January 13, 1997

This way to MVP's house read the sign bent around the wall at
the corner of Harris and Greenway. And sure enough, a ranch
house up the street had an Ohio State banner dangling from its
chimney and enough cars and pickups parked out front to remind
neighbors that the Germaines were still celebrating the
Buckeyes' last-gasp 20-17 Rose Bowl victory over Arizona State
two days before.

What made the scene look so wrong was the landscape: the
Bermuda-grass lawns, the saguaro cacti in the gardens, the
backyard orange trees and the odd Xeriscapes of gravel. Not to
mention the cars and trucks with Arizona plates and Sun Devils
window decals.

In the Germaine kitchen, paradox was piled as high as the
doughnuts. On one side of the breakfast bar, wearing a tan
cowboy hat, was a beaming Big Joe Germaine, a fence and gate
contractor and longtime Arizona State season-ticket holder.
Sitting opposite him and wearing a black cowboy hat was the
proud and happy Chad Germaine, one of Big Joe's six brothers and
another loyal Sun Devils fan. "They're all cowboys," explained
Little Joe Germaine, the only hatless man in a houseful of
exuberant guests. "You can always tell my family--they're
wearing cowboy hats and white shirts."

But not Little Joe. The surprise star of the Rose Bowl, the
fellow described in the Scottsdale, Ariz., newspaper the day
after the game as "notorious," wandered about the seven-room
house in a sweatshirt and shorts. He said, "I have the outfit:
the hat, the shirt, the boots. But I prefer to dress"--and here
he smiled shyly--"normal."

It was up to the beholder to decide if Little Joe deserved a
white hat or a black hat. Here, at any rate, is what he did
while wearing a silver helmet: He spoiled unbeaten Arizona
State's dream season. He robbed the Sun Devils of their first
national championship by rewriting a glorious script that had
had Arizona State's swashbuckling quarterback, Jake (the Snake)
Plummer, diving into the end zone for the winning score with
1:40 to play. Germaine, also a quarterback, did this by leading
Ohio State 65 yards to a touchdown, hitting wideout David Boston
on a five-yard corner route with 19 seconds left for the score.

Suddenly you had a dazed-looking Germaine standing on a platform
at midfield beside Buckeyes coach John Cooper--the Goodyear
Blimp droning overhead in the fog, a ghost ship--and the
oft-maligned Cooper twisting the knife into the Sun Devils while
not letting go of the winner's trophy. "How about a guy from
Scottsdale," Cooper boomed over the stadium P.A., "that came
back here and beat the hometown people?"

The red-garbed fans on the west and north sides of the bowl
roared in approval of that, but a backwash of boos could be
heard from Arizona State fans. And not just because Cooper had
the town wrong--Germaine hails from Mesa, not Scottsdale. Until
New Year's Day few in the Sun Devils' camp had given much
thought to the Prodigal Son factor. Sure, they knew that
Germaine had led Mesa's Mountain View High to the 1993 state
championship. And they knew that Germaine set a national junior
college record by completing 49 passes in a game for Scottsdale
Community College in '94. However, Arizona State coach Bruce
Snyder, while interested in the 6'2", 196-pound Germaine as a
defensive back, had not offered him any hope of succeeding
Plummer as the Sun Devils' quarterback. So Little Joe had moved
on to the less sunny but more hospitable Columbus, Ohio.

Moreover, Germaine started 1996 as the Buckeyes' third-string
quarterback and spent most of the season as the backup to junior
starter Stanley Jackson. When he did start--in the 11th game,
against archrival Michigan, because of the improvement he had
shown the previous few weeks--Ohio State scored only nine points
and suffered its lone loss of the season. "Joe will definitely
play," Cooper had said the day before the Rose Bowl, but his
choice of a starter against Arizona State was the more athletic
and spirited Jackson. "He's a leader," Cooper had said, leaving
one to infer that the quiet, deferential Germaine, he of the
flattop haircut and "Yes, sir; no, sir" deportment, lacked a
certain spark.

Of course, that sort of analysis ignored Germaine's experience
as a winning Rose Bowl quarterback. As oldest brother Norm told
it, he had corralled Little Joe after the winning drive and
asked, "How many times have you played this game?"

"Thousands of times," Joe replied.

Granted, the field those other times was about 25 yards long and
10 yards wide, and for targets Little Joe had cinder block
pilasters instead of receivers. Norm remembered how as a child
Joe used to dress up in football pants and a jersey and play
fantasy games in the walled backyard. The family could hear him
chirping his signals--"Red 32! Red 32!"--and would watch from
the windows as he ran and threw passes and flung himself onto
piles of leaves. "Then he'd come inside," Norm recalled, "and
say, 'Won the Rose Bowl.'"

On Jan. 2, after an eight-hour drive across the desert with his
family in a borrowed motor home, Little Joe was home again in
Mesa, met at the sidewalk by cheering neighbors and camera
crews. He did not crow, "Won the Rose Bowl." Having been trained
to be humble by his parents, Phillis and Joe, he mostly smiled
and said thank you. Under his chin, two black lines of stitches
testified to the hard shots he had taken in Pasadena.

If Germaine did not win the Rose Bowl by himself, he at least
proved that leadership is not synonymous with swagger. He took
the field for the first time with 5:30 to go in the first half
and the score knotted at 7-7, Ohio State's touchdown having come
on a nine-yard pass from Jackson to Boston, Arizona State's on
an acrobatic but disputed catch by wide receiver Ricky Boyer on
a 25-yard throw from Plummer. Germaine didn't announce his
presence, however, until after the Sun Devils had taken a 10-7
lead on a third-quarter field goal. Then, with stunning
swiftness, he covered 88 yards with a pair of strikes to senior
wideout Dimitrious Stanley, the second of them a 72-yard
catch-and-sprint for a touchdown. That play shocked the Arizona
State side of the stadium but not Buckeyes fans, who had seen
Germaine pass for 1,062 yards and 13 touchdowns this season in
his backup role. "Joe Germaine is an unbelievably accurate
quarterback," Ohio State cornerback Shawn Springs would say
later. "If you don't have perfect coverage, he'll put it there
every time."

Maybe so, but in a tight game the odds swing in favor of the
side with the brand-name quarterback. That was Arizona State,
which in Plummer had a leader with the presence and imagination
of a Doug Flutie or a John Elway. Only 11 weeks before, in the
same stadium, Plummer had contrived a come-from-behind victory
over UCLA with three fourth-quarter touchdowns--throwing for
one, catching a pass for another and running for a third. This
time, against a much nastier defense, he got the ball with 5:36
remaining and again put on a display of his varied talents. On
fourth-and-four at the Ohio State 37, he hung a gutsy fade pass
down the left sideline; senior wide receiver Lenzie Jackson
leaped to make the catch for a first down at the eight. Then, on
third-and-goal from the 11, Plummer scrambled through tacklers
and dived into the end zone to put the Sun Devils ahead 17-14
with 1:40 left. "I thought that was the ball game," Buckeyes
freshman linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer, the only defender to get a
hand on Plummer's jersey, would say later.

So whom do you turn to with 100 seconds left? The quarterback
with the quick feet and the gung ho attitude? Or the quiet kid
with the accurate arm and the butterfly bandages plastered over
his chin?

Cooper chose composure over charisma. And if his offensive
teammates are to be believed, Germaine--who hadn't run a
game-winning two-minute drill since quarterbacking the
Artichokes of Scottsdale C.C.--came to the huddle exuding
confidence. "I could tell just looking at his eyes, he wasn't
nervous," Boston said later. "I think he was working extra hard
to show all of us that."

Two incomplete passes from the Ohio State 35 didn't panic
Germaine, who on third down found a buttonhooking Stanley for 11
yards and a first down. After two more incompletions, Germaine
hit Stanley again, for 13 yards, and then for 12 more, to the
Sun Devils' 29. The next four Germaine passes ended up bouncing
unheroically on the moist turf. Fortunately for Ohio State,
officials flagged the Arizona State secondary twice for pass
interference. With 24 seconds to go, the Buckeyes had
first-and-goal at the five, and Germaine had his shot at glory
or infamy, depending on which side of the continental divide one
viewed it from. Boston feinted in on a slant--meant to clear out
room for the primary receiver, Stanley--and then bounced outside
to the right, wide open. Germaine rifled him the ball, and
Boston, a freshman from Humble, Texas, took it into the end zone
like a plane banking home.

There was, to be sure, a lot of yelling and 19 more seconds of
football, but Germaine had already written the next day's
headline: HOMETOWN BOY BEATS HOMETOWN TEAM. Later, standing on
the field behind a row of thundering sousaphones--his helmet in
one hand, the crystal MVP trophy in the other--Germaine seemed
unaffected by the turn of events. "No, sir," he said to a
reporter asking if he had noticed that Arizona State had changed
cornerbacks at the end. "Yes, sir," he said to a microphone
wielder who asked if it felt good to blur the memory of the
Michigan loss.

Having dived into so many piles of leaves as a child, Germaine
was used to seeing them scatter. The leaf that was John Cooper,
for instance, was now soaring. Long derided for his purported
inability to win the big one--at Ohio State he's 1-7-1 against
Michigan, and until triumphing over the Sun Devils he was 1-6 in
bowl games--Cooper left Pasadena with his second Rose Bowl win,
the first having come in 1987 when he was coaching Arizona State.

The leaf that was Jake Plummer was, by contrast, crushed. Cooper
stepped into the Sun Devils' locker room after the game and told
a distraught Plummer, "I've never seen anybody play the game
like you do."

The leaf that was Ohio State junior offensive tackle Orlando
Pace was bronzed. With two Lombardi trophies and a Rose Bowl win
under his ample belt, Pace, the college game's top offensive
lineman, would announce five days later that he was going to the
NFL, disappointing those fans in the north stands who at the end
of the game chanted, "One more year!"

And what of the leaf that was Buckeyes football? It was
resplendent. With their team ranked second in the final polls
after Florida's Sugar Bowl waxing of Florida State, Ohio State
fans could timidly poke their index fingers skyward, if only to
test the temperature.

As for Germaine--he had just four days at home before flying
back to Columbus and school. Not much time to enjoy Phillis's
Christmas decorations, his dog, Tyson, his hat-act uncles or the
five-dozen roses left strewn in the driveway by neighbors. Or,
for that matter, the still life someone had composed in the
Germaines' backyard: an old football amid a pile of dry leaves.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Germaine came out smelling like a rose, having thrown two TD passes during a 9-for-17 day. [Joe Germaine] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Jake the Snake was at his slithery best during a weaving 11-yard run that put Arizona State ahead 17-14. [Jake (the Snake) Plummer]

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