Anthony Dilweg had spent three years on the bench waiting for a moment like this. With Vanderbilt leading 15-14 and seven minutes left to play, Dilweg, Duke's quarterback, was facing a third-and-15 from his own eight-yard line. He stepped into the huddle, fixed his gaze on his teammates and calmly called the perfect play: "Wahoo Steamer!"
This is an article from the Oct. 17, 1988 issue
Four wide receivers—three on the right side—trotted to the line of scrimmage and on Dilweg's second "Hut," blasted downfield. Flanker Clarkston Hines cut to his left, sliced through four Vanderbilt defenders covering the middle of the field and leaped to snare a 21-yard Dilweg pass. Commodore linebacker Billy Cunningham slammed into Hines at the 29-yard line. The ball squirted loose, but Duke wideout Walter Jones fell on the fumble.
"I felt bad," Dilweg said later. "But I had to lob the ball, put it over the linebackers. I told the guys to watch out—to catch the ball and get down—because somebody would be coming."
Hines's reception—plus three more Dilweg passes—set up a 44-yard field goal by Doug Peterson, which put the Blue Devils in front to stay two weeks ago in a game Duke won 17-15. "I felt we'd win," Dilweg said afterward. "I had a premonition in the third quarter. I've seen so many things bad happen in my career here. Sooner or later something good had to happen to us."
So far this fall something good has happened to the Blue Devils every week. Going into Saturday's game at Clemson, Duke is 5-0 for the first time since 1957, a miracle conjured up in large part by Dilweg.
Before this year Dilweg, a fifth-year senior from Bethesda, Md., had started only two games for the Blue Devils. Dilweg had been the regular punter since 1985, but he was best known around the Duke campus as the football player with the wacky sense of humor. He plagued his teammates by spraying shaving cream in their jockstraps. In a public speaking class he delivered an emotional halftime oration while dressed as a transvestite basketball coach, complete with panty hose, black pumps and red lipstick. "The teacher said that anybody who had the guts to do such a thing deserved a good grade," says Dilweg.
This season, though, Dilweg is being recognized as one of the most productive quarterbacks in college football. He is second in the nation in passing yards (1,814) and is third in touchdown passes (12). The acclaim these accomplishments have attracted hasn't changed his style of living. For example, on a campus loaded with new cars, he drives a battered 1976 Mercury Capri. The exhaust pipe is fastened to the underbelly with five coat hangers.
Dilweg, who carries a double major in drama and psychology, has been on the stage crew of numerous campus productions and last year played Scarey Maverickson, the lead character in A Scarey Point of View, a satirical play written by a Duke student. He also got a taste of Hollywood as an extra in the Nick Nolte movie Weeds, filmed in Durham in the winter of '87. "I never saw the movie," Dilweg says. "It was so bad, it never made it to Durham."
During this academic semester, Dilweg is keeping a journal of his season, with particular emphasis on whatever stress he may feel, for an independent study on sports psychology. The paper might be a bit thin—Dilweg is so relaxed before the kickoff that he has been known to wolf down a ham and cheese sandwich in the locker room. And he tries to instill the same calm in his teammates. If he senses tension in the huddle, he'll nonchalantly begin to sing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall until the 25-second clock ticks down and then call timeout to regroup.
"The team takes its cues from me," Dilweg says. "I always have to be confident and in control. I can't let anything faze me. If guys are pressing, it's my job to loosen them up. I'm eccentric, but there's a reason for everything I do."
Presumably there are reasons for Dilweg's eclectic choices of summer jobs. He has worked at the Chicago Board of Trade and as a lifeguard on the Maryland shore. Last summer he and Jamie Thomas, his girlfriend of three years, came up with an idea for a swimsuit calendar. Girls of the Triangle, featuring bikini-clad women from Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State. Dilweg and Thomas lined up advertisers and models. She posed as Miss May. In the evenings Dilweg worked as a vendor at the Durham Bulls minor league baseball games. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, striped pants and bandanna, he hawked peanuts by yelling, "Get your country-fried kiwi! Get your ice-cold sushi!" On good nights he made $50.
"A lot of Duke students asked me how I could stoop so low to take a job like that," Dilweg says. "How can people put restrictions on their lives?"
This fall Dilweg has lifted the restrictions on the Blue Devils, who haven't won more than six games in any season since 1962. (Duke's only consolation has been winning the College Football Association's Academic Achievement Award, given for having the nation's highest graduation rate among its football players, in three of the past nine years; since '79, 86% of the Blue Devils players have earned their degrees.)
Duke had struggled to a 13-31 record in four years under coach Steve Sloan; Steve Spurrier was given the job in January 1987. An erstwhile offensive coordinator at Duke and head coach of the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits, as well as the '66 Heisman Trophy winner as Florida's quarterback, Spurrier is obsessed with the passing game. Legend has it that he once diagrammed a new pass play in a quarterback's oatmeal during a pregame breakfast. Last season the Blue Devils went 5-6 and suffered only one loss by a margin of more than seven points, a 42-17 thrashing at Virginia.
"If you make a mistake, he'll demand an explanation," says Dilweg of Spurrier. "He pushes and pushes and pushes, but it only makes you better."
On an early fall afternoon in Durham, Spurrier stops pushing for a moment when his wife, Jerri, appears at the Duke practice field with their 18-month-old son, Scotty. The child scampers over to his father and demands a kicking lesson. Soon he's darting around the sidelines, stopping to pose in a quarterback stance.
Dilweg laughs, remembering that he, too, was a physically precocious child, influenced by an athletically gifted family. His paternal grandfather, Lavvie Dilweg, was an All-America end at Marquette and a five-time All-Pro for the Green Bay Packers. His paternal grandmother, Eleanor Coleman, swam the breaststroke in the 1924 Olympics and later worked as a sportswriter and editor for the Wisconsin News.
Dilweg's father, Bob, who works as an advanced systems manager for Xerox, was a running back at both Marquette and William and Mary. When Anthony was eight years old, Bob signed him up for the national Punt, Pass and Kick competition. The next year he paid for weekly tutoring by the late Dick Johnson, a noted kicking coach, and when Anthony was 10, he finished third in the country among that age group.
"I tried to give Anthony what I hadn't gotten from my father," says Bob. "My father didn't really go out of his way to help me. I missed that. That, combined with having had three daughters before Anthony, well, I may have overdone it.
"I used to play catch with Anthony all the time. When he was nine or 10 years old, I would come home from work and say, 'Did you practice today?' And Anthony would say, 'No. I played soldiers in the backyard.' From his perspective, that's what a kid his age should've been doing."
The Maryland schools didn't offer tackle football until high school, so Dilweg didn't play the sport until he arrived at Walt Whitman High—after a year at boarding school—as a sophomore. He was the backup quarterback and punter. "I always thought quarterback was the coolest thing," he says. "I was captivated by the TV image of coming to the sideline in a tight game, taking off your helmet and talking to the coach."
Dilweg was poised to assume that role when, in the second preseason scrimmage of his senior year, he tore three ligaments in his left knee. Doctors told him that he would never play football again. Even after six weeks in a cast, two months of physical therapy three times a week and several painful manipulations of the knee—the leg was forcefully bent by a therapist to increase its range of motion—by early December Dilweg still couldn't walk well. "I remember standing in the shower in tears," he says. He begged the doctors to let him play varsity basketball if he promised not to jump. They acquiesced, figuring that running might not hurt. "Within a week, I had great range of motion," Dilweg says. "It was unbelievable."
Knowing how much Anthony still wanted to be a quarterback, Bob appeared before the Montgomery County School Board athletic director to request that Anthony be allowed an additional year of high school eligibility. He argued that his son needed another season of football to attract college scholarship offers. The athletic director agreed. That season—while Anthony took several advanced placement courses in the classroom—he threw for 2,293 yards and 24 TDs and was named Maryland High School Player of the Year by the D.C. Touchdown Club.
His knee injury helped put the game in perspective for Dilweg. He chose Duke, with its tough academic standards, over Maryland. Virginia and North Carolina, which also offered scholarships, because he knew that a football career could be over instantly and that an education was more important in the long run. Once he joined the Blue Devils he had to contend with the frustration of four years of backing up Steve Slayden, who was drafted by the Browns last spring. "I channeled my aggression into other things, like acting," he says. "I tried to make people laugh so they wouldn't see how much I hurt."
Yet he never let playing second fiddle break his spirit. For two years he has been a devoted Big Brother to Tory Green, a youngster from Durham. Once a week they play catch or have dinner, and last Christmas Dilweg gave his No. 8 jersey to Tory. Dilweg also was a patient friend to Thomas during a period when she questioned whether Duke was the right school for her.
"She wasn't happy, period," Dilweg says. "Her problem was life. Mine was only football."
Thomas had already decided that Dilweg was right for her, in spite of his antics on their first date. Two hours late for dinner, Dilweg burst into Thomas's living room, where she and her roommate were sitting on the floor eating a large pizza. Dilweg stepped in the middle of the pie, then stomped around the carpet, making tomato sauce footprints. Flicking the lights on and off, he flopped onto a bed and fell asleep. It was not the quarterback's finest performance.
Two weeks ago, before he left town for the Vanderbilt game, Dilweg stopped by the restaurant where Thomas works as a waitress and presented her with a red rose.
"A lot of people take a lot of things for granted," Dilweg says. "If things are going well, they don't look past the next day. That's foolish. Anything can happen in life. You can't always expect things to go your way."