The letter arrived last fall, delivered to the Penn State
football offices in the days following the Nittany Lions'
embarrassing 38-7 loss to Ohio State in Columbus. It was
addressed to sophomore running back Curtis Enis, an Ohio native
who had worked himself into an emotional frenzy for the game and
then rushed for just 34 yards on 11 carries. "I choked," he had
said after the defeat, flogging himself much too hard. Then came
the letter, mixed in with a batch of autograph requests. In his
short life Enis has endured academic uncertainty, athletic
failure and the sting of racial taunting. But the words in the
letter shook him more than he could have imagined.
This is an article from the Oct. 20, 1997 issue
You suck. We wouldn't want you at Ohio State, anyway.
There was no signature and no return address. Enis could have
chucked the letter on the spot. He could have burned it to show
his disgust, but he kept it. He took it home to his State
College apartment, where it sat for nearly a year, words of
disdain worth transforming into motivation. Last Friday he
packed the letter in his overnight bag and went to the hotel
where Penn State players sleep on the night before home games.
On Saturday afternoon he took the letter to Beaver Stadium for
the rematch with Ohio State, a game with huge implications in
the Big Ten and national championship races. Before he put on
his uniform, Enis pulled out the letter, read it one last time
and then tore it into small pieces and threw it away.
The beauty of college football is that for all its stodgy
reliance on tradition (golden helmets, "between the hedges" and
Old Oaken Buckets ad nauseam), the sport roils with change.
Notre Dame can be really bad. Florida can go to Baton Rouge and
lose. And in one year Penn State can grow up, the same players
can be completely different.
In last year's game in Columbus, the Nittany Lions' Brandon
Short was a redshirt freshman linebacker who spent the afternoon
on the griddle side of Ohio State tackle Orlando Pace's
pancakes. "I had no idea what I was getting into," he says. Last
Saturday, with Pace now wearing a St. Louis Rams uniform, Short
had seven tackles (two for losses), an interception and half a
A year ago Mike McQueary was a junior backup quarterback, a
carrot-topped hometown kid from State College whose high school
buddies were convinced he would never play for Penn State when
it really counted. After beginning this season as the starter
and easily winning four times, McQueary survived the toughest
game of his life last Saturday, getting tagged so often that he
ended the afternoon with a ringing headache and a sprained
thumb. But McQueary endured and guided Penn State 86 yards in
the fourth quarter for the winning touchdown. "Just decided to
let it go and stop worrying about making a mistake," he said
Last fall Penn State wideout Joe Jurevicius was jailed by Ohio
State All-America defensive back Shawn Springs and held to a
single catch. Last Saturday he caught five passes for 59 yards
and blocked ferociously. "I've been taking shots in the Ohio
papers for a year, 'overrated receiver' and all that,"
Jurevicius said. "Bragging's on the Pennsylvania side now."
They all learned something from the beating they took last year,
but none learned more than Enis. He scored the winning touchdown
in Penn State's 31-27 victory last Saturday, bolting up the
right hash mark off a sweep from 26 yards out with 10:31 to play
and leaving much of the record crowd of 97,282 apoplectic. On
three subsequent possessions Ohio State failed to retake the
lead, leaving Enis to finish the Buckeyes with four killing runs
for a total of 36 yards in the final 2:24. As darkness descended
on the stadium, McQueary took a knee on the Ohio State five, and
Penn State students heaved a blizzard of soft drink cups into
the air while shouting the obligatory "We're Number 1!" Their
chant would become prophetic hours later with LSU's upset of
top-ranked Florida (page 36).
Flush with their biggest win since 1994, when the Lions went
12-0 and finished second in the polls to 13-0 Nebraska, Penn
State players rushed into their locker room in celebration. They
had known the stakes--on the Monday before the game, coach Joe
Paterno had told them, "This week you'll find out if you're a
good team"--but few of them knew just how badly Enis wanted to
win. In the postgame euphoria he surprised his teammates when he
stood on a stool in the middle of the locker room and, with
tears streaming down his cheeks and his voice cracking, yelled
to them, "I want you guys to know that this game meant so much
to me." Moments later he sat behind a podium at a press
conference and cried there too.
Before last year's game against the Buckeyes, the first of
Enis's college career on Ohio soil, he had said it was the
biggest game of his life, and he had played as if overwhelmed by
that truth (and overwhelmed, to be fair, by a brutal Ohio State
front four, three of whom were seniors). "Curtis is a very
emotional guy," Paterno said before this year's game. "Sometimes
he blurts out things that don't do him a lot of good." But in
the week leading to this year's game Enis throttled his emotions
so thoroughly that he seemed detached. His customary Yessirs and
Nosirs were delivered in clipped monotones, with lifeless eyes.
He built a cocoon and lived in it. Practice, study, eat. Regular
week. From his self-imposed distance, he saw the pressure
building again. Number 2 versus No. 7. Rose Bowl on the line.
Not only did his mother, Thelma, and his father, Lincoln, make
their customary seven-hour drive to State College, but his five
siblings were there, too, and the whole family had never been
together to watch him play, except when gathered in front of a
television set. Still, Enis stayed calm.
Last Saturday evening he found quiet in a small training room
adjacent to the Penn State locker room. His father leaned
against a nearby wall, and Curtis let his emotions spill. "When
I ripped that letter up before the game, I just said to myself,
We'll see who sucks," he said, every word catching in his
throat. "Since I've been playing football, I've been in so many
big games, but this is the first time I've ever won one." Case
in point: In 1993, Enis's senior season at Mississinawa Valley
High in Union City, with the conference title at stake, he
rushed for 371 yards and broke the state single-season rushing
record in a 29-28 loss to rival Ansonia High. "He was
unbelievable," said Roger Jeffers, then the offensive
coordinator for Mississinawa Valley. "Ansonia had given up
something like 800 rushing yards in nine games, and Curtis goes
for 300-plus in one day, and we lose. But you know what? He
didn't cry that day." So he saved it up and cried on this one
instead. "I'm so happy to be part of something like this," Enis
said. Then he fell against his father and locked him up with
both of his meaty arms.
Lincoln and Thelma Enis are responsible for the courtesy Curtis
exhibits, all those Yessirs and Nosirs. "You can teach a little
kid just about anything if you start him out young enough," says
Lincoln. "We worked hard on teaching our kids to respect older
In search of work, Lincoln and Thelma had moved separately to
Union City: Lincoln from Fayette, Ala., and Thelma from Hope,
Ark. Each had children (Lincoln two daughters, Thelma a son)
before they met, married and had three more, of which Curtis was
the second. For 24 years Lincoln has worked on an assembly line
for the Union City Body Company, which manufactures truck parts.
When Curtis and his brothers and sisters were old enough to
care, they clamored for him to take them to the plant, to show
them where Daddy worked. Lincoln refused. "I told them, 'You see
me coming home all cranky and tired every day? That's because of
where I work,'" he recalls. "I told them that factory is no
place you ever want to go. So far none of my kids has ever set
foot in that building." Thelma works most of the year as a
flagger for a paving company, resting only when the cold arrives
and shuts down the operation for the winter.
They were the only black family in Union City, which, except for
the auto body plant, is largely a farming community. When Curtis
was a star as a sophomore at Mississinawa Valley High and his
brother was a senior, both played in a game at Ansonia High,
where they were subjected to the most vile racial invectives.
When Curtis returned two years later for what turned out to be
that 29-28 loss, he didn't hear as much abuse directed at him,
but his sister Alicia become a target. The wounds opened by
these experiences have healed, but their scars remind Curtis how
to take the worst in human behavior and put it to use. "I've
been called a nigger to my face by people," Curtis said after
Saturday's game. "I know how to make things motivate me."
He has long been motivated by Ohio State's marginal interest in
him when he was developing into the state's player of the year
as a senior. One of the school's early recruiting letters was
addressed to Furtis Fenis, a later one to Chris Enis. Yet the
path to making the Buckeyes pay has been circuitous. Enis was a
borderline academic case as a high school senior and thus spent
a year at Kiski Prep in Saltsburg, Pa., near Pittsburgh. In the
fall of 1995, Penn State put him at linebacker, where the
freshman played a few bewildered snaps in the season opener
against Texas Tech. Since the second week of that season he has
been at running back, and the chants of "Heis-man" that followed
him from the field last Saturday suddenly don't seem so
He has the type of body, 6'1", 233 pounds, that wears on
defenders as a game goes on, and so it was against the Buckeyes.
When Penn State took possession with 3:56 to go in the third
quarter, trailing 27-17 after 17 unanswered Ohio State points,
Enis had rushed for a quiet 81 yards on 12 carries. His day was
on the cusp of forgettable; then he broke loose. He started Penn
State's comeback with consecutive carries for 16 yards, leading
to sophomore fullback Aaron Harris's 51-yard touchdown run,
which cut the lead to 27-24 with 20 seconds left in the third
quarter. Enis covered 53 of Penn State's 86 yards on the
game-winning drive and later rumbled for 27 yards after the
Lions were backed up at their own 15 with a little more than six
minutes remaining. He finished with 211 yards on 23 carries.
"I've seen him gain more yards," said Jeffers, "but I've never
seen him better."
Enis was among the last to leave the Penn State dressing room.
Waiting patiently were his family; his girlfriend, Penn State
graduate Heidi Hanna; and her family. There were also high
school friends, college friends and two buddies from Kiski
Prep--one drove from Rochester, N.Y., and the other from
Pittsburgh just to give Enis a hug and a slam across his broad
They were all standing there in the dim light when Enis popped
through a set of steel doors into the cool air, planted his feet
and raised both his arms to the night sky.