In a test of loyalties, football fans in the state of Iowa found themselves cheering both sides in a recent game between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions.
Among Iowans, the Bears are generally the favorite among the 28 National Football League teams. But the presence in the Detroit starting lineup of former Iowa quarterback Chuck Long gave Iowa fans a reason to root for the Lions.
Long, who departed last spring after an illustrious career with the Hawkeyes, completed 12 of 24 passes for 167 yards in his debut as the Lions’ starter on Dec. 15. A newspaper in Des Moines ran an analysis of his play along with a picture of Long leaving the field, surrounded by a crush of photographers.
While Long was at Iowa, he was backed for four years by Mark Vlasic, a strong-armed study in patience who grew up in Pittsburgh with a desire to play in the Big Ten.
Vlasic, who once considered transferring to another school to escape Long’s hold on the starting job, finally got his chance to start in 1986 and handled the job well.
In fact, he is one of the primary reasons the Hawkeyes went 8-3 and won a place opposite San Diego State in the Holiday Bowl.
It was a satisfactory season, but it wasn’t everything Vlasic had anticipated. After a strong start, he was injured in the third game and never recaptured his arm strength and form until the last half of the last game, when he led the Hawkeyes back from a 17-0 deficit to a 30-27 victory.
A healthy Vlasic will pose a test for the San Diego State secondary and, according to Iowa Coach Hayden Fry, should be tempting for the pro scouts, as well.
Although he doesn’t have a name or a set of credentials to rival those of Long, Vlasic could be the quarterback sleeper of the 1987 draft, Fry said.
“He could be a real surprise to people,” Fry said. “There’s no reason to think he wouldn’t have competed with (Michigan’s) Jim Harbaugh for All-Big Ten if he hadn’t been hurt.
“We watched him for four years while Chuck was here and we knew what he could do. In practice, he might complete 28 of 32 passes while Chuck was 32 for 32 or something. The only thing we didn’t know about Mark was how he’d do when the bullets started flying.”
Vlasic quickly provided an answer as the Hawkeyes breezed through their first three games.
In the season opener, he completed 15 of 25 passes for 286 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 43-7 victory over Iowa State. The next week, he was 9 for 18 for 123 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 57-3 rout of Northern Illinois. In the third game, he was 9 for 12 for 135 yards and 2 scores before suffering a dislocated shoulder in a 69-7 victory over Texas El Paso.
At the time of his injury, he was No. 1 in the country in passing efficiency.
After an incomplete recovery from the injury left his arm at less than optimum strength, Vlasic shared the job with sophomore Tom Poholsky for the rest of the season.
Poholsky, whose father was a former teammate of St. Louis Cardinals baseball star Stan Musial, had a solid year. He was the starter in four of Iowa’s five Big Ten victories.
The week after Vlasic was hurt, Poholsky completed 18 of 29 passes for 240 yards and a touchdown in a 24-21 victory over Michigan State in a game played on national television.
Vlasic, unable to reclaim the job he waited so long to inherit, finished the season ranked third in the Big Ten and fifth in the nation in pass efficiency as he completed 93 of 152 passes for a .612 percentage, 1,234 yards, 9 touchdowns and 4 interceptions.
Easily his most impressive game after the injury was in the second half of the Minnesota game, which Poholsky started.
With Iowa trailing, 17-0, at halftime, Fry changed quarterbacks and Vlasic delivered 16 completions in 21 attempts for 199 yards as the Hawkeyes rallied for a 30-27 victory.
Vlasic said he had no regrets about spending four seasons watching Long get the playing time and the headlines.
“I wanted a chance to play at a Big Ten school, and I got it,” he said. “It just turned out that I got hurt after my chance came.”
Vlasic said he has tried to use Long’s success as a source of motivation. He avoided putting pressure on himself early in the season, but the injury changed things.
“I think I came back before I should have,” Vlasic said. “I didn’t have all the strength back in my arm. It wasn’t hurting that bad, especially when the game started, but I couldn’t put the ball on a line the way I wanted.
“I think that sort of hurt us against Ohio State (a 31-10 loss in which he split time with Poholsky). I wasn’t able to throw the ball over the middle like I should. The ball just sort of died off.”
As he later showed against Minnesota, Vlasic’s arm is nearly back to full strength, and he hopes to show it off against the Aztecs next week.
“I’ll need to be near 100% to throw well against a defense with so much quickness,” he said. “They like to bring their linebackers (in a blitzing situation) and they do a lot of things with their defensive backs.
“I know they are going to be ready for us. This is a chance to find out how good we really are. Iowa hasn’t had much luck in situations where we played a bowl on grass at the home of the other team (losing to Florida in the 1983 Gator Bowl and to UCLA in the 1986 Rose Bowl). We want to turn that around if we can.”
Vlasic said he doesn’t have a feel for his chances in the NFL.
“I’d like a shot at it, but I don’t know where I stand,” he said. “I waited four years to see if I could play big-time college football. Now I’d like to see if I can play pro ball.”