It Was Worth The Wait

Vinny Testaverde had to endure three long years on the bench before lifting Miami to the top
October 12, 1986

As far back as forever, Vinny Testaverde was going to be the quarterback. It only seems as if he has been the quarterback at Miami forever. The tall, dark-eyed No. 14 who gunned down No. 1 Oklahoma (and a gaggle of Heisman trophy-hunting geese as well) in the Orange Bowl a fortnight ago—that was surely Testaverde. The only guy who did it to the national champion Sooners last season—that was the same Testaverde. Beyond that, memories blur in the soft Miami haze.

During the years in which the Hurricanes variously lost to the Flutie Fluke and won the national title, Testaverde wasn't at the controls. Bernie Kosar was. Testaverde was riding the bench. Kosar looked like Testaverde; he just wasn't as mobile or as strong or as versatile. The year Jim Kelly—yeah, that Kelly, Buffalo Jim—was going to win the Heisman at Miami but instead went down with a shoulder injury in the third game of his senior season, Testaverde was a raw and callow freshman who had just begun to wait. He even got off 12 balls somewhere along the way.

Not that Testaverde, lurking on the sidelines behind Ponce de Leon Boulevard, was Lana Turner on the counter seat at Schwabs. No, he was never undiscovered. In fact, Kosar and the 6'5", 218-pound Testaverde emerged from spring practice in 1983 in a dead heat, and former Hurricane coach Howard Schnellenberger didn't decide to make Kosar the starter until just before the season began. Well, maybe Kosar did have a slight edge in the cerebrum. Then again, how intelligent could he have been to leave behind a couple of years of eligibility at Miami to get his much-acclaimed brain knocked around in Cleveland?

At any rate not a soul was surprised, least of all Testaverde's teammates, when in his debut last fall he led the Hurricanes to a 10-2 record and to school records for most points scored in a season (399) and average yards per game (461.5). "We knew the dude could do it because he had been doing it in practice for all time," says halfback Melvin Bratton. "We were redshirts together [in 1983], and Vinny was like a wild horse just waiting in his stall, ready to be turned loose. There was no guessing with him. We knew."

Testaverde quickly became "Vincent Priceless" and "Vinny Trophyverde," with such nifty '85 feats as:

•Completing 216 passes in 352 attempts (61.4%) for 3,238 yards and 21 touchdowns.

•Averaging more than 35 yards per scoring pass.

•Throwing 116 passes without an interception to match the school record set by the fabled George (Matador) Mira in 1963.

•Establishing Hurricane marks for longest touchdown pass (88 yards) and most 200-yard-passing games in a season (all of them: 11 regular-season outings plus the 35-7 Sugar Bowl upset loss to Tennessee).

Miami coach Jimmy Johnson's penchant for running numbers up the flagpole and leaving his meal tickets in to share the sumptuous feasts should not gainsay Testaverde's humongous statistics. "Hey, it's not like the guy has played four years," says Johnson. "Vinny's practically a rookie. He's still learning, and I'm going to give him his minutes." Against four biggies—Oklahoma, Florida State, Maryland and Notre Dame—in '85, Testaverde had nine touchdown passes and only one interception.

In five victories this season, Testaverde has converted 78 of 126 passes (62%) for 1,193 yards and 12 TDs, and the No. 1 Hurricanes haven't even rung up a 67-pointer yet. Equally impressive, in the only game in which he has not passed for more than 200 yards, a 23-15 defeat of archrival Florida last month, Testaverde had a nasty case of the flu. Still, he completed a breathtaking 50-yard pass on third-and-24 from the Hurricane 17 to break the Gators' momentum in the closing minutes.

As jurisprudential briefcases continue to suggest, discipline must be an elective at Miami. However, Testaverde has never had a difficult time keeping his considerable nose squeaky clean. (The Shnoz Club, he calls the prominent organization to which he belongs.) Goodness knows, goodness is what Testaverde has always been about. He doesn't smoke or drink, and he abhors the slightest profanity in the presence of women. His housemates' gravest complaint is that he leaves out the Chips Ahoy cookie bag when he turns off the TV at night.

"My mom said, 'Ugh, a football player,' when I told her that I was dating Vinny," says Testaverde's girlfriend, former Miami cheerleader Luanne Pelosi. "But then I convinced her how different Vinny was." Luanne is "Lulabelle" to some of the Hurricanes, who recall the historic team flight to Duke on which Pelosi caught Testaverde's eye, primarily because of the spectacular fit of her jean skirt. "I don't even remember what top she had on," he says, without cracking a snicker.

Spoiled by a fawning family, including four sisters who waited on him hand and foot, Testaverde had a fine shot at becoming a colossal pain. Instead, he turned out to be a highly moral, downright nice and unfashionably modest young man. According to veteran Hurricane watchers, Kosar had some "real thug" in him. For kicks in practice he would rifle passes out of bounds to within inches of perceived enemies, including a Miami Herald female reporter. Once, witty Bernie nearly separated school president Edward T. Foote II from his numerals. Testaverde, too, is a football killer, but without a mean streak in his body.

"A nice, nice, great person who tries to get mean in the huddle," says Bratton. "You can see Vinny getting pumped, because he turns red. But we just look at each other and smile. Bernie was treated like a franchise. Vinny is more one of us."

Testaverde refuses to get embroiled in that favorite Hurricane pastime, Compare the Cane QBs. He confesses only that he is "probably faster and stronger" than Kelly and Kosar, but "that doesn't mean better." He also meets criticism of his intellect and his once laughable class schedule with refreshing candor. "I never applied myself in class in high school," Testaverde says, "because I didn't realize how important grades were for getting a scholarship. I still don't find school one of the more exciting things in life. I don't want to sound like a dummy, but how in the world are some of these math and science courses truly meaningful to me?

"I was always one of those kids trying to find the easy way out. Here as a phys-ed major I figured I'd take the easy classes first. But then people jumped all over me, and I came out looking bad. [One semester Testaverde's course load was published as Introduction to Sports, Nutrition, Introduction to Recreation and Sports Injury.] Now that I'm taking marketing, biology, public affairs, things like that, nobody wants to know."

Testaverde's shyness surfaced last spring when he flunked a speech course because he was afraid to pontificate on subjects his audience knew more about than he did. "Rather than give the speech, I just didn't go to class," he says. "I'm going to have to deal with this course sometime. But after so much experience in media interviews, I think I'll feel a lot more relaxed and confident."

How destined was Testaverde for gridiron greatness? How serious was his father, Big Al, a 6'1", 260-pound New York construction worker, about grooming the kid to excel at the game Al loved? "It's a dream coming true," says Al. "Football, quarterback, the Heisman. I want that trophy more than he does; I'll admit that. If he wins it and I drop dead the next day, I'm happy."

Testaverde was born in South Brooklyn, with a football in his bassinet. Not a pink football with blue polka dots nor a Nerf ball nor a fuzzy job with a rattle inside. Nothing but the genuine pigskin for little Vinny. In peewee ball Big Al would carry around his son's birth certificate so he could prove the tall, athletic signal caller wasn't three years older than the rest of the gang.

Even when Vinny wasn't a quarterback, he was. In the final game of his junior year at Sewanhaka High in Elmont, N.Y., the season he got beat out for quarterback by Lou Voltaggio, the year he began this peculiar habit of being in the right place, just too early, Testaverde was sent into the game at wide receiver. Whereupon he took a step back, caught a long lateral from Voltaggio and whipped a pass downfield for the touchdown that won the Nassau County championship.

The next season, after finally winning the starting job at Sewanhaka—Voltaggio did not go to Cleveland but to Rutgers to play soccer—Testaverde had to wallow in a veer offense, but he still passed for nearly 700 yards. Because of his awesome lack of interest in school-work his grade points dwindled to a precious few, and he became a truly endangered species: the high school star who can't get into college.

So, to be a quarterback, Testaverde had to up and leave his parents and all those doting sisters, not to mention his beloved Mama Josie's pasta. To be a quarterback he had to forget his teenage clothes and his Italian shoes, shave his head, polish his belt buckle, wake up at dawn, march in formation with a rifle, shout "Yes, sir" a lot and hit the books the same way he hit the down-and-out. To be a quarterback he had to get through a postgraduate year at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy.

"Army school helped me in a lot of ways," says Testaverde. "I learned how to fold my clothes and make my bed." Again, he is not being funny. He means it. But he also quickly made squad sergeant and learned organization, leadership, discipline and patience—qualities that served him well during his years as an understudy at Miami.

Whether he knew it or not, Testaverde had prepared himself for that bleak day back in '83 when Schnellenberger told him Kosar was more ready, Kosar was better, Kosar would be the starting quarterback. "Most kids would have been devastated, gone off and gotten lost, or transferred," says Hurricane offensive coordinator Gary Stevens. "Vinny was looking at a few years of nothing but bench. But he never complained, never got the 'backup mentality.' He just dug in and worked hard."

And how. Testaverde ran the scout team, paid close attention to everything Kosar did and weight-trained his dripping head off. He can now run a 4.8 40, squatlift 500 pounds, bench-press 325 and make a vertical leap of 30 inches. These are remarkable figures for a classic drop-back passer—one who can wing a ball 70 yards in the air righthanded and 50 yards lefthanded. "Vinny's got the strongest arm I've ever seen," says Earl Morrall, who worked with Kelly, Kosar and Testaverde as the Hurricanes' quarterback coach from 1979 to '82. (Has any other team ever had as much quarter-backing talent as the Hurricanes did in '82, when all three were on the squad?)

In Miami's final regular-season game of '83, Kosar went down against Florida State. The Hurricanes were behind, and they needed the win to get into the Orange Bowl. Testaverde hadn't played a down all year, and playing one now would cost him a year of eligibility. Still, he rushed up to the coaches, silently pleading to go in the game. Could there have been a better indication of his character and resolve?

Smelling salts revived Kosar, who led Miami over the Seminoles and then over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl for the national championship. That game provided another revealing scene. One of Testaverde's housemates, placekicker Mark Seelig, has a snapshot of it. The Hurricanes have just broken up the Corn-huskers' last-ditch two-point attempt to preserve a 31-30 lead. Pandemonium reigns on the field—Kosar is in the middle of it—but 48 seconds are left on the clock. Testaverde is nowhere in the photo. Why? Because he's on the sideline, pulling his teammates off the field so Miami will avoid a penalty. "The calmest guy in the place," says Seelig.

Another year, 1984, another season-long yearning, and Testaverde was not so laid back. By now he really wanted out of Miami. "Florida State, if they'd take me," he says. Johnson was the new Hurricane coach, and he had been so enamored of Testaverde—"a tight end masquerading as a quarterback" was his initial impression—that he planned to share the leadership duties. But Kosar started hot and didn't cool down.

The two rivals, so alike in appearance, couldn't have more divergent personalities. Kosar, the brainy economics/finance double major, is more aloof and a sometime hustler out for the "deal." The joke went that Kosar's reply to all those Miami fans who expressed disappointment that he wasn't Jewish was characteristic: "Hey, I can be Jewish. What's in it?" Testaverde, a more typical jocko, is more sensitive, more team oriented, more genuine. The two simply did not communicate.

"I'm sure Bernie knew how I felt, but we never talked about it," Testaverde says. "I wasn't going to cry on his shoulder. He was ready to play before I was. Then coach [Johnson] had to go with the sure thing. Sharing time? No, that doesn't work. I think the Dolphins got rid of David Woodley about then rather than have him and [Dan] Marino share time. If you are winning with a guy, you stay with him."

So Johnson stayed with Kosar, Miami lost its last three games to finish 8-5, and Testaverde was miserable. Then in the spring of '85 a nice thing happened. Kosar told Testaverde not to go anywhere because he was leaving for the NFL.

Back home on Long Island, Big Al and the girls broke out the wine and the pasta. They celebrated, the patriarch remembers, "like it was a countdown to New Year's Eve." At season's end Testaverde and his family attended the Heisman ceremony (he finished fifth in the voting) and threw an even bigger party. Vinny took Josie shopping in the limo furnished by the Downtown Athletic Club, and the family played back the Heisman ceremonies on the VCR. As they watched themselves in slow motion, Big Al thought ahead to another Heisman ceremony, when his son, the quarterback, finally may not have to wait anymore.

"You want it, don't you, you really want it?" a visitor asked Testaverde recently. At the time they were watching a familiar figure getting crunched again and again on TV. "Look out, Bernie," Testaverde said. Boom! "Now I know how my mother feels when I get hit."

Testaverde turned to the visitor. "Yeah, I really do," he said with a smile as endless as all the years he has seemed to be the quarterback at Miami. "I really want another Chips Ahoy."

PHOTOJAMES DRAKETestaverde's weight-room numbers are as impressive as his passing statistics: 500 pounds in the full squat and 325 in the bench press. PHOTOJAMES DRAKEThese days Vinny enjoys his time on the sidelines. PHOTOJOHN IACONOTestaverde's performance against Oklahoma vaulted him to the top of the Heisman heap. PHOTOJAMES DRAKEThe popular Testaverde gets along swimmingly with his teammates, including one of his roomies, senior offensive tackle Ed Davis. PHOTOJAMES DRAKEThe Testaverde clan would love to throw another Heisman bash—this time for a winner.

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)