A Touch Of Class

Nobody did it better than Don McPherson, the soul of undefeated Syracuse
December 14, 1987

The differences in Don McPherson start with his face: the soft features, the fragile chin, the feline, green eyes, the almost imperceptible mustache that he has cultivated since high school. "Hey, I just noticed. You got a mustache!" said McPherson's older brother Mark the other day.

Mark McPherson, 25, is a pianist who became a professional boxer. Another older brother, Miles, 27, was a defensive back for the University of New Haven and the San Diego Chargers before becoming a minister for the Horizon Fellowship Christian Church. But Don, 22, is even more different; a loner, a rebel, a "nonconformist." "That was my dad's word," Don says. "I hope he meant it as a compliment."

In case you were wondering, Don or Donnie—or, as he is known all over the snowy tundra of central New York State, Donnie Mc, the Quarterbck—is the leader of the undefeated, untied and unappreciated 11-0 Syracuse Orangemen, the only 11-0 team that won't be playing for a national championship on New Year's Day.

Of course, the fact that he'll be playing in nonpursuit of the title won't set McPherson's life back by one iota. There are other fish to fry besides football. Especially in New Orleans, where Syracuse will play Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. "Party?" McPherson says. "I just want to find an old bar with a guy slumped over the piano and a sax wailing away. Bluesy, smoky, quiet. Or maybe I can find an auction down there where they're giving out Louis Armstrong's handkerchiefs."

Off the gridiron, out of uniform, after those three or four hours devoted to practice, weights, laps, scrimmage and meetings each day, McPherson, a fifth-year senior, is done with football. He doesn't hang around much with the other Orangemen. Doesn't go to discos. Doesn't even eat breakfast with them. "The rule is to sign in, so I sign in, and then I'm gone," he says. "I'm a coffee and doughnuts man.

"Football, girls, drinking. Drinking, girls, football. I don't like locker room talk," says McPherson. In addition to his 200-plus cassette tape passion for jazz, McPherson has this thing for coats and ties, which is what he wears to his classes. He's a psychology major. He reads The New York Times every day. After games he avoids the feasts at Syracuse's famous pasta parlor, Grimaldi's, so he can relax alone with milk and cookies. "Chips Ahoy," he says. "Very calming. Seriously. You can't rush milk and cookies."

"Strange dude," says Orange linebacker Derek Ward, with affection, if not complete understanding.

McPherson has a Garboesque yearning for privacy, those special times outside football when he can immerse himself in the rainbow vocal trills of Bobby McFerrin or browse through his elegant wardrobe or merely read something other than a playbook. "They [his teammates] probably think I'm some kind of put-on, but football players don't really take the time to understand one another," says McPherson, who would love to live alone if there were not a Syracuse team rule against it. Paul Frase, a defensive tackle who is McPherson's roommate at the Skytop apartment complex where most of the Orange athletes reside, says, "We're friends but not really close. Actually, we don't see much of each other."

The fact is that McPherson sounds as if he must be a kicker or something, not a jaunty, electrifying, trick-option, high-powered signal caller. Yet, lest you get the impression that he's some kind of aberrant sociopath, he happens to be the immensely popular tri-captain of the nation's fourth-ranked team. Friends and associates agree that he's the most people-oriented loner you can imagine. But, asked for a self-description, McPherson uses the word "isolationist." And he says with a straight face, "I'd rather be a fly on the wall."

Even his coach, Dick MacPherson, who, despite press reports to the contrary, isn't his quarterback's father—note the small a toward the front of the surname—goes so far as to say, in the fashion of the times, that "Donnie needs his space."

Yes, Heisman electors, admit that had you known more about him, there's no way you would have voted McPherson right behind Tim Brown of Notre Dame and just ahead of Gordon Lockbaum of Holy Cross. There's no room for some kind of laid-back, insouciant, music-buff, clotheshorse weirdo who needs his space in the hallowed halls of the Downtown Athletic Club.

But, in fact, McPherson should have won the trophy on numbers alone. He finished the season as the top-ranked passer in the land (nosing out UCLA's Troy Aikman on the last week of the season) while accounting for 2,540 running and passing yards, 52% of Syracuse's total, and 28 touchdowns, 62% of its scoring. He established a grand total of 22 school records and has led the Orangemen to the brink of national (mythical, of course) runner-updom. And, who knows, if Syracuse wins the Sugar and Oklahoma and Miami tie in the Orange, maybe McPherson will suddenly find he has led the Orangemen to an outright championship.

McPherson made touchdowns running, passing and receiving this season. The year before he graced the campus, 1982, Syracuse had a 2-9 record. He led the Orangemen to respectability first (7-4 in '85), then to that magical Planet of the Unbeatens for the first time in 28 years. Grant him his stats and his team's immaculate 11-0, consider his class, style and renaissance collegian image, now set him down someplace else, say, in South Bend, and would there have been a Heisman vote for anybody but McPherson?

McPherson doesn't so much march to a different drummer as to a percussionist spreading ratamacues all over the musical firmament. Since when did a college quarterback thrive on listening not only to modernaires like Al Jarreau and Jean-Luc Ponty—whom McPherson has met backstage at Syracuse's Landmark Theatre a couple of times—but also to the Duke and the Count and Miss Ella? When thieves ripped the tape deck out of his vintage mid-'70s, ugly green Cadillac Sedan De Ville a few weeks ago, McPherson was most furious that they didn't leave behind his Basie/Fitzgerald On the Sunny Side of the Street tape. "At least they had some musical taste," he says now. Back home he soothed himself. "When times get tough, I always play a little Nat King Cole," he says. Even while he's warming up on the sideline, McPherson can be heard humming Cole's Sweet Lorraine.

Since when did a college quarterback wear Cardin suits and St. Laurent shirts and Dior silk ties and tweed fedoras around campus? "The QB from GQ," the local Syracuse media calls McPherson. "Our yuppie master," coach Mac says of Mc.

McPherson never owned a pair of blue jeans until last year. "I always liked wearing slacks," he says. "Then dress shirts seemed to go well with the slacks, and from there it wasn't far to ties and suits." The Bear Bryant-style hat from Saks Fifth Avenue? "It was my grandfather's," he says. That would be the same man, Milton McPherson, from whom the quarterback inherited his musical genes; who once led a big band at the Silver Slipper Club on the island of Jamaica; who lives still in the tiny New York village of Fishs Eddy, practically close enough to hear the hosannas for his grandson emanating from the suddenly stentorophonic Carrier Dome.

Since when did a college quarterback carry a briefcase as well as All the News That's Fit to Print? "I need to know what's going on outside this insulated world of mine," McPherson says. Upon meeting Gordon White, the Times's veteran football writer, McPherson shook hands and beamed. "My paper," he said.

"I put your name on my Heisman ballot," said White.

"Well, I hope so," said McPherson.

"Donnie's an example of the goodness in people," says coach Mac. Not to mention the good judgment. When his father, Gene, wanted to buy him a new BMW to replace the Caddy at midseason, Mc took Mac's advice that it wouldn't do much for his image and opted to wait.

For that matter, since when did Syracuse have such a college quarterback? Syracuse, the basketball school. Syracuse, the broadcasters' school—Marty Glickman to Dick Stockton to Bob Costas. Syracuse, the home of number 44 Jim Brown and number 44 Ernie Davis and number 44 Floyd Little, so many terrific running backs; so many terrific number 44's (not to mention a non-44, Larry Csonka) that the zip code for Syracuse's administration buildings (13244) honors it. Sports information director Larry Kimball was rattling off McPherson's quarterback records recently when a reporter asked who had held them previously. "You've never heard of him," Kimball said. (For the record, most were held by Bill Hurley.)

Now if McPherson were white, he would really be different. While everyone was busy multiplying the touchdowns at Oklahoma and Miami this season, black quarterbacks seemed to have taken over the game. Of the 105 schools in Division I-A, 26 have started blacks at quarterback. Of the 12 teams in the upcoming New Year's Day bowl games, half will come to the line with a black quarterback. How long has this been in coming?

The perception that blacks couldn't handle the responsibilities of the position, be a virtual coach-on-the-field, has changed ever so slowly. Even now the stereotypical notion persists that a black quarterback wins only out of the option, as demonstrated by Oklahoma and Nebraska, whose quarterbacks are not renowned for their passing. In which sense McPherson, with his archer's accuracy and fabulous numbers (129 completions in 229 attempts for 2,341 yards and 22 touchdowns with but 11 interceptions), may be a genuine breakthrough.

He has been a quarterback since the age of 12 in peewee ball on Long Island. He was also an outstanding track athlete at West Hempstead High, high-jumping 6'10" and winning the Nassau County 110-meter hurdles championship. But most of the colleges that recruited him for football weren't thinking of him as a quarterback.

It might have been his size. Even today, the McPherson physique doesn't exactly inspire gasps. He's barely six feet tall, 185 pounds, with a body defined only from the rib cage up. He's sneaky strong, having increased his bench press to 325 pounds, but his legs remain matchsticks and he has virtually no rear end. "Butt-less," in the words of brother Mark, who was fairly sense-less himself when knocked out by middleweight Frank Tate in a TV bout last spring.

Still, when McPherson asked the recruiter from his favorite school, "Are you ready for me at Penn State?" and the Nittany Lions never called again, he figured he knew the reason. "[You] can't even picture a black kid in that white helmet lining up behind center at Penn State," McPherson told Newsday in a Oct. 18 local-boy-makes-good story.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno was said to be livid over that remark—and, in fact, had a black fourth-string quarterback named Darin Roberts on the roster this season. But that wasn't enough to quench the fires of revenge. McPherson stunned the Lions with a first-play 80-yard touchdown bomb on the way to a 15-of-20, three-scoring-pass, two-touchdown-run, 375-yard-total-offense explosion in the Orange's 48-21 victory over Penn State in October.

That game signaled the arrival of Syracuse, as well as its sophisticated muse of a quarterback, who immediately nominated himself for the Heisman. No matter that Brown was already a mortal lock for the award. Maybe it's the water in the nearby Finger Lakes. The last collegian to be similarly outspoken about the trophy was Cornell running back Ed Marinaro, who lost it to Pat Sullivan of Auburn in 1971.

"A reporter asked me about it and that was all I needed to run my mouth," McPherson says. "I didn't really care if there was a positive or negative reaction. What I wanted was a reaction. I felt it was the only way to get noticed."

Surely McPherson's season demanded notice. There were the comebacks—from 7-21 against Virginia Tech (final: 35-21) and from 0-17 against Boston College (45-17). "I jumped on him before the BC game because he had the wrong socks on," says Mac of Mc. McPherson tried to sneak on the players' preferred solid whites instead of the coach's favorite striped jobs. "It's embarrassing to me to admit this. No wonder it took Donnie so long to get going."

There was the 24-10 thrashing of Pittsburgh at Pitt Stadium, when McPherson completed 8 of 17 passes for 178 yards and two TDs—with no interceptions—and rushed 14 times for 48 yards and one score. And there was the regular-season climax, the Donniebrook against West Virginia. McPherson struggled nobly through three quarters of a horrid four-interception evening and then merely moved toward immortality. In the final period of his Dome career, McPherson not once, not twice, but three times brought Syracuse back from a touchdown behind. With 87 seconds left, an undefeated season on the line and a chance at a national championship still aglimmer, the Orange trailed 31-24 when McPherson calmly took Syracuse 64 yards in seven plays, nailing tight end Pat Kelly over the middle with a 17-yard touchdown pass that still left the Orangemen a point behind with 10 seconds left. Then on the two-point conversion, McPherson whirled and rolled left and, at the instant two tacklers squashed him, flipped the ball to running back Michael Owens, who took it in for the game-winning points. The final: 32-31. And a legend was born. Or sustained.

In McPherson's marvelous final year he has, frog-to-prince, gone from being a journeyman option guy (translated: iffy defensive back in the pros) to a first-round draft pick as a genuine NFL-caliber, strong-armed quarterback. "He's maybe the most exciting player in America," says Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' talent domo.

Such encomiums never would have been expected early in McPherson's Syracuse career, when he labored against injuries and a quarterback coach (since departed) who was convinced that McPherson was not up to the demands of the position.

As a sophomore, McPherson rushed for more yards, 489—and mostly for his life—than Jim Brown did at the same stage, and the Orange finished the season with a loss in the now-defunct Cherry Bowl. Then last year, with star nose-tackle Ted Gregory sidelined, Syracuse began 0-4 ("Disasterville," says Coach Mac) before Mc righted things and Syracuse won four of its last six.

"I used to get by on athleticism," says McPherson. "I knew the plays, but I didn't really perceive the meaning of the sequence or the system. Last summer I studied hard and worked on my passing technique and arm strength. A lot of repetition, throwing from my butt, from one knee. I've got all the passes now. But this year we've had a great offensive line, and the running backs are hot. I know I don't have to do everything on my own anymore."

"Donnie's taken us two levels higher," says Syracuse offensive coordinator George DeLeone. "His mental capacity...his versatility. Is there any other player who could have been a contender for the quarterback position at either Oklahoma or Brigham Young?" Probably not. But what a long trail it has been. Back in high school McPherson contended with his two bigger, stronger brothers for the approval of his dad. "The other two guys were aggressive, physical, crazy," says Gene McPherson. "Donnie was skinny, weak, a finesse guy. I just said two out of three ain't bad."

But Donnie changed so much that when he transferred from his home school, Malverne High, to the more prestigious, football-oriented West Hempstead by pretending to five with an aunt, both schools investigated his legal residence. Gene—a police detective at the time and now working in the state attorney's office—taught Donnie how to beat a stakeout, and the ruse succeeded. "Donnie's always had a halo over his head," says brother Mark. "Or an angel."

Like Amanda Brown, a stunning Thiel College senior who—speaking of fairy tales—appeared virtually out of nowhere after exchanging letters with McPherson early in the season and then showing up to meet him at the Syracuse-Pitt game. After McPherson's spectacular closing scene against West Virginia, the first person in Donnie's arms was Mark. The second was Amanda.

"Have you seen her? Am I lucky or what?" says the still-astonished McPherson. "I mean, I don't go looking for girls. I haven't had a date all year. In high school I saw a redundancy in social life. It was a rut I had to get out of. So I stopped following the crowd and looked for other angles."

In the Syracuse huddle following a big play McPherson sometimes eschews common superlatives as well. "Groovy," he will say. "Hey, guys, that was really groovy."

Which in its jazzy simplicity is a proper enough definition of this season's most fascinating fellow from Syracuse. Now if Donnie and Amanda can only find a place in New Orleans for some blues...and milk...and cookies.

PHOTOJOHN D. HANLONMcPherson now has standing among Syracuse greats like Davis, Little and Csonka. PHOTOANTHONY NESTEMc ran and passed for three TDs in the win at Pitt that proved Mac's Orange was for real. PHOTOJOHN D. HANLONMark's piano-trained hands tickle the speed bag in a New York City gym. PHOTOROCKY THIESMiles went from intercepting passes in San Diego to teaching Bible-study classes there. PHOTOJOHN D. HANLONAs a jazz buff residing in Syracuse, McPherson should know all about stormy weather.

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)