The four paratroopers from the 101st Airborne who swooped into Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence, Ala., last Saturday afternoon, moments before the kickoff of the NCAA Division II championship game, seemed out of place. This game was supposed to be a ground war: the split-back veer attack of the Pittsburg (Kans.) State Gorillas against the wishbone of the Jacksonville (Ala.) State Gamecocks. But the sky divers were a portent, for while the action in the trenches was fierce, Pitt State's air support—in particular, a jet named Ronnie West—carried the day.
With little more than a minute remaining in the first half, the Gorillas, who were leading 7-6, had the ball on their own 26. It was a long way to go in a short time for a grind-it-out offense. Quarterback Brian Hutchins threw a three-yard pass to West, his favorite receiver. West, who the night before had accepted the 1991 Harlon Hill Trophy honoring the best player in Division II, spun and churned his way to a 30-yard gain. On the next down, Hutchins and West hooked up for a 12-yard gain, and three plays later Hutchins romped in untouched from the 13-yard line.
West finished the half with six receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown. He would catch only two more passes in the second half, but the Gorillas had proved that they could stand upright and throw. Back on the ground after intermission, they rolled over the Gamecocks to win their first NCAA championship 23-6.
At the outset the two teams seemed evenly matched. At 12-1-1, Pittsburg State had averaged 38 points a game, 12-0 Jacksonville State 35.8. The Gamecocks ranked second in Division II in rushing, the Gorillas fifth. But Pitt State had a decided edge in heft. The Gorillas' offensive line averaged 280 pounds, to the Gamecocks' 251. "We recruit them like that," said Pill Slate coach Chuck Broyles. "We don't care if they're six feet tall or seven feet tall, we want them over 260, because we're dedicated to running that offense." Behind the Gorillas' Kong-o line, running backs Darren Dawson and Ronald Moore had run this season for 1,625 and 1,513 yards, respectively.
And then there was West. A 6'2", 215-pound wideout, he is considered the second-best pass-catching prospect in the nation, after Tennessee's Carl Pickens. This year West set school records for catches (50), receiving yards (1,044) and touchdown catches (12). He has run a 4.55 40 and bench-pressed 370 pounds. Dave-Te Thomas, an independent talent scout, has said, "I challenge anyone to find a better all-around athlete. West is the best receiving prospect to come out of college since Jerry Rice."
West seems eager to bat down the acclaim that has been thrown his way. "I've had a bunch of calls [from NFL scouts]," he said last week, "but I just tell them to call back after the season."
Back in Pittsburg, a pile of letters sat unopened on his dresser. So did invitations to all-star games and scouting combines. From the moment he arrived in Florence, West insisted he was taking it one step at a time, concentrating on the title game and nothing else.
West's path to stardom has been an unlikely one. One of eight children from Pineview, Ga., he graduated from Wilcox County High, where he was an all-state receiver, and went on to Valdosta State on a football scholarship. The coaches wanted him to play defensive back. Sorry, said West. He transferred to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, a junior college in Miami, Okla. Again he was pegged as a defensive back. Discouraged, West quit school and joined an Army Reserve unit in Pittsburg, 40 miles from Miami.
That's how he discovered Pitt State. He walked into the football office and talked with the coaches. "I told them I wanted to be a receiver," said the powerfully built West. "They looked at me as if to say, 'Huh?' I figured if I couldn't play receiver, I wouldn't play." To their credit, the Gorilla coaches acquiesced.
After redshirting in '89, West exploded last season. He led Division II in punt-return average (16.9 yards), racked up 2,070 all-purpose yards and scored 18 touchdowns. Over the summer, West and Hutchins worked together three times a day—at 5 a.m., at noon and again at 7 p.m.—executing countless pass patterns. "It was our last year together, and I wanted us to be ready," said West.
All their work nearly went for naught. In the second game of the season, against East Texas State, Hutchins broke his collarbone, and Pitt State saw its 56-game regular-season winning streak snapped by a 20-13 defeat. "We underestimated how hard it would be to lose," said Broyles. "A lot of guys took it badly. We had to become counselors instead of coaches."
Adversity helped in the end. In the previous two years, the Gorillas had breezed through the regular season, only to come up short in the playoffs both times. This season they got the disappointment out of the way early. After a 6-6 tie with Missouri-Rolla, Pittsburg State, with freshman Jeff Moreland filling in at quarterback for nine games, won 10 straight, including a 38-28 rematch with East Texas in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. Then in the semis the week before the championship game, the Gorillas knocked off No. 1-ranked Indiana of Pennsylvania 27-20.
Jacksonville State had also tasted playoff frustration. In 1977 and '89, the Gamecocks reached the title game but failed to score in either one. This year Jacksonville got on the board, on a three-yard touchdown run by fullback Terence Bowens in the second quarter, but then Hutchins, West and that simian line went to work. "I've coached for 23 years and never had a team come together this closely," said Broyles after the win. "They took it to the highest level today."
In the locker room, West was asked about that big box of letters waiting for him in Kansas. Would he open them now, with the Hill award and the national championship safe in hand? He smiled but shook his head. "Not yet, not until Monday night," said West. "I've got a chemistry final on Monday afternoon."
One step at a time.