Sometimes obscured by his relentless quest for overstatement and the pursuit of the dramatic is the fact that John Corker of the USFL's Michigan Panthers, a big, strong and not so silent type, is one terrific outside linebacker. "I'm just what the doctor ordered," says Corker, writing his own press release. "I'm 6'6", 240 and I can run. I'm all you ever want on a pass drop, and running backs don't get around me."
Hard-noses find the loquacious Corker a bit much, but if you like your linebackers to have a little style, then he's your man. His is imposing a personal reign of terror on quarterbacks, leading the league in sacks—and cracks—while finally living up to his heralded potential.
As Washington Federals Quarterback Kim McQuilken put it to his offensive line earlier this season, during a siege in which Corker decked McQuilken five times: "Isn't anybody going to block him?" Those five sacks didn't even constitute Corker's best game. On May 16 against New Jersey this rampaging loudmouth, who's known as Sac Man to his friends, got to the quarterback six times.
Last Sunday he probably wished he had saved up a couple of those as Michigan lost a heartbreaker 29-20 to the Philadelphia Stars, the USFL's best team—12-2 on the year—in Philly's Veterans Stadium. The Stars knew all about Corker and didn't run once to his side of the field. It's news when Corker doesn't get a tackle in the opponents' backfield, and to help make that news, the Stars stationed three receivers on his flanks, sent men in motion and focused a great deal of attention on him. Philly Tackle Brad Oates, who earlier in the week had come into the club offices at eight in the morning several times to study Michigan game films, said, "The line tried to neutralize Corker's game by going at him. You can't be tentative or sit back and wait for him. You really have to be aggressive."
June 12, 1983
The Stars, who had yielded 45 sacks in their earlier games, gave up only two on Sunday, neither by Corker, who was kept so busy that he was able to rush Quarterback Chuck Fusina only 10 times all afternoon. Fusina, whose slowness in getting rid of the ball had made him a vulnerable target in previous games, was in top form, connecting on 24 of 32 passes for 227 yards and three TDs.
Nonetheless, Corker still leads the USFL with a resounding 21 sacks, 10 more than runner-up Fred Nordgren of Tampa Bay. If he were a fighter pilot, the emblems on his plane denoting enemy kills would stretch back to the tail assembly. No wonder Corker, who thinks false humility is dishonest, talks about himself. Teammate Thorn Dornbrook, an offensive guard, says. "He's got a right to be flamboyant. He's the best linebacker in the league."
It's intriguing to think, as Corker goes about singlehandedly dismantling opponents' game plans, that he might be playing out of position. In college at Oklahoma State in 1976-79, he was primarily a middle linebacker and in his junior year tore apart the Big Eight before an injury to his left knee stopped him. "He had 130 tackles in seven games that season before he got hurt," says Jim Stanley, the former coach at Oklahoma State who's now head man with the Panthers. "I've never seen anything like it, before or since."
Michigan's linebacker coach, Larry Coyer, worked under Stanley at Oklahoma State, and occasionally they muse about the possibility of shifting to a 4-3 defense so they could move Corker into the middle. "I've seen all of the great ones—Jack Lambert at Pittsburgh, Lee Roy Jordan at Dallas—and it's not even close," says Coyer. "The guy we saw at Oklahoma State, he was better than all of 'em."
Surprisingly, were it not for the USFL, Corker might by now have disappeared from pro football. With the Houston Oilers, for whom he wore a uniform and often a sour expression in 1980, '81 and '82, Corker was strictly an understudy behind Robert Brazile and Ted Washington, Houston's top linebackers.
"John's not the kind of guy you can mislead [Corker felt the Oiler coaches had promised to give him a better shot at a starting job than he got]," says Stanley, trying to explain Corker's dismal showing in the NFL. "Once he doesn't trust you, you're just whistlin' Dixie. He's got a deep pride, contrary to what you might gather from his outward behavior."
The Oilers cut Corker in November of last season, after three games. Stanley, who by then was coach of the nascent Panthers, quickly got in touch with him, and Corker, now 24, signed a one-year contract with a one-year option. "I went from bad timing to pefect timing," he says. "Now it's everything I ever dreamed about. What I'm doing is showing people there's a ballplayer here."
Michigan plays a 3-4 defense in which Corker is the key man. An exceptional athlete who was all-state in both football and basketball during his high school days in Miami, he flip-flops from side to side so opponents can't be sure where the blitz, which Corker attempts about 15 times a game, will come from. "He adds an intimidation factor," says Coyer.
Corker believes that by talking so big he gives himself an incentive to play hard. When he was still in college he met, somewhat fatefully, Brazile and confidently told him, "I'm going to get drafted by Houston and come down there and take your job." He was half right. "It was time to eat some words," says Corker about his faulty prophecy.
Lately, as news of his unbridled confidence has spread, Corker has noticed not only that the other teams have been loading up on him on pass blocking, but also that the officials are giving him closer scrutiny. "I don't know if I can talk crazy anymore," he says. "I know a lot of people are looking at me. I may have to let my intimidation come from my playing ability and not my mouth."
Corker favors jewelry and nice cars. "Stylin' and glidin' " is what he calls the auto trips he takes; one stretched from coast to coast in his Cadillac Eldorado. He's also the only guy on the Panthers with a Louis Vuitton belt, which to them is the zenith of designer chic. Last week Corker noticed that some of his teammates were moving up in the sartorial standings, that there was a smattering of sharp suits. "What we ought to do," he announced, "is put up 100 bucks each and have a team 'dress down.' " Rookie Receiver Anthony Carter, who's averaging 19.9 yards a catch but is still partial to letter sweaters, said, "Can I throw in my pair of sharp pants wit'cha all?"
Football players with big talk and no action—the sass without the dash—do not last long, but Corker's best endorsement as a solid producer comes from Stanley, a tough customer who grew up in the coal-mining town of Lynch, Ky., played for Bear Bryant at Texas A&M and coached with Bum Phillips in high school and college. Stanley is a no-nonsense guy, maybe the only coach anywhere without a single picture on his office walls. "I like character and class," he says. "If you have them, you don't mind working. Corker's that kind."
Before last Sunday, Michigan had been the hottest team in the league, winning seven of the last nine, including six straight, as Corker threatened to fill emergency wards with disabled quarterbacks. They also ruffled some feelings with their flip Corker-style chatter. Philadelphia Tackle Irv Eatman termed them "arrogant." Eatman wasn't talking only about Corker. Even the Michigan kicker, a transplanted Yugoslav named Novo Bojovic, who for good luck keeps garlic in his kicking shoe, gets in on the act. Bojovic had made 14 of 24 field goals, and after each successful one had gloated. "Novo gets up in the other linebackers' faces," says Corker, laughing. Bojovic weighs only 170 pounds. "Someone's going to kill him," says Corker.
Though he has a Slavic accent, Novo can talk stuff. "Man, the girl be trippin', man" is his description of a female friend. "Novo speaks like he's from Harlem," says Corker. Actually, Bojovic was born in Titograd, but he has lived in Michigan since 1975, which explains his Motown sound. "I gotta stop doing that talkin' on the field, man," he says. "It don't go, man, in the pros." Dig it, Novo.
But on Sunday you could figure out that things were not going well for Michigan by the sounds of silence on the field. For Novo, it was no-go. He missed two field goals, a 34-and a 48-yarder, and even his syntax was quiet. "What can you do?" he said. "You have to live your life. You can't let one game kill you."
Corker was subdued but not deflated. Told that Eatman had said, "I didn't hear much talk out of Corker today," Sac Man replied, "Guys who make comments like that, you have to check their character. I thought I played pretty well. Still, it's a team game and a team loss, so I guess I didn't play well enough."