They say it's a long road to the Heisman Trophy, but in the case
of UCLA quarterback Cade McNown, it's possible to be more
specific: 600 miles of Interstate 5. In the summer of 1994,
after his junior year in high school, McNown packed his life
into a VW Rabbit, put the dusty farming town of Hollister,
Calif., in his rearview mirror and pointed north for the sleepy
Portland suburb of West Linn, Ore. Thus began the unlikely
journey that has taken him to the top of this fall's list of
contenders for college football's most prestigious award. Four
years ago his football prospects were as bleak as a deserted
highway, owing to a sophomore season at Hollister's San Benito
High spent on a weak, run-oriented team that underused his
passing skills, and a junior season aborted after four games by
an emergency appendectomy. But a failing football career was
hardly the most painful issue he was dealing with at the time.
When Cade left Hollister and headed to West Linn to live with
the in-laws of his older brother, Jeff Jr., he did so because
his parents' divorce had left him few other choices. His mother,
Vicki, and his two younger sisters were planning a move later
that summer to West Linn. (Jeff Jr. would move there in 1995.)
Cade had become so estranged from his father, Jeff, whom he was
upset with over the family breakup, that he hit the road without
so much as a goodbye to him, beginning four years of silence
between father and son. Recalling his exodus from Hollister,
Cade says, "People are born in that town, they live their whole
life in that town, and they die in that town because they are
afraid to try anything else. I wasn't afraid to see how far I
could go. I wasn't afraid to fail.... It was kind of like
starting a new life."
Being born again might be a better way of putting it. In West
Linn, McNown found renewal that was spiritual as well as
athletic. A stellar senior season at West Linn High earned him a
full ride to UCLA, and in three seasons as the Bruins' starting
quarterback he has roused their hibernating program. Last year,
in leading UCLA to a 10-game winning streak and a stirring
victory over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, McNown, a 6'1",
214-pound lefthander, put together one of the finest college
football seasons ever. His 168.6 quarterback efficiency rating
not only led the nation but was also a Pac-10 record and the
12th-highest figure in NCAA history. Much of his genius is in
his ability to scramble and improvise, to create something
beautiful once the structure has broken down. He has done the
same with his life.
"On TV they always say he's from West Linn," says Cade's father,
nursing a soft drink poolside in the backyard of his home in
Hollister. "He's fourth generation in this town, and this is
where he learned to play football. One year away from home
doesn't change any of that. He may want to pretend he was never
here, but he was."
August 30, 1998
It's no wonder Cade was able to forget Hollister. He was West
Linn High's punter, punt returner and an all-stater as both a
body-rocking free safety and rocket-armed quarterback. After a
5-4 regular season, McNown led the Lions to three upsets in the
playoffs before they were beaten in the state semifinals. In
Hollister he hadn't even attracted the attention of the local
junior college football coaches, but as he became successful for
the Lions, the big-time colleges came calling. McNown's season
in West Linn's pro-style offense was his first as a true
drop-back quarterback, and, says Lions coach George Crace, "Cade
came so far so fast it was just incredible."
The same could be said of McNown's spiritual journey. Shortly
after moving in with Linda and Dale Ebel, the pastor of Rolling
Hills Community Church, Cade was struck by Jeff Jr.'s renewed
devotion to Christianity. "He had this peace about him I really
admired," says Cade. "I had lived my whole life not being
accountable to anyone or anything, and I realized there was
That Jeff Jr. would have a profound influence on Cade is no
surprise. Jeff Jr., who is four years older, had spent three
seasons as the starting quarterback at San Benito High and had
sparked Cade's interest in becoming a quarterback. "Jeff has
always been my hero," Cade says. Inspired and encouraged by
Jeff, the Ebels and others in West Linn, Cade was baptized in a
friend's swimming pool in the spring of his senior year.
"Fatherless kids reach out for guidance," says Cade. "Some find
it in MTV, some in gangs. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by
godly, Christian men."
McNown is loath to impose his religious views on others, but
it's impossible not to be struck by how squeaky clean he is.
"Cade's a good-living, high-morals guy," says UCLA coach Bob
Toledo. "I've never heard him swear. I know he doesn't drink or
He's also a dedicated student--his grade point average has been
as high as 3.65, and he's on track for a degree in history--who
would rather spend his time talking to church congregations,
which he does in the off-season, than tripping the light
fantastic in El Lay. It has been reported that McNown hasn't had
a steady girlfriend while at UCLA. He refutes the charge with a
laugh and says, "Girls in L.A. are a little different. If I was
looking just to hook up, this would be the right place. But I
don't want something shallow."
"He would rather sleep with his football," says Troy Aikman, a
former Bruin who has become a friend and mentor to McNown.
Vicki disputes some of what is said about her son's goody-goody
image. "Cade will say 'goshdarnit' once in a while," she claims,
but then adds, "What makes him a good athlete is the way he
practices, and it's the same with people. Cade knows that to be
the man he wants to be, it takes practice. That means
surrounding himself with the right kind of people, participating
in the right kind of activities, even listening to the right
kind of music."
All this may come as a surprise to the folks in Hollister,
because McNown admits to having been something of a bully while
growing up there. His father still gets a chuckle recalling the
time Cade wrapped a friend's car around a pole, the time Cade
snuck off with the family Jeep and got it stuck in a flooded
riverbed, the time.... "I guarantee you people in Hollister have
a different perception of me than the people in West Linn," says
Cade. "Just goes to show that people can change, even if small
towns never do."
It's a sunny summer day at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, in
Cornelius, Ore., and McNown is showing off an unusual talent.
This has nothing to do with the fact that he hits a volatile mix
of majestic 300-yard drives and ground balls to shortstop. He's
taking a pop quiz on Heisman Trophy winners.
"John David Crow."
"Bo Jack.... No, Herschel Walker."
McNown can recite every winner since the first, Jay Berwanger in
1935, a list he memorized while in high school.
This brings only a knowing smile.
It was 31 years ago that quarterback Gary Beban became the only
Bruin to win the Heisman, and no one from UCLA has sniffed it
since. McNown finished eighth in last year's balloting after
throwing for at least 200 yards in each of the Bruins' 11
regular-season games and for 22 touchdowns with just five
interceptions. Among returning Heisman vote-getters, only Texas
running back Ricky Williams, with his fifth-place finish, fared
better. While Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch, another early
favorite, will probably have gaudier numbers this season, McNown
is sure to have the better team. All this could lead to
HEISMANIA! as it says on billboards that have sprouted like
weeds across Los Angeles as part of UCLA's attempt to sell both
McNown's candidacy and season tickets.
While underestimating his physical gifts, which are
considerable, those around McNown usually attribute his success
to the kind of intangibles that aren't measured at the NFL
scouting combine: his grounded attitude--"He doesn't get that
big brain," says a teammate, tailback Jermaine Lewis--and his
work ethic. "Cade is a voracious learner," says Toledo, who then
tells one of his favorite stories about McNown. It seems that
after McNown signed with the Bruins, he persuaded Toledo, then
the UCLA offensive coordinator, to send him the Bruins'
playbook. "Pretty soon my home phone began ringing off the hook,
usually at around 11 at night, because Cade had thought of a new
question," says Toledo.
"I don't know if I've ever seen a guy at his age  who is as
much a student of the game as Cade is," says Aikman, a poster of
whom competes with one of Dan Marino for wall space at the guest
house McNown rents on a leafy street in Bel-Air. (It's not as
cushy as the neighborhood suggests.) Aikman and McNown became
friends last December when they dined together the week of the
Cotton Bowl, a game in which McNown was selected most
outstanding offensive player after bringing UCLA back from a
16-0 deficit to a 29-23 victory. "He's got a commitment to his
team and a commitment to winning that is pretty rare," says
Aikman. "I'm real proud of Cade, the way he handles himself and
what he stands for."
In June, for the first time since fleeing Hollister, Cade spoke
to his father, who had traveled to West Linn for a family party
celebrating the graduations of Jeff Jr. from chiropractic
college and of Alyssa, the younger of Cade's sisters, from high
school. "We said hi. It was no big deal," Cade says. "He doesn't
even feel like my father anymore."
The elder Jeff says he isn't discouraged by Cade's attitude.
This season, just as he has the previous three, he will journey
to all of UCLA's home games, where he will sit in the stands and
cheer for his son--but make no attempt to contact him at game's
end. "He blames me for the divorce, which I can't help," says
Jeff. "But for a guy who's become so religious, whatever
happened to forgiveness?"
Says Cade, "He has never taken responsibility for his actions."
But the answer may be more complicated than that. Leaving
Hollister made Cade as a person and as a player. He isn't
inclined to look back.
Much of his genius is in his ability to scramble, to create
something beautiful once the structure has broken down.
"I had lived my whole life not being accountable to anyone...and
I realized there was something missing."