Joyce Ware looks at life as a series of surmountable challenges. She has encouraged her only child, Andre, to dream of distant goals and wondrous achievements, reminding him, time and again, "It's easy to be a nobody, but hard to be somebody. Don't ever say you can't do something."
As an eighth-grader in Dickinson, Texas, Andre, a quarterback, came home in tears after his teammates had teased him about having a weak arm. Joyce persuaded him to lift weights for several weeks. "Never be a quitter, no matter how tough times get," she said. "Hang in there."
As a freshman at Dickinson High, Andre found out that one of his junior high coaches had said that the high school team would never be successful with Andre at quarterback. "Prove him wrong," said Joyce. Andre did, and was voted first-team all-district in his junior and senior years when the Gators were 15-4-1.
Because he had directed an option offense in high school, averaging only seven passes a game his senior season, only three of about 10 schools that offered Ware a scholarship—Houston, Tulane and Tulsa—were willing to let him play quarterback. Texas and Texas A&M wanted to move him to defensive back. "Stick to your goal," Joyce told her son. "You'll be a great quarterback."
April 29, 1990
Arriving at Houston in 1986, he was found to be ineligible for football because he hadn't taken the SAT on an NCAA-approved date. The Southwest Conference later admitted it had given him, as well as a number of other conference recruits, the wrong test date. Instead of remaining at Houston on scholarship, which would have cost him a year of eligibility, Ware enrolled at nearby Alvin Community College. He would take the SAT again that fall, and reenroll at Houston in the second semester, in time to participate in spring football practice. To help pay his tuition at Alvin, Ware worked from 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. as a maintenance man at the post office in nearby La Marque, where his mother was a distribution window clerk. After classes he swirled ice cream at a Dairy Queen.
"I'd be serving sundaes, and kids who'd gone off to college would harass me," says Ware. "I was embarrassed and humiliated, but gradually I quit feeling sorry for myself. My mother convinced me to learn to enjoy having people tell me I can't do something. Now it's second nature; I love to prove people wrong."
Ware, a 6'1", 208-pound junior, found plenty of believers in December, when he won the Heisman Trophy after a season of rewriting NCAA passing and total-offense records, and on Sunday the Detroit Lions showed their faith in him by making him their first pick—the seventh overall—in the NFL draft. When the telephone call from the Lions came at 11:44 a.m. CDT, the 50 relatives, friends and reporters who had crammed into Joyce's living room begged Andre to tell them which team was on the line. Another 40 people in the front yard, sitting at picnic tables and munching on barbecued ribs and chicken, pleaded for information, too. But the Lions had asked Ware not to divulge the news until they officially announced it 15 minutes later. So he let only one person in on his happy secret—his mother. When Joyce heard, she let out a scream and her eyes filled with tears.
"This is the culmination of everything we've worked for together," Andre said. "I've always been able to count on my mom when I couldn't count on anybody else. She is my heart."
Added Joyce, "This is a dream come true. I've always told him, 'Be strong, never give up, and things will work out.' "
Ware, who has outstanding arm strength and quickness, couldn't have asked for a better situation. Under coach Jack Pardee at Houston, Ware played in the run-and-shoot offense, a flashy, unconventional passing system in which the quarterback operates from a moving pocket. Detroit's Silver Stretch offense is nearly identical; the Lions' version of the run and shoot was used by Pardee and Mouse Davis, Detroit's quarterback coach, when they were together in 1984 with the USFL Houston Gamblers.
"I believe this guy, given some time, is going to take the Lions to the Super Bowl," says Detroit coach Wayne Fontes.
Ware's march to the Heisman—and rise to first-round draft pick—caught football observers by surprise. Before last season, he was almost unknown outside the SWC, even though he had thrown a conference-record 25 touchdown passes in 1988. And with the Cougars about to serve the first of three years of NCAA probation for recruiting violations, Ware would not appear on live television. He was one of four players featured on the cover of Houston's media guide, but he wasn't billed as a Heisman candidate.
"Not having our games on TV actually helped Andre win the Heisman," says Ted Nance, Houston's assistant athletic director for media relations. "It brought more people down here to see him. He was a curiosity."
Why? Ware's numbers were overwhelming: 503 yards passing against Arizona State, seven touchdown passes against Temple, 517 yards passing in the first half of a 95-21 rout of Southern Methodist, a 34-of-46 day against Arkansas, 42 completions against Texas Christian. At season's end, Ware had set 26 NCAA passing and total-offense records. His 4,699 yards in the air surpassed the single-season record of 4,571 set by Brigham Young's Jim McMahon, and his 46 touchdown passes fell one short of McMahon's mark. Ware put together these numbers despite sitting out the equivalent of nine quarters because most of Houston's nine victories were one-sided.
Some critics pooh-poohed Ware's statistics, citing the poor caliber of several opponents, but by midseason the media crush spanned the spectrum from major metropolitan dailies and network morning shows to small outlets like The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and WSNG radio in Torrington, Conn. Poised and articulate beyond his 21 years, Ware began interviews as early as 6 a.m. and often gave as many as seven a day.
"I didn't do interviews to promote myself," says Andre. "L did them for our football team. We were accomplishing some great things, and I was in the position to tell people about them. I had a lot of fun doing interviews. All I had to do was be myself."
The Wares' innocence in dealing with outsiders disappeared the weekend Andre won the Heisman. On Friday, Dec. 1, Joyce flew to New York City to attend the presentation the next evening at the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan. Andre didn't accompany her because Houston was playing Rice on Saturday. During the flight, Joyce practiced her acceptance speech, as she had done secretly for weeks in her living room. She was met at LaGuardia Airport by Johnny Rodgers, the 1972 Heisman Trophy winner from Nebraska, who told her he was representing the Downtown Athletic Club. They rode into Manhattan in a limousine, and Rodgers checked her into a hotel instead of the Downtown Athletic Club, where she had a reservation. "He told me the place was a dump," says Joyce.
In truth, Rodgers was acting as an agent for TEAM America of Lincoln, Neb. Rodgers and Howard Misle, the president of TEAM America, visited Joyce's hotel room, where they told her about their firm and gave her a packet entitled Cash Flow and Tax Projections Prepared for Andre Ware. Joyce says they told her TEAM America's marketing efforts could make the family $20 million.
On Saturday, Rodgers took Joyce shopping and bought her a two-piece red silk dress, red shoes and a red purse. Inside the purse she found $300. Rodgers also bought Joyce a full-length mahogany-colored fur coat.
"I had already worn the outfit I'd brought, and Johnny said I needed something else to wear for the announcement," Joyce says. "I kept asking him if he was an agent, and he kept saying no. Johnny told me some people at the ceremony called me 'Johnny's queen' because of how well he was treating me. When Andre won the Heisman, I was so proud. I went back to the hotel and started jumping up and down and crying."
Two days later, Joyce told Andre the details of her trip, and, in her words, the bubble burst. "Those Downtown Athletic people were really nice," she told him. "They bought me a fur coat."
"Who bought you a fur coat?" asked Andre.
"Johnny Rodgers did," she said.
Ware was stunned. Only a few days earlier a Houston athletic department official had told him Rodgers was an agent. Now Ware feared he could be ruled ineligible for his senior season because of the gifts his mother had accepted. Further, he was angry at himself for not having alerted her to such a scam.
"Who would think one Heisman Trophy winner would do such a thing to another Heisman Trophy winner, or that a black man would do this to his own people?" says Joyce. "It happened so fast."
Rudy Davalos, the Houston athletic director, contacted the NCAA and Texas secretary of state George Bayoud Jr. Texas state law prohibits agents from making contact with a player who has college eligibility remaining and requires that agents be registered with the secretary's office. After conducting an 18-day investigation, Bayoud determined that Rodgers and Misle had violated the law, and TEAM America was fined $10,000. Rodgers and Misle admitted their wrongdoing to Bayoud in a signed document, and subsequently TEAM America terminated its association with Rodgers.
"Rodgers embarrassed my mother," says Ware. "He said [at a news conference] that she went to New York with 'two pairs of jeans, a coat up to her elbows and an outfit not even fitting for her to wear.' I won't ever forgive him for that."
Winning the Heisman made Ware an overnight celebrity. From the middle of December through March, he logged more than 35,000 air miles, attended a dozen banquets and made at least 40 speeches. His date book dazzles: meet President Bush at the White House, guest appearance on Bob Hope's Christmas show, introduction to Michael Jordan at a Chicago Bulls game, trip to the Super Bowl with Houston Oiler quarterback Warren Moon, ceremony at Houston's city hall with mayor Kathy Whitmire. "Back in December, I rented a tuxedo, and I haven't had time to take it back," says Ware. "How much do you think the bill will be?"
Ware was gracious and accommodating to the not-so-famous as well. He stood in a smoke-filled banquet hall, right hand on a Bible, while a group of retired New York City policemen swore him in as an honorary cop. Perched in a convertible, with a goofy green hat on his head, Ware presided as grand marshal of the St. Patrick's Day parade in Clear Lake, Texas. In Dickinson (pop. 10,000), 25 miles southeast of Houston, Ware cheerfully accepted a gold key to the city, and then was overcome when the Board of Directors of the Dickinson Water District voted to paint HOME OF ANDRE WARE 1989 HEISMAN TROPHY WINNER on the tallest structure in town, a 160-foot-high water tower on Imite Street.
"I was floating in a dream world," says Ware. "It got to the point where I couldn't remember what day it was or what city I was in. I got home from one banquet and thought I was having a heart attack. I was so exhausted and so sick, I stayed in bed for two days."
Despite the excessive demands, Ware, a. business major, maintained a full 15-credit course load and was adamant about returning to school for his final season. Above all, he wanted to keep a promise to his mother to earn his degree; he would need only 18 credits as a senior to graduate. Realizing his potential earning power in the NFL, Ware obtained a $7,000 loan to make the first payment on a $1 million insurance policy in case of injury in his senior year. But the NFL's new plan to admit nonseniors into the draft started him thinking.
Ware sought the advice of Moon, who became a close friend after they posed together in a photo for a local newspaper last summer. New Cougar coach John Jenkins offered to phone every NFL team to inquire about interest in Ware. Finally, Ware asked for his mother's input.
"Do what you want to do," said Joyce. "If you decide not to play another down of football, it's O.K. with me."
Ware searched his soul during long drives on Houston's freeways and while watching movies in his bedroom. The fear of a career-ending injury weighed heavily on his mind. So did rumors that the NFL might be interested in a wage scale for rookies starting in 1991. However, the final decision came from his heart.
"I was consumed with the decision," says Ware. "I wouldn't hear a word anyone said. There was not one factor that made me turn pro. If you have dreamt about playing pro football, and it's in your heart, what else is there?"
When Andre was a baby, Joyce would sit in his bedroom and watch him sleep. She never trusted the neighbors in Dickinson to babysit and made sure he was always spotless. "I don't think I ever crawled," says Andre. "The minute I got down on my knees, she'd pick me right up."
Andre spent his formative years surrounded by tireless, religious women. Joyce and her husband, Robert, a schoolteacher, were divorced when Andre was three. Joyce and Andre moved in with her mother, Marie Gentry—known in the family as Granny—who lived a few blocks away. Granny's kitchen was always bustling with relatives. Discipline was high on Granny's list of demands.
"She scared me to death," says Andre. "If I was too loud, she'd just give me this look, as if to say I was on the edge of getting it. I straightened out quickly."
At the same time Granny was a soft touch. "She was always kissing him," Joyce says. Joyce's maternal grandmother, Estelle Ross, who lived nearby, smothered Andre with love, too. She sang to him while sewing and baked him sugar cookies. "They all spoiled me," Andre says. "I was getting it from all sides."
Andre spent weekends with his father, who lived in La Marque. Robert taught Andre how to count and spell. To get Andre to laugh, he played tunes on his trumpet. "He was very caring," says Andre.
This happy childhood ended for Andre at age seven, when Robert died of viral pneumonia. He was 30. "I remember the funeral as if it were yesterday," Andre says. "I didn't grasp what was going on. I kept thinking, He's going to wake up. I was young. I guess I just hoped."
Joyce tried to fill the void by getting even closer to Andre. They shot marbles on the living room carpet and went gokarting. She made a point of never talking about Robert's death. "Andre and I were so close and did so much together," she says. "I kept him from being sad and lonely. I was always there for him."
But Andre says, "I missed having a father. When I started playing Little League baseball, a lot of the other kids' dads would come to games, and I'd hear the guys talking about the stuff they did with their dads. It was hard on me. I used to sit in class in second grade and just cry. There will always be an emptiness there."
Eventually the Wares moved into a one-bedroom apartment. Joyce worked as a maid and bused tables at a local restaurant. Determined to provide a better life for Andre, she moved from job to job, saving as much as she could. "I was Andre's role model," Joyce says. "I didn't go to bars. I've never considered remarrying. I live each and every day for Andre."
Joyce, who admits being overly protective of her son, refused to let him play youth football, purposely showing up too late for the sign-up date two years in a row. She attended his high school games, but she found it difficult to watch him get tackled. Upon hearing on the radio that he had broken his left arm during a game in his first season at Houston, she almost fainted on the post office floor.
Ware has never shown any signs of being spoiled. The night he won the Heisman, he kept his promise to be the guest speaker at the Dickinson Little League football banquet. His Heisman Trophy sits under glass in the middle of the Citizens State Bank in downtown Dickinson. A few days after announcing he would enter the NFL draft, Ware helped out the Cougars by suiting up at quarterback for the scout team at a spring practice.
On the doorstep of becoming a millionaire, Ware has already made plans for spending his money. He doesn't want a fancy foreign car—he prefers his black '88 Mustang—and he plans to help fund improvements in Dickinson's recreational facilities and antidrug programs. Joyce has told Andre that she may want to keep sorting mail at the post office.
"My mom and I have shared a lot as the years have gone by," says Andre. "Because she had me when she was so young, I feel as though we've grown up together. Our relationship is more like brother and sister. We have no secrets; we tell each other everything. It's always been just the two of us, an invincible team."