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The Battle To Be Top Gun

Nov. 14, 1988
Nov. 14, 1988

Table of Contents
Nov. 14, 1988

Breeders' Cup
Landry And Noll
Kansas
Aikman And Peete
Bowl Scouts
Marathon
Fred Smerlas
Movietalk
Point After

The Battle To Be Top Gun

When UCLA and USC meet on Nov. 19, the teams' fortunes will be riding on the arms of their quarterbacks, the Bruins' Troy Aikman (8) and the Trojans' Rodney Peete (16), whose personal shoot-out will be for the Heisman Trophy

Nearly 40 years ago Raymond Chandler described California as having "the most of everything and the best of nothing." The state has come a long way since then, as has Los Angeles, the city that Chandler depicted so unflatteringly. Indeed, L.A. now has twice as many superb college quarterbacks as any other town, and undefeated USC and once-beaten UCLA, schools that will renew their crosstown rivalry in the Rose Bowl on Nov. 19, could finish the season with the most victories, the most Heisman Trophy candidates, the most of everything two teams sharing the same area code could want—except a national championship.

This is an article from the Nov. 14, 1988 issue

What is immediately at stake in the game next week in Pasadena is the Pac-10 race and the obligatory trip to the Rose Bowl for the conference champion. USC's hopes for a national championship depend on a victory over UCLA, followed by an impressive win on Nov. 26 over what is expected to be an undefeated and No. 1-ranked Notre Dame. In this scenario, the second-ranked Trojans can do no better than hold their ground in the polls with a victory in the Rose Bowl over a pretender from the feeble Big Ten. A defeat would be unthinkable. UCLA, with a loss two weeks ago to Washington State, has virtually no chance for the national title and will be out to claim the role of spoiler.

The outcome of the game may also determine the winner of the Heisman Trophy, which is likely to go to either UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, 21, or USC quarterback Rodney Peete, 22, who will lead their respective schools into battle. Aikman, the 6'3½", 217-pound senior with the sloe eyes and quick release, came into this season as the favorite, and he isn't terribly enchanted with the idea of sharing the glory with Peete or anybody else. "Rodney's a great player, but I think it's unfortunate that the two of us always have to be talked about together," he says.

The 6'2", 195-pound Peete is cordial to Aikman, but he, too, is not ecstatic about having to share a stage that might well have been his alone. "You do get tired of hearing it sometimes," Peete, also a senior, says, "but it's not a rivalry between him and me. I'm going to do what I do and not put a lot of pressure on myself trying to live up to somebody else's standards for me."

Aikman was more worried that the people back home in Oklahoma might think he was putting on airs, going Hollywood. "Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody," Chandler wrote in his 1949 novel The Little Sister. "Out of a Texas carhop with the literacy of a character in a comic strip it will make an international courtesan, married six times to six millionaires and so blasè and decadent at the end of it that her idea of a thrill is to seduce a furniture-mover in a sweaty undershirt." Aikman, though hardly a nobody when he arrived in L.A., is concerned. "Most people assume you change with success," he says. But he has not changed since he left Oklahoma two years ago.

Aikman's family actually did The Grapes of Wrath migration in reverse, abandoning the suburbs of Southern California when Troy was 12 for a farm in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma. Aikman spent his childhood in Cerritos, a part of L.A.'s great eastward sprawl. Cerritos is the kind of town where children are encouraged to believe that anything is possible as long as they don't expect too much, and there are no such things as dead-end streets, only culs-desac named after various species of ferns. Aikman's father, Ken, who was laying pipe in the oil fields of California, put his family on a truck one day and moved them to a farm five miles outside Henryetta, Okla., a town of 6,000 in the heart of what was once the Dust Bowl.

"I hated it," Aikman says. "I just couldn't understand why we moved there. My friends were in California, and I was already doing well in sports there." But the kid quickly adapted. "Within a couple of months it felt like I had lived there my whole life," he says.

It had always been a source of considerable civic embarrassment that the Henryetta High Fighting Hens fielded such mediocre football teams. There was a suspicion among Aikman's teammates that the name wasn't helping. "We held a school board meeting to try to get it changed," he says. "But all the old codgers in town said, 'Hell no, if we had to put up with it, so do they.' "

Actually, if it hadn't been for the big turnaround in the Fighting Hens' fortunes during Aikman's junior year, he probably wouldn't even have considered playing college football. Henryetta High got off to an 0-8 start that season with Aikman at quarterback, but by winning their final two games in a conference that had only four teams in it, the Hens succeeded in qualifying for the state playoffs with a 2-8 record (though they lost in the first round). "The whole town was ecstatic," Aikman says. "They had never had that kind of success, and they didn't know what to do."

It didn't take them long to figure it out. Expectations were raised so high that after the team went 6-4 the next season. Aikman's senior year, the town fired the coach.

None of this was likely to bring a stampede of college recruiters to Henryetta. Aikman had already made a verbal commitment to Oklahoma State, where he knew he would at least get to throw the ball, even before he made his official recruiting visit to the University of Oklahoma. But during Aikman's weekend in Norman in the spring of 1984, Sooner coach Barry Switzer convinced him that Oklahoma was committed to changing from the wishbone offense to the I formation.

"Deep down I wanted to believe they were going to throw the football," Aikman says, explaining his decision to attend Oklahoma. "I wanted to believe Switzer so badly that that's exactly what I ended up doing." Aikman contends that while Switzer was telling prospective quarterbacks and receivers that the Sooners were going to throw the ball, he was telling running backs that he would soon be going back to the wishbone.

"It was really interesting the way it happened," Aikman says. "I don't think any of the recruits communicated with each other during our visits or we would have known better. Everybody's always saying he changed the offense for me, but that's simply not true. He changed the wishbone a little bit, but the only real difference when I played was that we threw the ball 12 times a game instead of seven."

Aikman hadn't expected to play at all during his freshman year. But an injury to starting quarterback Danny Bradley, and the discovery that Bradley's backup was ineligible, forced Switzer to start Aikman against Kansas at a time when the Sooners were 5-0-1. That day, Aikman was 2 of 14 for eight yards, and he threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown as Oklahoma lost 28-11.

"My troubles at Oklahoma started with that game," Aikman says. "A lot of the media and the fans got down on me after that. I hardly knew any of the passing plays, and when we got behind, I wasn't prepared to play catch-up. The Kansas game shattered my confidence. It was very hard to come back my sophomore year and hear people saying I was going to be benched if I didn't have a great game."

It got even harder when he found out that what people were saying was mostly true. Aikman started the first three games of his sophomore season, completing 21 of 40 passes for 317 yards, as the Sooners went 3-0. But by then Switzer's unease with having to compromise on the wishbone had become increasingly apparent. "They told me before the Miami game not to be upset if they brought Jamelle [Holieway] in on third downs for a little more speed," Aikman says. "But I was upset. I thought it was just a matter of time before they'd start working him into the lineup." As it turned out, Holieway's promotion to starter would be much more sudden. After completing six of seven passes for 131 yards and a touchdown, Aikman broke his ankle in the second quarter against the Hurricanes.

Holieway moved in, and though the Sooners went on to lose to Miami, they thundered through the rest of the season undefeated. The wishbone was back to stay. With Aikman on crutches on the sidelines, Oklahoma averaged 439.5 yards a game in total offense and defeated Penn State 25-10 in the Orange Bowl to finish the season ranked No. 1. "I think we still would've won the national championship with me playing," Aikman says.

When Switzer all but declared Holieway his starter in the spring of 1986, Aikman told the coach that he was planning to transfer. "He was pretty excited about it," Aikman says. "He was smiling like he was very happy. I think it let him off the hook." Aikman has since given the matter a lot of careful thought and is convinced that he made the right decision. "If I had stayed," he says, "there was a good chance I'd be riding the bench my last two years and that would definitely have hurt my development as a quarterback." To say nothing of how difficult it would have been to win the Heisman as a backup.

Once unburdened of his strong-winged albatross, Switzer even volunteered to make some calls to the schools that Aikman was considering transferring to. One of the first people he called was a rather startled Terry Donahue, the coach at UCLA, who listened as Switzer described Aikman as a sure No. 1 NFL draft choice.

Donahue wasn't certain what to make of this gift. "I really knew nothing about Troy Aikman," Donahue says. "But I figured Barry had had enough No. 1 picks to know what one looked like, so I said we'd be real interested." UCLA tendered Aikman a scholarship that fall (the quarterback had briefly considered Arizona State and Stanford), but Donahue still wasn't sure what he had gotten until Aikman actually began to practice with the Bruins. "When I saw him move around, I finally started to get excited," says Donahue. "That's when I began to feel we had gotten something special."

From the day he and his Chevy Blazer came riding out of the plains, Aikman has stood apart from his glamorous surroundings, and yet has been very much a part of the team he leads. "When I first came out here, I didn't care for it much," he says, his voice lightly inflected with a twang. "With all the bright lights and the cars, it was so much different than what I was used to in Oklahoma."

Aikman's teammates call him Bocephus, which is the nickname of his favorite singer. Hank Williams Jr., and it is rare for anyone who has known Aikman since he arrived at UCLA to speak of him for more than about two seconds without mentioning that he chews tobacco. "They portray me as a hick just because I enjoy some of the things people in Oklahoma like," he says. "I think people expect me to come out wearing my boots and spurs."

Aikman did not swagger into Los Angeles, his spurs jangling and his gun arm poised for the draw, but after his mandatory year off, he beat out Brendan McCracken for the starting quarterback job. He piled up 2,527 yards and 17 touchdowns passing in '87 to finish second in the nation in passing efficiency, as the Bruins went 10-2. In fact, the whole season had developed so perfectly for Aikman that going into last November's contest with USC, the final game of the regular season, it had taken on the almost unreal quality of a dream. It seemed fitting that Aikman would face the Trojans for the first time on the day he turned 21, completing two rites of passage at once. As it turned out, rites of passage were nearly the only things Aikman did complete that day.

"My 21st birthday was probably the worst day of my life," says Aikman. He completed just 11 of 26 passes, none for a touchdown, and worse, he threw three interceptions in that game after giving up only three all season. "I never really got in a groove, never felt comfortable throwing the football," he says.

As soon as the game was over, Aikman fled to Oklahoma. "It was a tough period for me," he says. "I couldn't sleep for two weeks after that game. I played every play over and over in my head." The dream had turned into a waking nightmare, and every time Aikman replayed it, the result was still the same: USC 17, UCLA 13.

Peete played that game over and over in his head too, analyzing every big play carefully. Except that he did this before the game, visualizing himself completing every pass, often adding his own color commentary to help prepare for the broadcasting career he envisions for himself. "I always play every game in my mind before it begins," he says. "A lot of times in a game a play will happen and it will feel like dèjà vu, like I've seen the play happen before in my mind."

Peete has always flourished when it was important for him to make big plays, as he did when he scored the winning touchdown against UCLA in 1985, in only his second start as a redshirt freshman. In last year's win over the Bruins he completed 23 of 35 passes for 304 yards and the Trojans' two fourth-quarter touchdowns. But his most important clutch play in that game happened when an interception of one of his passes suddenly transformed him into something Peete always said he would never be—a defensive back.

With USC down 10-0 and trying desperately to score, and with only 14 seconds left in the first half, UCLA safety Eric Turner picked off a pass from Peete at the goal line and went roaring down the sideline with no one between him and the Trojans' end zone. Peete, who in his collegiate career has never had an interception returned against him for a touchdown, gave chase. "There was never a doubt in my mind I was going to catch him," he says. "It was just a matter of when." Peete says he waited until Turner, who has 4.58 speed in the 40 (Peete has 4.5 speed), was at the 11-yard line to tackle him only because he wanted to make sure time had expired in the half.

"Rodney reached down and got something extra," says USC coach Larry Smith. "But then that's what makes Rodney who he is."

Though he might have reasonably hoped to get off his feet during the intermission, Peete quickly discovered that he couldn't because his play had aroused such passion in his teammates that they were bouncing off the locker room walls.

"It was one of those plays—nobody wanted to sit down," he says. "Everybody was too fired up." Peete connected on 15 of 19 passes in the second half (for the season, he completed 63.4% of his second-half passes, seven points better than his overall completion percentage), and in the biggest game of their closely watched careers, Peete clearly outplayed Aikman. "When I'm out there, I feel like I'm the best player on the field, like there's no one who can stop me," Peete says.

Even as a freshman he was so clearly the focal point of the Trojans offense that opposing teams began dropping back as many as eight defenders to try to take away the pass. And while Peete routinely torments defenses by throwing on the run, he is not really a running quarterback. "His feet are like feathers," says Smith. "And these days you need a guy who can move around back there or you're going to lose him."

In the fall of 1983, when Ted Tollner, the USC coach at the time, recruited Peete from Shawnee Mission South High School outside Kansas City, he assured him that the days of USC being known as Tailback U were waning. Peete assumed that that meant the offense would become more balanced, but, in fact, the Trojans' string of great tailbacks had finally run out. Those once-feared assaults known as Student Body Left and Student Body Right became flaccid Out of Student Body Experiences, and in his first year Peete was left to fend for himself. "Everything was based around Rodney Peete," Smith says. "Either Rodney made the big play or there wouldn't be any big play."

When Edna and Willie Peete bundled their son off to L.A. in the fall of '84, they gave him a special T-shirt with a message on the front. Peete wears the shirt, which in bold letters says simply MAKE IT HAPPEN, after every game. As long as the Trojans are winning—and they are 8-0 going into this weekend's game at Arizona State—he refuses to wash the shirt. "I don't wait for things to happen to me," he says. "I go out and make them happen."

Much of this assertiveness evidently came from his mother and father. "My dad never had a bad day," says Rodney of Willie Peete, 51, now the backfield coach for the Green Bay Packers. Willie was an assistant at the University of Arizona for 12 years, from 1971 to '82, and Peete grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Tucson. In 1983, before Rodney's senior year in high school, the Peetes moved to an even whiter area when Willie joined the Kansas City Chiefs. The family finally settled in 1987 in Green Bay, where virtually all the blacks in town either play or coach for the Packers. In fact, Peete might never have had much of a sense that he was black if he hadn't been so determined from the first time he picked up a football to be a quarterback.

When Peete was still in grammar school in Tucson, some of his older brother Skip's friends, who could see that Rodney had talent, began warning the kid that if he wanted to play football in junior high school, he had better forget about quarterback. Some of these youngsters, themselves black, had been switched from quarterback to wide receiver and defensive back, and they explained to Rodney that coaches wouldn't want to let him play the position because of the color of his skin.

Fortunately, the gloomy warnings were not prophetic. Peete started at quarterback for the freshman team. He played wide receiver for the varsity at Tucson's Sahuaro High School as a sophomore, but only because there was a returning senior at quarterback. The following season the coaches moved Peete to quarterback, and he led the team to the Arizona state semifinals. As a sophomore he had already led the basketball and baseball teams to state titles.

Peete had always expected success, but when honors were bestowed upon him, his mother helped him keep his life in perspective. "Edna was the cornerstone of his upbringing," says Smith, who was at Arizona at the time and lived a block from the Peetes. "Edna was a person who would never let her boys get too cocky. She was always there, at every game, but she was also critical. If Rodney didn't play a good game, Edna was the first person he had to face. She is very competitive."

Peete was recruited by almost all the major football powers, and he told each of them that quarterback was the only position he would consider playing. "I'm not trying to be a savior for anybody," Peete says. "I'm not carrying a torch or anything like that. I'm a quarterback because that's all I've ever wanted to be, and if I play in the NFL I'll be a quarterback there, too. I hope there will come a day soon when people won't even bring up the question anymore."

Peete says that of all the schools he considered, USC was the only one that other schools recruited against. He was constantly reminded that quarterbacks were little more than ciphers for the Trojans and, of course, that the campus was in a "bad neighborhood," which is to say that it is in a predominantly black and Hispanic part of downtown Los Angeles. "It worked in reverse," he says. "It just made me want to see what USC had that everybody else was so afraid of."

The only time Peete has ever seemed to accept conventional wisdom was shortly after the victory over UCLA his freshman year, when he felt compelled to allow that, "quarterbacks at USC won't set records or win the Heisman." He would disprove his own point, however, establishing 15 USC career, season and single-game passing and total offense records and leading the Pac-10 last season with 21 touchdown passes.

Perhaps Peete's most impressive accomplishment has been keeping himself in the Heisman race despite still playing baseball for the Trojans, instead of spring football. As a third baseman Peete hit .338 with power last season and was drafted by the Oakland A's in the 14th round for what Peete describes as "first-round money." The A's wanted him badly enough to offer a reported $100,000 signing bonus and in return asked only that Peete show up for spring training. Determined to prepare himself for his final season of college football, he declined.

Peete is convinced it would be impossible for him to be an NFL quarterback and play baseball, so he will soon have to choose between the two. "They've always been equal in my mind, so it's hard for me to picture myself giving one up," he says.

Peete and Aikman met for the first time last spring while posing for pictures together at USC's Heritage Hall, where the four Heisman trophies won by Trojan running backs (Mike Garrett, 1965; O.J. Simpson, '68; Charles White, '79; and Marcus Allen, '81) are on display. The photo session ran longer than expected, and when the two walked into the locker room afterward, a dozen USC players were there, suiting up for spring drills. "Until you see Aikman up close, you don't realize what an imposing physical specimen he is." says USC sports information director Tim Tessalone, "and when he walked into our locker room, everybody suddenly got very quiet. You could see all these big linemen peeking out from behind their lockers trying to get a look at him. It was an eerie scene."

Those linemen will be trying to get an even better look at Aikman next week. If they look closely, they may just see what a Heisman Trophy looks like come to life.

SEVEN PHOTOSPETER READ MILLERPHOTOPETER READ MILLERUCLA's hopes were dashed by the Cougars, but Aikman's stats remain Heisman-worthy.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERPeete and the Trojans got a scare but stayed perfect with a 28-27 win over Washington.TWO PHOTOSJERRY LODRIGUSSAs a Sooner, Aikman (18) was cruising against the 'Canes until he broke his left ankle.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERA down-home Aikman stands apart from the L.A. crowd.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWillie (in sunglasses) taught Rodney to believe in his ability to make things happen; Peete wears this T-shirt after every game.PHOTOJOHN D. HANLON[See caption above.]PHOTOPETER READ MILLERPeete, who is majoring in communications, hones his skills at a children's hospital.