When David Klingler was a freshman quarterback practicing with the scout team at the University of Houston, he threw a pass so hard it literally split apart the hand of a teammate trying to intercept it. "That was when I was trying to throw everything as hard as I could," Klingler says, as if there were another time. "The linebacker had dropped into pass coverage, and by the time I was set up to throw, he was 25 yards away. He put his hand up to try to intercept the pass, and the ball just split his hand in two. Exploded it."
This was Klingler's first college ovation: the sound of one hand clapping. It took nine stitches to repair the linebacker's middle fingers. When Klingler finally got to start last season, directing the Cougars' run-and-shoot offense designed by coach John Jenkins (following story), he was still throwing the ball hard enough to complete 48 of 76 passes into the teeth of a howling wind while leading Houston to a 44-17 victory over SMU. "I threw some passes that hit the fence at the back of the end zone, and it sounded like a shotgun going off," Klingler says. "From 25 yards away, I can throw the ball hard enough that you'd be better off trying to get out of the way than you would be trying to catch it."
Klingler shrugs, then withdraws a cookie from the bowl his mother has just put in front of him and smiles as he bites down. Klingler has a smile that makes you think about how Beaver Cleaver might have turned out if he had been raised by wolves. "Jimmy crushed a boy's hand once," says Glenda Klingler, referring to her younger son, who as a freshman quarterback for the Cougars will be backing up David. "Isn't that right, Jimmy? Didn't you throw a pass so hard in high school it broke some boy's fingers?" Jimmy acknowledges the truth of this.
Oh, what glorious afternoons those must have been at the Klingler home when the boys returned from school! Milk and cookies, and comparing notes to see who had blown the most receivers out of their helmets in practice.
David Klingler is less concerned these days with turning wide receivers into wet spots on the AstroTurf than with blowing up Cougar opponents. Last year he broke or tied 33 NCAA single-game or season records—22 more than Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer of Brigham Young—while passing for 5,140 yards and 54 touchdowns, 13 more than all of the TDs scored last season by co-national champion Georgia Tech.
Klingler threw 11 of those touchdown passes in an 84-21 rout of Division I-AA Eastern Washington, a feat deemed so politically incorrect by many Heisman voters that it may well have cost Klingler the trophy. Truth is, even if you took away his 11 scoring bombs against Eastern Washington, Klingler still would have led the country in touchdown passes (runner-up Detmer had 41). And the 732 total yards he rolled up while crushing Arizona State 62-45 on the day the Heisman was being awarded to Detmer was 144 yards more than he had accumulated against Eastern Washington.
Still, the mismatch against the by-then-sainted Eagles was more than many Heisman voters could stomach. "[Klingler] is off my ballot completely," huffed Tom Luicci in the Newark Star-Ledger. "What happened was a disgrace...fraud."
Klingler says the record-breaking 11th touchdown pass was an accident. "I was supposed to go in, throw a quick out and get my ovation," he says. "But the receiver was covered, so I just flung the ball downfield." Wide receiver Marcus Grant settled under the ball in the end zone. "When I came off the field," Klingler says, "the expression on [Jenkins's] face told me he wasn't happy."
It's not that the affable, even charming, Klingler is insensitive to all the whining about the Cougars' pedal-to-the-metal philosophy after they have a big lead. It's just that the run-and-shoot has a way of altering reality in such a way that passing the ball 91% of the time, as Klingler did last season, begins to seem normal. The run-and-shoot changes context, so that it is possible for Klingler to say in his own defense, "There have been a lot of games where we scored 65 or 70 points and I only threw five touchdown passes," with a perfectly straight face. "I never know how many yards or touchdowns I've thrown for. People tell me after the game, and I'm always surprised. Seven hundred yards doesn't feel any different than 400."
Unless, of course, those extra 300 yards are being stuffed down your throat, in which case it tends to be a very personal experience and not one you tend to forget the next time someone asks who you think should win the Heisman Trophy. That is presumably how it is possible for coaches to argue that Houston's offensive system is an affront to the memory of Amos Alonzo Stagg and in the next breath suggest that Klingler shouldn't win the Heisman because the system is so perfectly designed that any bumbler could run it.
Klingler seems to be preparing himself for the possibility that, no matter how gaudy his numbers are this fall, he will be passed over again in December, and so he kicked off his personal Heisman campaign with some fairly bodacious comments. "I don't think the Heisman represents the best college football player anyway," he says. "People think it's going to hurt me if they vote against me, but I don't care who they vote for. The Heisman's just a doorstop that's going to end up gathering dust on somebody's floor."
Klingler spent two seasons studying the nuances of the run-and-shoot while backing up 1989 Heisman winner Andre Ware, but he still was able to get enough mop-up time to finish Ware's Heisman season as the second-ranked passer in the Southwest Conference. When Ware decided to turn pro after his junior year, Klingler got his chance.
"Our offense is all reaction," he says. "You go out there and see what defense they're in, and then you just react. Every play we have is designed to exploit some weakness in a defense." Klingler must keep 60 different pass sets in his head each time he goes to the line of scrimmage, and each of those formations has a dozen possible variations.
Nothing Klingler did in high school prepared him for any of this. At Houston's Stratford High he was a veer quarterback who was more likely to rush for 100 yards than pass for them. In one of his best passing performances, he completed seven of nine for more than 100 yards. "That was a great game for me then," Klingler says. "Now it's a good series."
Klingler was always a fine natural athlete, high-jumping 6'9" the very first day he went out for Stratford's track team. He long-jumped 24 feet and had a 38-inch vertical leap that got him scholarship offers to play basketball at Stanford and Pitt, while Kansas and Ball State wanted him to play both football and basketball.
Sports had helped him make new friends after his family moved to Texas when he was six years old. David's dad, Dick Klingler, was working in his father's gas station in Ada, Ohio, in 1976 when he began to hear tales of boundless prosperity in the Texas oil patch. Two days after he arrived in Houston, he had a job doing wellhead work for a toolmaker. "For a few years business was real good," Dick says. "Then one day they started laying off everybody with less than 13 years' seniority." The oil boom had suddenly gone bust, leaving the Klingler family scrambling to make ends meet.
For the next several years, every job Dick took ended with the company going bankrupt or out of business. When Dick took a job as a security guard, he found himself working as a watchman at a steel plant where not long before he had been a technician.
"We've been through some hard times, and with three kids in college we don't think they're over yet," Glenda says. And yet when the opportunity presented itself last spring for David to enter the NFL draft, his family never tried to influence him either way. "We told him to do what he wanted to do, and not worry about us," Dick says. "The reasons to stay in school or turn pro are David's business, not mine. I didn't want to know."
Everybody else in Houston did. Klingler's decision to stay in school for another year means the Cougars, who have been banned from bowl games since 1988, now have a chance to win a national championship. It is a prospect that excites Klingler less than you might imagine. "If I had my choice, I wouldn't practice the extra month," he says. "I got used to having great seasons and still being home for the holidays."
For David's grandmother Betty, a bowl appearance would also mean some overtime. Betty Klingler has worked at the Wilson Sporting Goods factory in Ada for 24 years, sewing the lining into the footballs that are used in NCAA and NFL games. "I'll bet our kids have used up and thrown away more balls than most colleges," Dick says. "When we needed new balls for the pee wee team, instead of going to the store we'd just call Mama, and she'd send down six or eight balls."
David Klingler may melt more balls than that this season if his progress in the spring is any indication of what lies ahead. Of the 357 passes he threw in scrimmages during the Cougars' spring drills, only two were intercepted. In three of those scrimmages, Klingler passed for 13, then 20, and finally 17 touchdowns, and in the last one he threw for 1,901 yards.
Now if Klingler can just get through the season without blowing up any of his receivers, blowing the lights out on the scoreboard or blowing the Heisman by run-and-shooting his mouth off about the sacred statue's being some kind of ashtray or birdbath, he'll deserve a big hand—if anybody happens to have an extra one.