He was only 16 years old during his senior year of high school and should have been thinking more about college and less about football. So, his father pulled one of the oldest tricks in the book. He packed him off to military school.
One year later, the kid returned to his Elmont, N.Y., neighborhood, not far from the Belmont race track. Gone were the thick black curls that mopped his head. Gone was the nonchalant manner that had accompanied him through four years of classes at Sewanhaka High. Left standing in front of his startled friends was a 6-foot-5, 215-pound, clean-shaven, crew-cut, shiny-shoed teen-ager with good posture.
Sgt. Vinny Testaverde.
What he remembers most is: “They teased me about the hair.” But he also recalls how impressed everybody seemed to be with the discipline Fork Union Military Academy had given him, even while they were ribbing him about making sergeant and about all those advertisements for the Army that invite a guy to be all that he can be.
None of them was all that surprised that he became one of the best passers in college football, a quarterback who gets to show his stuff on prime-time television in Wednesday night’s Sugar Bowl game between Miami and Tennessee.
It was always in Vinny Testaverde to be more than just another quarterback. His high school coach knew it, even when he was preparing Testaverde for the tribulations of playing behind a woeful offensive line by telling the kid to practice passing while lying flat on his back. His advice to Vinny: Be prepared for anything.
Sure enough, college tested him. Mostly it tested his patience, because when Testaverde enrolled at the University of Miami, the starting quarterback was Jim Kelly, who was good enough to go on and become the most exciting passer in the United States Football League. And as soon as Kelly left Miami, the job fell to Bernie Kosar, who left school last spring to sign a contract with the Cleveland Browns of the NFL.
Testaverde was thrown for a loss. Even during the fall practice sessions before the season of 1983, he believed he was neck-and-neck with Kosar for the first-string assignment.
“Evidently there wasn’t a hair’s worth of difference between us,” Testaverde said. When current Coach Jimmy Johnson’s predecessor, Howard Schnellenberger, called the quarterbacks into his office to render his decision, Testaverde could not believe his ears. He said he felt “cold and lonely.”
It got worse. Kosar and the Hurricanes dropped their season opener that year, to Florida, by an embarrassing 28-3. Testaverde, while liking Kosar personally, thought the coaches might regret their choice. But Kosar recovered enough to have a remarkable season, winning the rest of Miami’s games, including an Orange Bowl upset of Nebraska that put Miami on top of the national polls.
“Great for Bernie and the team,” Testaverde said. “But not so great for me.”
The next season, naturally, the job was Kosar’s without a fight. School passing records fell, left and right. And through it all, Testaverde stood on the sidelines, bored and rusty.
“I finally made up my mind to transfer to another school,” Testaverde said. “And that’s when Bernie came up to me and told me he was thinking about turning pro. He told me I should think about sticking around.”
He waited. “I decided whatever Bernie would do, I would do the opposite,” Testaverde said. Stay or go, he meant; not turn pro. Miami ended its season Jan. 1 in the Fiesta Bowl, but Kosar did not officially announce that he was leaving until March 14. And what a day that turned out to be.
Miami wound up with a quarterback who may very well be better than Kosar. Testaverde passed for 3,238 yards this season, led the Hurricanes to a 10-1 record and a shot at the national championship.
“My life hasn’t changed too much,” Testaverde said here Monday. “Except, like I was telling a friend the other day, I sure am a lot happier person than I was a year ago today.”
Testaverde can do things Kosar could never do. “They look alike and they’re built alike and they’re both great,” Johnson said. “And I don’t intend to do a comparison between them, but it’s obvious to almost anybody that Vinny has a stronger arm and quicker feet. He’s better at scrambling out of trouble. Vinny Testaverde is the best quarterback I have ever been around. But I’d take either one of them in a minute. In a second.”
Testaverde has one year remaining at Miami, having redshirted in 1983 after Kosar beat him out of the job. Even then he was so eager to get into a game that when Kosar got his bell rung during the final regularly scheduled game of the season, against Florida State, Testaverde rushed up to the coaches and volunteered to go in. He would have sacrificed an entire season’s eligibility for a chance to play a few downs.
When a linebacker or defensive back is unable to win a starting job, at least he can play on special teams. A running back can return kicks. All Testaverde could do was warm up on the sidelines. He arrived on campus in 1982 and by spring practice of 1985 he was a college quarterback with 22 complete passes.
Still, the word was out on him. The “better than Kosar” talk persisted. Johnson told any Miami booster who would listen that there would be no need to worry about the school’s passing game going to pot. “If we turn out to have a three-yards-and-cloud-of-dust offense, the cloud of dust will be me leaving,” the coach joked.
Not to worry. Even though Testaverde, just as Kosar had, started off with a losing effort in the season opener with Florida, he won the rest of his games, placed fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and was named the top quarterback in college football by the Touchdown Club in Washington, D.C. He threw for 339 yards and four touchdowns against Florida State and 356 yards against Notre Dame.
The kid with the thick black hair and the permanent 5 o’clock shadow has come a long way since military school. “I guess all those spotless rooms and folded clothes paid off,” he said with a smile.
“I’m serious, in a way. My feet are on the ground now. I learned to be serious about myself. There’s still a lot to be accomplished. I haven’t really won anything yet. If we lose to Tennessee, there go our dreams of being No. 1. We have to be mentally sharp. If the academy taught me anything, it’s that I have to stay mentally sharp.”
Maybe every high school kid ought to go to military school for a year, then.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Sgt. Testaverde said.