With 18 seconds to go in the Fiesta Bowl, Penn State had a four-point lead, but Miami had the ball at the 13-yard line. It was fourth down for the Hurricanes and national championship to go. Vinny Testaverde dropped back, looked for an open receiver and threw the ball to the only open man on the field. Unfortunately for Miami, that happened to be Penn State linebacker Pete Giftopoulos. Giftopoulos picked off the perfect spiral at the one-yard line, tucked it against his chest and, well, it was party time for the No. 1 Nittany Lions.
Later, President Reagan called Giftopoulos's interception a play that "Penn State players and fans will remember as long as they live." Giftopoulos would prefer that people forget it. "If I didn't catch it," he says, "[outside linebacker] Donnie Graham would've gotten it. Donnie needed the publicity more than me. He would've been a higher draft pick. I still feel bad about it."
Every day for eight months, people have asked Giftopoulos about The Interception. "I've gone home to relax and to get away from it, but I can't," he says.
A senior from Hamilton, Ont., where the in game is hockey, not football, Giftopoulos is the latest to inherit the scepter at Linebacker U. The 71 tackles Giftopoulos made last season were second on the team to All-America Shane Conlan's, who was, of course, last year's "next great linebacker." Conlan followed Lance Mehl, who followed Greg Buttle, who followed Jack Ham.
Athletic traditions are nothing new to Giftopoulos, whose father, Paul, was a first-division soccer player in Greece before he and his wife, Ellen, moved to Canada in 1962. Paul encouraged his four sons to play whatever sports they liked. At Cathedral High in Hamilton, Pete was a 6'3", 245-pound forward and point guard on the basketball team, and for four years he played soccer and put the shot. On the football team—Canadian football—he was a wide receiver, tailback and linebacker.
When Pete was a junior the football coach at Cathedral, Tom Gallagher, sent a videotape of Giftopoulos in action to coaches in the U.S. Michigan and Penn State were the most interested. "My family was very impressed with Bo [Schembechler]," says Giftopoulos, his one dimple, on the left side, deepening as he grins. "He has a weak heart, but he was popping down those chili peppers. In a Greek house, if you don't eat, they think something's wrong with you."
Joe Paterno didn't have to eat much, since he was recruiting a linebacker. During Pete's freshman year, though, the Nittany Lions needed a tight end. Pete was tapped for the assignment. "That spring I asked Joe if I could be moved back to linebacker," says Giftopoulos, who always calls his coach Joe. "I think he knew that if he put me there it wouldn't be that bad a mistake."
Since then, the only thing that has threatened Giftopoulos's hold on an inside linebacker slot is his right leg. Last spring he broke the tibia when a teammate fell on it during practice, but he'll be ready for the Lions' Sept. 5 opener. Paterno, who sees the NFL in Giftopoulos's future, says, "He's as good as Conlan. He may be slower, but he has great anticipation and vision—like he showed on the Fiesta Bowl interception."
Giftopoulos would like to treat his national championship interception as old news. "Last year doesn't mean diddly," he says. "It's a great memory, that's all it can be." A great memory, indeed. What endures is the sight of Giftopoulos, who was tackled out at the 11-yard line, leaving a mob of his celebrating teammates and hysterical fans, walking over to an official and giving him the football.