It is Ken Lutz's job to make quick decisions. His ability to make the right choice on a given play is the reason he became the starting quarterback at San Jose State.
But the most important decision he made came off the field.
A year ago he asked himself: "Was I going to be a college quarterback or a college partier?"
At the time, he was better qualified to be the latter.
Lutz had been a leader on winning football teams wherever he played, first at Royal High, then at Moorpark College. He was a little small for a quarterback--6 feet, 177 pounds--but he was gifted with a strong arm and a sixth sense that allowed him to elude defenders he never saw.
But because he was sitting behind All-American quarterback Mike Perez, he didn't get many opportunities to display those skills. So Lutz did most of his celebrating away from the football field.
Lutz says his first two years at San Jose were full of late-night parties and barhopping.
"The college atmosphere is a party atmosphere. You go to school and then at night it's fraternity parties and going to bars and having a good old time," Lutz said. "I hadn't experienced that. Simi Valley is a pretty small town compared to here. You come here and it's wide open. You think, 'This is great.' "
And it was, until Lutz saw his grades and his athletic skills slip.
"I had problems on the field because I couldn't compete well enough because my body wasn't at 100%," Lutz said. "And I got myself in academic trouble because I wasn't going to class because I was waking up with hangovers.
"Finally, I reached a point in my life where I said, 'Hey, man, you're either going to be a starter and graduate, or just stay in this rut and be a nobody.' So I decided to hit the emergency brake, turn it around and head down the right road again."
That road started in the San Jose weight room. Where and when it will end is difficult to tell.
Lutz has not only taken over for Perez, who has exhausted his eligibility, but he is threatening to make people forget him as well.
In four games, he has completed 88 of 133 passes (66.3%) for 1,114 yards and 5 touchdowns. His per-game average of 283.5 yards in total offense is sixth best in the nation.
But he has proven he can be an adept leader as well as an accurate passer. With San Jose State trailing 16th-ranked Washington, 28-0, in the second quarter last Saturday in Seattle, Lutz rallied the Spartans to a 31-28 lead with 4:08 to play. Washington ended up winning on a touchdown run by Tony Covington, but Lutz's effort was not lost on San Jose State Coach Claude Gilbert, who lauded his quarterback's "courageous performance."
Lutz was so sore the week before that he had not practiced in pads. He had been sacked a total of 14 times in losses to Hawaii and Oregon State in the previous two games.
But that did not hamper his performance. Against Oregon State, Lutz completed 35 of 43 passes for 421 yards and 2 touchdowns, the seventh-highest yardage total in San Jose State history.
The loss to Washington dropped the Spartans to 1-3, and, considering that Cal and Stanford are next on the schedule, that could get worse. San Jose was 10-2 and the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. (now the Big West Conference) champion in 1987. The Spartans also led the nation in passing for the second year in a row. But if they don't match that this season, don't blame the quarterback: San Jose State has only two offensive starters back.
"Kenny can do all the things Perez did for us if we can provide him with the same supporting cast," Gilbert said. "We're learning, going through the rookie stages with our offense. Until we gain some experience and know-how, he's going to have to do a lot of it on his own. And he has."
But if Lutz, forever feisty and confident, is burdened by the challenge, he masks it well. Perhaps that is because he is having fun despite the team's slow start.
"When I came out of Royal I wasn't looking for an offense where I could lead the nation. I just wanted to play Division I football," Lutz said. "Now I realize I'm in an offense that has a chance to lead the nation. We have a great coach and a great system. If you do things right within that system you can make yourself known. That's what I plan on doing."
As a high school senior, Lutz had a Division I scholarship offer from Brigham Young, but it was as a punter. So he went to Moorpark and became the school's first freshman starter at quarterback.
The Raiders were 6-5 that season, but in Lutz's sophomore year Moorpark was 8-2 and won the Western State Conference championship.
Surely, he thought, the offers would roll in. At first, it was more like a trickle. Only Washburn College of Kansas, an NAIA school, was interested.
"I was going there, I had my bags packed," Lutz said. But a couple of weeks before he was going to leave, San Jose called.
He would have to battle two other junior college transfers, Perez and Tony Locy, for playing time. It was a close battle but Lutz had his redshirt year left, so they asked him to use it.
Perez led the nation in total offense that year. Locy came in as a substitute one game and was named PCAA Player of the Week.
So when last season started, Lutz was still sitting behind the same two players.
Lutz called the coaches at Washburn. They were still interested but did not have a scholarship to offer.
"I didn't like that idea," Lutz said. "If I was going away somewhere and play, I was going to go for free."
"We had some serious discussions," said Dan Henson, coach of San Jose State's quarterbacks and receivers. "He was doing a lot of soul-searching. He said, 'Coach, I don't know if I can sit for two years, then maybe be the guy my third year.' "
The San Jose coaches asked him to stay. That was all he needed to hear.
"I decided that I came up here with a purpose," Lutz said, "and that was to play quarterback for a Division I football team. San Jose had built a reputation for passing. I wanted to be a part of that."
Lutz says he might have won the starting position in his first year at San Jose State had he concentrated on his studies and football.
"I let my focus get away from me," he said. "I put football and school second, night life first. That was my mistake. I let other players who were focusing on the field get the edge on me."
It was a lesson Lutz had to learn the hard way.
"You come up here and say, 'Yeah, back home, I'm big stuff. So I'm going to come up here and everyone is going to know who I am,' " Lutz said. "Well, it doesn't work like that. Everyone brings their own clippings and you can put them all together in a stack and torch them because they don't mean a thing. What you have is a bunch of great athletes and the jobs go to whoever works the hardest.
Lutz credits Perez, a seventh-round draft choice of the New York Giants who is on the injured reserve list, with an assist in helping him return to form.
"Mike and I were good friends and the more I was around him, I started to pick up some of his characteristics," Lutz said. "He worked hard in the weight room, did all the things he could to prepare himself. I decided if I was going to win that spot, I'd have to do the same. I just threw out everything . . . and focused on two things: going to school and playing football with 100% motivation."
Which meant alcohol was out.
"It wasn't something I couldn't handle, I just needed to give myself every advantage," Lutz said. "Alcohol takes so many days to get out of your system. You just feel dead. You drink so much and your body can only give so much. I realized that if I wanted to win a spot I needed to give my body a chance."
Lutz says he still considers himself a "wide-open type guy" but now knows when to call it quits. "I'm still a comedian off the field," he said. "If I've changed it's that now when people see me out at night at a bar, I'm drinking water."