Syracuse University quarterback Don McPherson, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, was a 15-year-old freshman the day his father first saw him practicing with a high school team.
A New York city police detective at the time, Gene McPherson, formerly a boxer, said Wednesday that he went to that first scrimmage with one of his two older sons, Mark.
Like father, like son: Mark is a middleweight boxer, and Miles, the eldest son, played cornerback for several years for the San Diego Chargers.
So Gene could grin and bear it when his baby, Don, looked like anything but an athlete in his high school debut, playing poorly.
Turning to Mark, he said: “Two out of three ain’t bad.”
It is in the record that for Don McPherson, life as a football player shortly improved, and then took off. And this week he’s in New Orleans as a bowl-game celebrity.
His teammates call him Donnie Mack, this guy who led Syracuse through an 11-0 season, and Donnie Mack wants to carve one more notch on his pistol here Friday in the Sugar Bowl game against Auburn (9-1-1).
“People have taken us lightly for a few years,” he said, noting that the Syracuse Orangemen have had some hard times since Larry Csonka and Jim Brown left. “We’ve got to show them that Syracuse is for real again.”
Well, fair enough. But what New Orleans really wanted Syracuse to show this week was Donnie Mack out and about, strolling down Canal Street or the River Walkway, at least, if not Bourbon Street. But he hasn’t left his hotel room except to practice passing.
This has disappointed the natives, who had heard some good things about McPherson. They know that:
--He is the nation’s best-dressed college student. Since high school, in fact, he has always worn a suit and tie--even to classes--often with button-down shirts and gold cuff links.
--He won the college passing championship this season, overtaking UCLA’s Troy Aikman in the final weeks.
--He toured the country as a Kodak All-American and that, although he stands only 6 feet and weighs only 189 pounds, his goal is to be an all-pro quarterback.
--He is perceived as the precise opposite of Brian Bosworth. An Establishment man, McPherson is well groomed, well read, civilized, focused and pleasant.
--His great passion is jazz music and therefore the citizens of New Orleans have been looking for McPherson all week after dark on Bourbon Street.
They look in vain--although the team’s curfew in New Orleans has been as late as 2 a.m.
“Don’t tell anybody, but I haven’t made a curfew yet,” McPherson said, smiling. “I try, but I always fall asleep.”
To New Orleans people, the great irony of Sugar Bowl week is that this 22-year-old jazz buff has been using his small hotel room as a studio--for the tapes he brought from home--when the city’s most famous music centers are featuring much of the same stuff, live, no more than a long third-down pass away.
Every night, the harmonies of Dixieland jazz, the booms and cries of hard rock, and the syrupy sounds of country music--among other amusements--are available in the French Quarter nearby, and McPherson’s teammates have repeatedly come over for samples. Back at the hotel, though, every night, the quarterback marches to his own jazz drummers.
“Donnie hasn’t enjoyed New Orleans half as much as the other kids,” said Syracuse Coach Dick MacPherson.
Said Donnie: “I suppose some people think of me as a loner, but I’m really not that. At school, I go out to (hear) music all the time.
“The difference is that I know those people there. They don’t expect anything of me except to sit and listen. And when we talk, I don’t have to talk football.”
Coach MacPherson, who is no relation although he says, “I wish I had a son like Donnie,” is of the opinion that celebrities and crowds are always incompatible in close proximity.
“It isn’t any fun having strangers pull and grab at you, and that’s what happens to Donnie now when he goes out,” MacPherson said.
“When he was one of the boys, he used to be like anyone else--having fun everywhere--but he’s too well known to be one of the boys now.
“It’s very tiring to be a celebrity--to be the most famous football player in the East. The attention wears on you. Donnie’s smart enough to see that the thing he’s absolutely got to have is his rest.”
After football practice one afternoon at the Superdome, the young quarterback said he wants to come back for a few nights of New Orleans jazz some other time--when he can come incognito, bringing his father along--which leads to a question:
In the rock era, how does it happen that a college student is a jazz fan--even if he is a strange kind of college student who hates jeans, studies psychology because he delights in it, and speaks as precisely as a tenured professor?
“My parents were both born on the island of Jamaica, where my grandfather owned a night club,” McPherson said.
“The club was called the Silver Slipper, and in the ‘30s and ‘40s, my grandfather, Milton McPherson led the Silver Slipper big band.
“He loved the music, and so does my father. When dad drives around, his car is always tuned to the jazz station. I tune into my tapes.”
McPherson has more than 200 jazz tapes, he said, and he travels with a representative collection, plus ear phones and a player.
“I don’t play an instrument myself,” he said. “I’m just a listener, and I like all good jazz, from Nat King Cole and Count Basie and Illinois Jacquet to (violinist) Jean Luc Ponty and the other great musicians playing today.
“If you were to come across me somewhere tomorrow, likely as not I’d be listening to Nat Cole, or maybe the Lionel Hampton big band. I’ve come to know (Hampton) pretty well. He likes to call up and talk football. He talks football to me and I talk music to him.”
His friends all say that McPherson would rather play football than discuss it, and his father can’t remember when the reverse was true, if ever.
The family home is in West Hempstead, N.Y., a Long Island suburb 42 minutes by train from Times Square. The high school in West Hempstead specializes in basketball and played inferior football when Donnie was a boy.
They played good football, though, in the next school district, Malverne, where his aunt lives.
“So I registered at my aunt’s house and went to Malverne,” he said. “I wanted my skills to be noticed because I’ve always planned to be a quarterback, college and pro. At Malverne, your chances triple.”
His decision was fine by Malverne but upsetting to West Hempstead, which assigned the local police force to shadow McPherson and prove that he was breaking conference rules.
This required some extemporizing, which comes easily to a prospective pro quarterback.
Donnie simply got up at 5 every morning and, before dawn, rode a bicycle to his aunt’s house.
“When it was time to go to school, I just opened the door and walked out as if I lived there,” he said.
The police never caught on, and a month or so later they gave up. Donnie’s luck had held again.
“My brothers called me Leprechaun,” he said. “We have a pool table at home, and I grew up beating both of them. The only thing they ever admit is that I’m luckier than they are.”
And, of course, a better football player.
How good is he?
“He’s our team,” said Coach MacPherson.
Bill Lyon of the Knight-Ridder News Service, writing this week, said: “Seldom in this age of specialized talent has one team depended so much on one player.”
McPherson led Syracuse in both rushing and passing in both 1985 and ’86 before his coaches changed to pro formations this season.
Commenting on that, offensive coach George DeLeone said: “Donnie is the only quarterback in football who could start for both BYU (a passing team) and Oklahoma (a running team).”
McPherson would rather throw the ball than run it, though, for strictly one reason.
“That’s what they want pro quarterbacks to do,” he said.
Will he be drafted high by the pros?
“His arm is as strong as Joe Montana’s,” said Gil Brandt, vice president of the Dallas Cowboys.
Said New England’s Dick Steinberg: “A lot depends on the Sugar Bowl game.”
McPherson expects to go in the first round, even though he is three inches shorter than the average first-round quarterback.
“Football is played with the mind, not the body,” he said. “Passes are thrown with the head, not the arm. I know what it takes to play football well, and I’ve got it.”
As long ago as 1985, when he was just settling in as the varsity quarterback, one of his Syracuse professors, Marshall Segall, said: "(McPherson) has a kind of unquestioning confidence in his ability, coupled with an incredible humbleness.”
Not many football players have that mix.
Donnie has been the cockiest of the McPhersons since boyhood. Cockier than his father, anyhow.
Gene McPherson--who has brought the whole family to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl--remembers that he spent the entire first half of Donnie’s first Malverne game standing behind the end zone.
“Dad’s a competitor, and he couldn’t decide who’d win,” Donnie said. “He didn’t want to sit on the losing side.”
Only after Donnie had helped Malverne to a 21-0 lead did Gene climb up and crowd in with Malverne’s fans.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Donnie’s dad.”