Paterno greatly. Paterno knew long before the season started that, with an inexperienced offensive line, the running game would take time to develop. Because he had Blackledge and a number of veteran receivers—including Warner—Paterno decided to concentrate on passing, hoping that a quality ground attack would follow. At first Paterno thought Warner understood this; then he realized that he hadn't prepared his star running back for the reality of the situation. "A lot of it was my fault," says Paterno. "I should have sat him down and said, 'Hey, Curt, you know you're not going to be able to carry the ball too much early in the season.' " By now Warner has come to understand what Paterno was trying to do, and regardless of whether Penn State wins or loses the Sugar Bowl, the way the offense did develop can only add to Paterno's reputation.
Says Warner, "Some of the dreams that I had kind of went down the drain, to tell the truth. But I think I became a tougher football player. Really. By the end of the season I was as tough a football player as there was in the country."
Things began to jell, ironically enough, during Penn State's only loss, 42-21 to Alabama. Warner and the running game and Blackledge and the passing game approached parity. Warner carried only 12 times for 40 yards, but he also caught five passes for 90 of Blackledge's 234 yards. Over the last six games, against Syracuse, West Virginia, Boston College, North Carolina State, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, Warner averaged 130 yards per game, up from 52.2 during the first five, while Blackledge's passing yardage dropped from an average of 241.4 to 168.5.
The end result was a 1,041-yard season for Warner and a Sugar Bowl team with exceptional offensive balance: 2,283 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground, 2,369 yards and 22 touchdowns through the air. "If this isn't the best team I've had here," says Paterno, "it's certainly as good as any...as good as the '71 team when we had Franco [Harris] and Lydell [Mitchell] in the same backfield, probably better." In the Heisman Trophy balloting, Warner finished 11th and Blackledge finished sixth. Along with the signal success of his team, what Paterno has enjoyed most this year has been watching Warner grow up. "People say to me, 'Why do you stay in college coaching?' You stay in college coaching because of guys like Curt. It just doesn't seem possible that in four years someone can come from being a big, wide-eyed, naive kid with a lot of enthusiasm out of a small town in West Virginia to where he's a very mature, confident man."
Warner grew up in tiny Wyoming (pop. 200) at the southern end of the Allegheny Mountain coal-mining region, near the Virginia and Kentucky borders. He was a year-round sports nut who could always be found with his older brother Robert—known as Peewee—at the school yard down the road from their home, playing whatever game happened to be in season. His was the only black family for 20 miles around; the Warners had been there for some 60 years, ever since Curt's great-grandfather, a Baptist preacher, moved to Wyoming from North Carolina.
Warner's "parents" are really his grandfather, Jim, whom Curt calls Pops, and his grandmother, Lottie Mae. They adopted Curt and Peewee as babies. Curt's natural mother, with whom he exchanges occasional phone calls, lives with her husband in Cleveland. Jim Warner worked in the coal mines for 41 years. For 22 years Jim coached Little Leaguers, including Curt. Since 1978 he has been assistant coach of the girls' softball team at Pineville High (450 students), which Curt attended. At Pineville, Warner scored 89 touchdowns in three seasons, including 48 in his senior year, and Governor Jay Rockefeller tried to recruit him for West Virginia University. Paterno became sold on Warner while watching him play basketball. Curt was a star in baseball, too. Once a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies drove the serpentine route through the mountains to Warner's home, took him to a baseball diamond and got a friend of Curt's to throw a dozen new baseballs to him. Warner lost most of them in the woods behind the leftfield fence.
But Warner found baseball to be "too slow," and he was too small for big-time basketball, so off he went to play football at Penn State. In his first game, against Rutgers, as a freshman he ran for 100 yards, caught two passes for 71 more, returned four kickoffs for 109 and scored three touchdowns. "We didn't even know who Warner was," said Rutgers Coach Frank Burns after the game. "Who is he?"
There are still a lot of people who don't know who Warner is, four years, 3,398 yards and 30 TDs later. And, among those who do know who Warner is, few know how good a running back he really is. Paterno believes he's as good as Herschel Walker—that name again—as do most of his teammates.
"I know how good I am and I don't know how good anyone else really is, O.K.?" says Warner. "I'm better than I was last summer, and my team is much better than it was last week, so don't ask me anymore, O.K.?"
But he's softening.
"Good team," Warner says.
"Umm..." he says. He's breaking.
"Off the record?" he says.
Oh, yes, an A for Warner, Curt, in journalism, that course called Interview Techniques, and off the record he unburdens himself.
And then: "January first. 'Round midnight. Ask me then who's best. Then I'll tell you. For the record."