Frank Baur decided it was time to see America, or at least the part of it that extends beyond the little pond in which he was the biggest of all fish. So this summer he and Phillip Ng, a teammate from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., loaded up a van and pointed it toward California. Baur, 23, who is the starting quarterback at Division I-AA Lafayette and one of the best players in the U.S., had never been west of Pittsburgh. When he crossed into the central time zone on the second day of his odyssey, he noted in his journal with some excitement that it was the first time in his life he had ever traveled far enough to reset his watch.
Baur's first stop was Notre Dame, where he found Touchdown Jesus' arms open but the football stadium's doors closed. Next he visited Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, where he had his picture taken standing on the 50-yard line. A few days later he sneaked into Stanford Stadium, and as he stood there tracing John Elway's footsteps with his own size-15 feet, Baur thought to himself that the world seemed impossibly large.
"Just being there makes you think. Why can't this be my stadium?" Baur said wistfully. "Last year I watched the Notre Dame-Michigan game on CBS, and the same day we played Kutztown [Pa.] in front of 4,500 people."
Last season, as a junior, Baur led the nation in passing efficiency, completing more than 64% of his passes for 2,621 yards and 23 touchdowns, finishing well ahead of such Division I-A quarterbacks as Troy Aikman of UCLA and Steve Walsh of Miami. His average gain of 10.24 yards per attempt was tops in the nation. Lafayette, which finished the season 8-2-1, was second in Division I-AA in total offense, thanks largely to Baur, who, at 6'5" and 214 pounds, could be one of the top three quarterbacks taken in next spring's NFL draft. "A lot of great players have come from the other side of the tracks." says NFL scout Bob Ward. "It doesn't hurt to be hungry and persistent, and he's got that."
What also sets Baur apart from most quarterbacks is that he stutters. "During the game it's never a problem," he says, "probably because I'm not thinking about it. It's always a problem otherwise, though. I'm always afraid to say the wrong thing and make people think I'm an idiot."
Though it's barely noticeable in conversation, Baur remains sensitive about his stutter. "I keep my mouth shut in class," Baur says, "even though a lot of times I do know the right answer. I'm embarrassed very easily, and I'm afraid if I say it I'll look like a jerk or something."
Besides the football field, the only place where Baur is able to completely forget himself is at the piano, which he crouches over as if he were settling in behind an 88-man offensive line. "It's a nice release," he says. "You just let out what's inside of you. I'm able to keep my mouth shut but still say something." Baur would probably be a lot happier if he were able to keep his mouth shut about being a pianist, but nobody will let him. "I imagine it makes defensive linemen want to kill me," he says. "They're probably saying to themselves, The big fairy, let's break his fingers."
And what fingers! Each of Baur's hands is large enough to spread more than the width of an octave and a half on a piano's keyboard, a span of 26 white keys from pinkie to pinkie. If he wants to pump-fake a Mozart concerto and then go long with a Beethoven sonata, he can do it with ease. "There are a lot of songs that are really tough if you have small hands." he says. Tougher still if you have long fingers that a lot of people named Bubba keep trying to stick in your ears.
About those ears: Baur's are not what you would describe as petite. In fact, most of his friends and teammates call him Dork, which on your Heisman hit parade doesn't have quite the ring of Crazylegs or the Galloping Ghost. "I'm used to it," says Baur. "But I can think of dorkier people than me."
When Baur dons helmet and shoulder pads, there is nothing even remotely dorky about him. Though Lafayette is not usually on an NFL scout's itinerary, this season the talent hunters will be visiting Easton to assess Baur's extraordinary arm. "He's a great big kid with a very strong arm." says former Washington Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard, now an NBC analyst. "Everybody's going to take a close look at him because he's so big and strong." Lafayette offensive coordinator, Joe Mancini, says that at least half of the NFL teams have requested film of Baur.
At the age of three, Frank could throw a tennis ball from the front yard, over his two-story home, to his mother, Rosalie, in the backyard. By the time he was eight, he was playing competitive football; that same year his parents—his father. Frank Sr., is a sheet-metal worker—discovered he had a talent for the piano. It is difficult to escape from the Kingdom of the Dorks when you are forever remembered as the kid who had to leave basketball practice early to go to piano lessons.
"I hated piano lessons more than anything in the world." says Baur. "I begged Mom not to make me go back, but she made me go anyway."
Baur's teacher insisted on a repertoire that included only classical pieces. "I went to her once and asked her why she didn't teach him popular music," says Rosalie, "and she said she would never waste his talent that way, that Frank was too good for that."
In the family room at the Baur home, a silver loving cup that Frank received last season as the ECAC Player of the Year sits totemlike atop a mahogany Yamaha upright. On Christmas Eve the family gathers around the piano, and Frank plays carols while the others sing. A music major at Lafayette—he is minoring in business—Baur often performs at public recitals. "I get more nervous at those than at the Army game," he says. "People come because they want to see if the football player can hit the right notes."
For now, Baur has given up classical music almost completely, preferring the more eccentric syncopations of jazz and the blues. "When you play, there are certain things you've got to do—a structure you build around—but in between you can do what you want, make your own interpretation," he says. "That's why I like it when a play breaks down, because you have to react on the spur of the moment. That was also the nice thing about switching from classical to jazz. In jazz there aren't certain notes you have to play every measure. You just play what you feel."
What Baur felt when he was playing for Wyoming Valley West High School in Plymouth, Pa., near the Baur home in Forty Fort, was frustrated. He never got to take his best shot in football. Though he started and played well as a sophomore, he was injured in his junior season. "From what I understand, scouts really look at your junior year hard." he says. "When I didn't play that year, they all backed off. We didn't throw the ball that much anyway, so a lot of the big schools didn't want to take a chance on me."
Maryland was interested in Baur, but only if he would switch to tight end. He decided instead to spend a year at Wyoming Seminary Prep School in Kingston, Pa., just down the Susquehanna River from Forty Fort. A wealthy Seminary and Lafayette alumnus gave him a scholarship to the prep school to improve his grades but also with the hope that, like other recipients of the grant before him, he would feel obliged to enroll at Lafayette. But Baur, who set a school record in passing yardage that year, had other ideas. "Basically, I went to Sem because it was paid for and so I could get a chance to go to a big school," he says. "But when the big schools came around, the coach there told them I was going to Lafayette."
Baur felt as if he had won a consolation prize. Lafayette is a nice little liberal arts school of about 2,000 students, some of whom show up when the Leopards play in nice little 13,750-seat Fisher Field. Baur had something else in mind—like Penn State's 83,370-seat Beaver Stadium. There are times when he still does.
"I grew up in a big Penn State area, and I always wanted to be a Penn State quarterback," Baur says. During his year at Seminary, he even considered enrolling at Penn State and walking on. But when a Lafayette assistant called him during the April signing period to say he had a letter of intent waiting for Frank, Baur signed it. It was, he decided, the right thing to do.
He could never have anticipated that Penn State would fall on such hard times last season that the Nittany Lions would have to struggle to finish at 5-6, the school's first losing season in 50 years. "They started a freshman quarterback last season, and Joe Paterno never starts freshmen." Baur says. "If I had known then what I know now—that my game would get this much better—I would have walked on at Penn State."
Baur got one more chance to walk away from the smalls in 1986 when he was suspended from Lafayette for the fall semester. Baur had invited several of his friends from Forty Fort to the campus for a rite of spring known as All College Day. When a woman fell and hit her head during a party in the dorm room he shared with starting safety Dwayne Norris. Baur called campus security for assistance. As the police were leaving, a beer can flew out a dorm window—Baur insists it wasn't his window or his can—and that led to an exchange of words. "It got heated and one of Frank's friends got into a punching match with one of the security guards," Norris says. The Easton police were called in, and they proceeded to give chase as Baur's friend eluded them by scaling backyard fences and leaping hedges.
Baur and Norris were officially blamed for the incident, and disciplinary proceedings against the two were not resolved until the fall, by which time Baur had been chosen as the starting quarterback by coach Bill Russo. A petition in support of the two players—signed by 1,600 students—had no apparent effect on the school's board of trustees, who bounced them from school for the term. "It should have been resolved over the summer," says Rosalie. "They waited until he was in the limelight, then embarrassed him. It was a big blow to his self-confidence."
Baur returned to Forty Fort in disgrace and spent the semester working as a loader on a truck, leaving for New York, 2½ hours away, every day at 4 a.m. "My first reaction was. Screw Lafayette, because they had screwed me," he says. "I really missed football on Saturdays. I would be sitting at home thinking. What am I doing here? I thought about leaving Lafayette, but I had been starting for a year, so that didn't seem to make any sense."
Norris later won $40,000 in a civil suit against the Easton police, who had arrested and then beaten him during the fracas. When he and Baur returned to school in January 1987, they were told by dean of students Herman Kissiah that if they wanted the incident wiped from their records, they could carry out the dorm garbage on weekends for three months. The two friends decided it would be better to have stains on their records than on their pants, and declined the offer.
Baur has applied himself ever since to making his face recognizable in places other than Pennsylvania VFW halls, although with mixed success. When he stopped at a gym in Lincoln, Neb., during his cross-country trip this summer, he recognized several Cornhusker football players, but they didn't recognize him. And when he accidentally left his driver's license at a store in Jackson Hole, Wyo., he was reduced to holding the Lafayette media guide next to his face when the bouncer at a bar in Santa Cruz insisted on identification. It could have been worse. He could have asked Baur if he knew Melancholy Baby.