Want to feel a little better about the winter days ahead? Need a pick-me-up, a reason to feel at least momentarily optimistic about the human race? Read on.
Terry Kirby hobbles through the locker room at the Miami Dolphins' training facility, long after his teammates have departed, and he is singing. Let's repeat that: Kirby—a 6'1", 221-pound rookie running back from the University of Virginia, a banged-up young man with lots of schemes, reads, formations, routes and plays to learn, a 23-year-old who is not richer than the Sultan of Brunei, who is alone in a new city, who could be upset about a lot of things, not the least of which is the lingering notion that he is half-blind—is singing. Cheerfully singing. Not rap, not metal. Just sort of life's-O.K., aimless warbling.
Why? Because that's Kirby's way.
The kid from Tabb, Va., has plenty of reason to be mad about something. Aren't all pro athletes mad about something? Kirby is black and he is from a state that sided with Dixie. He developed asthma as a high school senior and now must use an inhaler before every practice and every game. He separated his shoulder as a senior at Virginia and missed three games, which dropped him well down the list of running backs eligible for the NFL draft, even though he had gained 1,130 yards and averaged 6.5 yards a carry. He has been suffering with "turf toe" in his right big toe, meaning the joint is "contused and compromised," as Dolphin trainer Ryan Vermillion puts it. He spends half of each day icing his toe, the other half riding a stationary bike.
December 13, 1993
Still he plays on. He is second on the team in rushing (283 yards) and first in the league in receptions by a rookie (49). He also leads AFC rookies in total yards from scrimmage (808). For all of which he is underpaid. He has a three-year contract with Miami that will earn him an average of $300,000 a year; had he been drafted in the first round—as he probably would have been if not for a bizarre, and false, scouting report on him—he would be making roughly $700,000 a year more.
But, hey, no problem. "It's not all about money," says Kirby. "I figure in life eventually you get paid what you're worth."
Feel better yet? "Terry Kirby is an unselfish player, a team guy," says veteran wide receiver Irving Fryar of the Dolphins. "He's easygoing, friendly, likable, somebody you'd invite over for dinner."
Fryar, who had his share of off-the-field troubles while with the New England Patriots earlier in his career, thinks further about Kirby and says, "He's a guy who makes sense when he talks. A lot of rookies don't. A lot of rookies have problems that prevent them from doing well. But Terry won't have to suffer like that."
Easygoing though he may be, make no mistake: Kirby is not dumb and happy, an oafish simpleton. He majored in psychology at Virginia and graduated in 3½ years. His academic achievements earned him a spot on the Atlantic Coast Conference honor roll. He is disarmingly mature, considerate and—can you say this about an aggressive athlete and not sound demented?—content.
Imagine this: On one of his touchdowns this season Kirby simply dropped the ball and jogged back to the bench. No spike, no roll of the dice, no backflip, no electra-glide, whoop-di-doo spasm. Remember, this is a hotshot rookie we're talking about. He has, as he says, been in the end zone before. Thirty-two times in college, 103 times in high school. Yes, 103 times. It's a Virginia state record, as is his career-rushing total of 7,428 yards. "I don't want to make a scene," he says. "I don't want to be a wise guy. That's not the way I want to be perceived."
The youngest of Wayne and Thelma Kirby's four children, Terry has always been a superior athlete—he also starred at baseball and basketball in high school, and as a senior finished fifth in the state in the 100-meter dash—but for many years he was only the third-best athlete in his family's yard. Brothers Wayne Jr. and Kenny were standout athletes who grudgingly tolerated their little brother in horseshoes, stickball and a family-invented kamikaze version of all-against-one football dubbed Light Up.
"All day long we'd play," says 28-year-old Kenny, a 6'2", 235-pound slugger for a touring softball team sponsored by the Human Resources Development computer company in Washington, D.C. "And that's all Terry wanted to do. He was a gnat. His nickname was Midget."
Terry was competitive in everything, the brothers recall, even when they hunted in the forests surrounding the small Kirby home in tiny Tabb (pop. 690). "He always wanted to shoot more squirrels than you did," says Wayne, 29, a career minor league baseball player until last season, when he broke into the Cleveland Indians' lineup as the starting rightfielder, hitting .269 in 131 games. "In football I always thought he'd be a linebacker, because he loved to hit."
As Kenny scans the broad lawn where the boys spent their formative days, he remembers another of his kid brother's traits. "He always messed with matches," says Kenny. "He liked fire."
Sort of like Beavis on MTV?
"Yeah," says Kenny with a grin.
Naughty boy. Actually, Terry got into a few scrapes as a kid, and if it weren't for the stern but loving guidance of Wayne, a handyman, and Thelma, a custodian at a nearby NASA facility, he most certainly would not be the decent fellow he is today. "He'd go out for the school bus and then sneak off and hide," says Wayne Sr. "But my wife would get tight on him when he was messing around."
Thelma even insisted that Terry repeat second grade. He was devastated. "I hated her for that," he says. "All your friends go on; I was really upset. I was in the meeting, too, and the teacher said, 'Terry's doing well, but not as well as he could. It's up to you, Mrs. Kirby.' Later my mom said to me, 'I'm doing this for a reason. It may not make sense now, but it will.' "
He admits that it now does, though he feels his main difficulty back then was that he was just "active." As he still is. "I have to do something," he says.
At Virginia he played two years of varsity basketball as a reserve point guard. After rushing eight times for 64 yards and catching two passes for 21 more in the Cavaliers' Citrus Bowl loss to Illinois in his freshman year, Kirby was told by Terry Holland, Virginia's basketball coach at the time, to take a week off and recuperate before starting hoops. "The next morning I ran a mile to the gym and then ran on the treadmill for a long time and then ran home," says Kirby. "Players said, 'You're crazy!' I said, 'I can't sit still.' "
Fortunately, Thelma recognized this quality in her son early on and geared his sports participation accordingly. When Terry was six, she signed him up for soccer but yanked him out of the league when she realized how little contact there was in the sport. "That was not for him," she says today.
Terry agrees. Even at that age he was dying to carry the ball, to catch it, to tuck it away and run over somebody. Football was the sport for him. As a senior at Tabb High, Kirby was named Parade magazine's 1988 High School Player of the Year and USA Today's High School Offensive Player of the Year. He became the focus of recruiting mayhem, but he never lost his head. "I told all the recruiters, 'The more you call me, the less your chances,' " he says.
What was the most outrageous offer he received from a school? "Anything," he says. "Anything!" Meaning what? "I don't know," he replies, shaking his head. "Anything. What would that be? Cars, money. Anything."
He chose Virginia because it was strong academically and not far from home. He says he took none of the bribes because "it all felt dirty." Instead, while in Charlottesville he tried to act like a regular student. As a junior and senior he tutored children with reading difficulties as part of his course work. "Tutoring a second year wasn't a requirement," says Connie Juel, who supervises the tutoring program. "But he was so outstanding [as a junior], so kind and gentle, and so good at coming up with fun activities, that I asked him to help me again."
Oddly, nobody helped Kirby last spring when a rumor spread among NFL teams that his vision was seriously impaired. A newspaper had reported that Kirby was legally blind in his right eye, making it hard for him to catch passes over his right shoulder. "You have got to be kidding," Ken Mack, Kirby's position coach at Virginia, would say later, noting that Kirby had grabbed 105 passes in college, over both shoulders.
In fact, Kirby has 20-40 vision in his right eye and doesn't even need glasses. "I see fine," he says. "I have a brown spot on my eye, but that's just a mole."
But the damage was done. Kirby watched nine other running backs get selected before he was taken by Miami in the third round, the 78th pick in the draft. A runner had not been the Dolphins' primary need, so on draft day they were not aware of the gossip about Kirby's eyesight. When coach Don Shula announced the choice to reporters, one of them asked him if he knew about Kirby's vision problem. Stunned, Shula went back into the draft room and yelled at his assistants, "Did we draft a blind guy?"
They had not, and Kirby's ability to run inside as well as to get open on pass routes, particularly on third down, has made him a bargain. "He's the big back inside, and he runs good patterns against nickel coverages," says Shula. "When he catches, he plucks the ball like great receivers do. You can scarcely hear it."
After a recent practice, Kirby ate dinner at a restaurant with his buddy and mentor, linebacker David Griggs, a former Virginia player who has been with the Dolphins for five years. The two first met when Kirby was on his recruiting visit to Virginia. Griggs liked him immediately. "He had a big smile. He was cordial," Griggs recalled. "He wasn't like some highly recruited guys—he was humble."
Griggs is helping ease Kirby's transition into the NFL, trying to keep him fired up, even though Kirby felt his body hitting the wall after the eighth regular-season game. "Add four preseason games to that, and that's my college season," said Kirby, who had his toughest day as a pro on Thanksgiving Day, fumbling twice against the Dallas Cowboys.
"Wait until you've had a couple of knee surgeries to go with it," said Griggs.
"Football is weird," Kirby said after a time. "Who invented it, and what in the hell was he thinking? I heard that players used to tape magazines to their arms and legs as pads. Can you imagine that?"
Griggs can imagine most anything, but not Kirby's college passion for riding a big motorcycle at top speed. "A Kawasaki Ninja 1100," said Kirby. "Oh, man, it's the best feeling in the world, laying down and going. You feel the wind, you're on two wheels and you're saying, 'I can't believe I'm doing this.' I got it up to 150 miles per hour once at school."
Shula would, too, if he knew. But just now, he's feeling good about his rookie runner. On Nov. 14 young Kirby got the Dolphins' first touchdown in their game against the Philadelphia Eagles, on a pass pattern called halfback choice. The score would help Miami to a 19-14 victory.
Not just any victory. It was Shula's 325th, the one that broke George Halas's career record. "Kirby's was the big play in the game," said Shula later. "It demonstrated his awareness. That he did it without practicing, because of his toe, makes it all the more remarkable."
The tough man looked as mellow as he ever gets. "He's a good kid," Shula said.
That about says it all.