Jimmy Witkowski, 52, a floor-layer in Massapequa, N.Y., likes to talk about his nephew, John, who plays quarterback for Columbia. "He was a shy kid," says Jimmy. "He still is with me, because he never knows what I'm going to say next. I call him dirt bag and everything else to keep his head from swelling.
"He was featured in the Daily News the other day. I was showing everybody on the job, and nobody seemed to care but me. That's the way it works, I guess. But when he's in the pros next year and the free tickets come around, they aren't getting any."
Jimmy's co-workers should not be judged too harshly for yawning. After all, the headline on that New York newspaper article was LIONS WITKOWSKI ALMOST UNNOTICED. The story went on to say that Witkowski, a 6'2", 200-pound senior from the Long Island village of Lindenhurst, for the past season and a half has, against all odds, been throwing for more than 300 yards a game and generally been playing his position on a par with anybody east of BYU's Steve Young. NFL scouts project Witkowski as a second-to-sixth-round pick in the '84 draft, and among Division I quarterbacks only Young and Ken Hobart of Idaho have produced more yards of total offense this fall. But because Witkowski performs for Columbia, which despite playing in the weak Ivy League has had but one winning season since 1962 and no more than a single victory in any of its last four years, such achievements have drawn little attention.
While the Lions stumbled to a 1-9 record in 1982, Witkowski completed 250 of 453 passes (55%) for 3,050 yards and 29 TDs. In one game, a 56-41 loss to Dartmouth, he connected on 39 of 64 throws for 466 yards and five TDs. His stats for the fourth quarter alone were 16 of 28 for 209 yards and three scores. And lest there be any thought that Columbia had a ground game capable of keeping the Big Green off-balance, note that the Lions' top rusher that day went 38 yards. That runner was Witkowski.
This season the frustrations have kept coming. In Columbia's opener, a 43-14 loss to Harvard, Witkowski passed for 368 yards. Against Lafayette, he rallied Columbia from a 21-10 deficit to a 29-28 lead with 6:14 to play, only to see the Leopards score with 71 seconds left. At Princeton, the Lions led 20-7 at the half, and Witkowski was on his way to completing 29 of 54 passes for 376 yards, but the Tigers nonetheless triumphed 35-26. Then came a 21-18 victory over Yale, in which Witkowski was 20 for 27. Two weeks ago he threw for 423 yards and three touchdowns against Bucknell, but Columbia had to settle for a 31-31 tie. Last Saturday, the Lions returned to form. Undefeated Holy Cross, the nation's second-ranked Division I-AA team, routed the Lions 77-28 as Witkowski hit 26 of 54 passes for 316 yards.
Columbia isn't an easy place to play football. To practice, the team has to take a 100-block bus ride through Harlem to the school's fields on the northern tip of Manhattan. If a player misses the last bus because, say, he has to attend an afternoon biology lab, he takes the subway, the Broadway local. To the predictable question, "Have there been any muggings?" Coach Bob Naso says, "I won't comment on that. But we've had some scuffles. You live in New York, that's going to happen. Hell, that's the biggest advantage we have. We offer a student the chance to live life the way it is."
Part of the way life is for the Lions this season is being a team without a home. In recent years 32,000-seat Baker Field, the nation's oldest wooden stadium, had become so dilapidated that it could safely hold only 12,000 fans. No crowd anywhere near that size had showed up for years, but it was costing the school $100,000 a year to keep the stadium usable. So $7 million was raised, the wooden bleachers were torn down and a new stadium—made out of concrete—is rising from the splinters. With the construction now in progress, the Lions have had to be a road team. Of their seven games, five have been on opponents' fields, one at Giants Stadium in New Jersey and one at Hofstra University on Long Island.
NFL bird dogs have no trouble finding where Columbia plays. "Witkowski's got all the measurables," says Tony Razzano, director of college scouting for the 49ers. Says Dick Steinberg, director of player development for the Patriots, "Quarterback is one position where we never worry about the level of competition, because if he can throw he can throw, and if he can handle the pressure, that's the same, too. People try to stop him, and he still produces."
"When you watch him play, you feel sorry for him," says Ray Walsh Jr., director of research and development for the Giants. "He plays with no blocking, and he has to throw off his back foot because he never has a pocket so he can get set. He's the McCoy, though. He has the arm—and the guts."
To have persevered as he has, Witkowski has needed the courage of David and the patience of Job. He apparently had to develop both traits at an early age. He started playing quarterback at seven, and his father, Thomas, an executive with a textile firm in Manhattan, has missed no more than a handful of his games since then. "My brother used to get on John like hell in those games," says Jimmy, Thomas' twin. "You don't make errors with Tommy, whether it's in stickball or pickup basketball, or marbles. My brother always had to be the best, and you couldn't sit with him during John's games. He has a long memory, too, and he'd tell the kid, 'That guy was open,' or 'You missed that block.' I know they had a rough couple of years when he began at Columbia. Learning to lose with his old man isn't easy."
"He was a marine," says John of his father, who was a corporal during the Korean war. "That's the best way to describe him. He's not that bad. He just wants to make sure everything goes right. In a firm way. Firm but nice."
In the tie with Bucknell, Witkowski made two crucial errors: fumbling on the Bison one-yard line to forestall what looked like a sure TD and unnecessarily calling the Lions' last time-out with 33 seconds to play. He did move Columbia to the Bucknell 19 for the potential winning field goal in the final seconds, but the rushed kick sailed wide. Outside the dressing room Witkowski met his parents. Thomas, though not quite the Patton described by Jimmy, didn't take long to bring up the gaffes. "This guy," he began, pointing at his son. "I'm not even going to get into.... Why'd you call a time-out?"
"I didn't know "what play to call," said John. "I didn't want to screw up. What was I supposed to do?"
"Call whatever you want to call. Throw it out of bounds. You know you're going to move it downfield. What happened on the fumble?"
"I don't know. It happened."
"I'll say it happened," said Thomas, his expression somewhat closer to Robert Young's than the Great Santini's, but his tone still demanding.
After giving the pros a shot, Witkowski, who has a B average in economics, hopes to work as a stockbroker or investment banker on Wall Street. Last summer he interned at Salomon Brothers, the New York City investment banking house, helping to expedite underwritings of corporate issues, which translates into a lot of figuring. "He was excellent," says Wayne Gabari, vice-president and manager of Salomon's syndicate control department. "I'd be more than happy to have him come back here. I don't know how smart he is on the field, but he was plenty smart in here."
Witkowski will have to wait until he's a pro before a lot of people know just how smart he is on the field.