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In His Spot, You Would Smile, Too

The thing about Rodney Peete, the Heisman Trophy candidate, is that he always looks as if he just heard they found oil in his back yard. Or as if he’s just heard the best joke he’s ever heard in his life. Guys selling insurance don’t smile that much.

If I were across the line of scrimmage from Rodney Peete, it would begin to bug me. You’d be tempted to call time and say, “What’s so funny, Rodney?” and wonder if he knows something you don’t.

A great quarterback has to have confidence. If you start to have self-doubts, you’re Marc Wilson. Rodney has the confidence of the guy who owns the casino. He’s as cheerful as a sunrise, as optimistic as a bluebird. He’s always sure the next card will be an ace, the next hole will be a birdie and there’s always a chance God is a Trojan.

Rodney has a reason to keep smiling. All he can smell are roses. Everywhere he looks is money. He only has one problem: He doesn’t know where his first million is coming from--baseball or football.

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Heisman Trophy candidates are nothing new for USC. And when Rodney Peete showed up, he looked right in the mold--6 feet 2 inches, 195 pounds, 4.4-second speed, good moves, sure hands. And a nice smile. All he needed was the ball.

There was one slight snag in the script. Rodney Peete thought he was a quarterback.

Well, at some schools, this is all well and good. Brigham Young. Stanford. But at USC, the quarterback is the butler.

“You want to win a Heisman handing the ball to somebody?” well-meaning friends would freak out to Rodney. They wondered why he didn’t just follow Student Body Right into glory, like all the other USC speedsters. They reminded him that Heisman winner Marcus Allen came to USC as a quarterback, too--until somebody realized that if you spent the day having Marcus Allen give the ball to someone else, you had just made your first mistake.

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Even though he smiled a lot, Peete was stubborn. “I had been a quarterback since I was 8 years old. As soon as they started to talk about running back or wide receiver or defensive back, they lost me.” Literally.

At USC, historically, the quarterback had just been the tailback’s caddy. Give him the ball and get out of the way. And at first, USC could be pardoned for thinking they just had, in Peete, a kind of complicated tailback, a situation where they could say, “Oh, just let him throw the ball once in a while. What if it is incomplete? We’ll just run the ball in as usual.”

Except that, as soon as they saw Rodney Peete throw the football, they knew that Tailback U. would not be the same again. It was like having John Unitas’ arm--and accuracy--on O. J. Simpson’s legs. Rodney Peete, like Johnny U., was born to throw the football. The Trojan attack went from Student Body Right to Student Body Out for a Long One.

Rodney has a chance to be the greatest ever at the position, because he knows it from different levels. First of all, Dad was a coach at Arizona when he was growing up. Then, Rodney was a wide receiver, catching 49 passes and scoring 15 touchdowns in Tucson as a high school player. He knows what happens out there in the pattern. He played defense. He knows how to handle a safety blitz because he was one. He is as hard to sack as wet cotton.

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So, it’s on to the Heisman, the Rose Bowl, the Super Bowl, the Canton Hall of Fame for Rodney, whose nickname on campus is Sweet Sweet?

Not so fast!

Rodney, you see, besides being a quarterback-wide receiver-punter-runner is a third baseman-shortstop. A good one. Peete is a natural-born .350 hitter with power--12 home runs this spring--and, of course, a major league arm. The Oakland Athletics want him right now.

College baseball is at a disadvantage as a glamour event. As a campus hero, the baseball star ranks several rungs below the footballer. Most people at USC were surprised to find that American League slugger Mark McGwire once went there. Everybody knew O. J. Simpson had gone there. Football teams attract bigger crowds in the locker room than baseball does at the games.

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Rodney Peete demoralized an overmatched but dogged Boston College team Thursday night. Ahead lie only Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Washington, Arizona and UCLA. But the stadium was sold out at Boston, the game was televised nationally, the sportswriters were out in force. It made football look like Athens, everything else look like Bixby’s Corners.

If Rodney Peete one day stars for the Miami Dolphins, undergraduates at USC won’t be startled into saying, “I didn’t know he went here!” He’s as recognizable a figure on campus as the statue of Tommy Trojan. But just in case you’re not sure, he’ll be the one smiling. And asking you, ‘How’s it going?’.


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