Running back Mike Rozier, a.k.a. Mike Heisman and the Franchise, the 22-year-old former Nebraska star with the $3.1 million Pittsburgh Maulers contract and an almost eerie lack of pretentiousness, was only 24 hours away from his USFL debut last week in Tulsa, but he calmly assured anxious friends, "I'm not worried. Really. It's just football. I've been playing it all my life."
One listener not quite certain that Rozier was serious, asked, "Don't you ever pinch yourself and say, 'Has all this really happened to me—the Heisman, the contract, the magazine covers, the pro career?' "
"Look," said Rozier, who represents something like two-thirds of the Maulers' payroll, "If I was so great, I'd have a star on my door. I'd get picked up in a limo."
Rozier, who has yet to be chauffeur-driven by the Maulers, had spent much of training camp recovering from a sprained ankle and earning his millions by helping to move blocking dummies, straightening up the locker room after practice, seeking out kids to sign autographs for and cracking up his teammates with his own version of Mary Had a Little Lamb.
As the Maulers dressed Sunday to play the Oklahoma Outlaws in Skelly Stadium, a souvenir-buying crowd in the nearby Outlaws General Store was talking about Rozier. Many of them were University of Oklahoma fans who had seen him perform for the Huskers. As one Joe Bob said, "He ran all over us—three times," which inspired such expressions of concern and admiration as "He's awesome" and "He's big, strong, fast." Not to mention "Rich!"
And cold. The wind-chill factor at game time made it feel like 22°, and a steady rain was falling, which helped to hold the crowd for the Outlaws' USFL debut to 11,638. Rozier alternately jogged and sprinted up and down the sideline, stopping occasionally to whack various teammates on the shoulder pads and shout, "Come on, let's get 'em." On Pittsburgh's second offensive play, he butted the middle of the Oklahoma line but was held to a one-yard gain. On the second series, he went around right end for another yard. On the next snap he went right again and broke a tackle for two. Then, as the second quarter began, he carried the ball on five consecutive plays. But he was like popping corn, very busy and getting nowhere. In his 12 first-half carries he netted only 25 yards; his best gain was seven.
The squishy footing and the cold weren't helping his cause, but then nobody else was really going anywhere, either. The second quarter ended with a Mauler field goal, for the only points in the half. Meanwhile, the dwindling, shivering crowd awaited a Rozier explosion, but the man who last fall set NCAA records with his 29 touchdowns rushing and his average of 7.8 yards per carry, played very little after the intermission. Rozier ran four times for a total of two yards, and Oklahoma came on to win 7-3. Rozier finished with 27 yards on 16 carries. Only once in his college career had he been less productive, gaining 23 yards against Penn State in 1981 as a reserve.
And what had happened in the second half? Mauler coach Joe Pendry, hurrying out of his somber locker room, which was steaming with thawing bodies, said cryptically, "We needed to throw the ball more, and Mike isn't too familiar with our passing game." That seemed strange. Pendry's quarterback, Glenn Carano, tried 10 passes in the first half and 11 in the second.
Not much help from Pendry, so Rozier was asked, "Were you disappointed that you didn't play more?"
"Our main objective is to win," he said. "I don't care about yards gained. I'm just one of 22 players."
"So how about your first pro game?"
"I'm pretty happy. The ankle is fine, and we learned from our mistakes."
Rozier's answers recalled something that Mauler general manager George Heddleston had said the day before: "What scares me most, aside from winning and losing, is that Mike Rozier could go out tomorrow and have about 10 carries for 30 yards. But he has the perfect temperament for dealing with that sort of thing."
He certainly does.