Tommy Booker could always run.
To him, football at Vista High School was pretty basic stuff. He did the tricks and worked the magic; his opponents played out the part of the buffoons. He could always run away from opposing tacklers. Give him the smallest opening, and boom, there he went. Through the line, into the secondary and toward a terrific future.
College recruiters visited by day and telephoned by night. Parade magazine picked him first-team All-American. He was rated as the top recruit in the nation by the Dallas Morning News and ranked the fifth-best high school senior in the country by the National High School Recruiting Service.
His classmates all knew him--or of him. Those he didn't know whispered in the halls as he walked by. That's him. Some day, he's going to play in the NFL.
That's what everyone thought, and why not? He was big and strong, quick and fast. Durable.
But somewhere along the line, something happened, something nobody can understand unless they've been the talk of the school, the target of the recruiters, the subject of the spotlight.
You see, when a football game began to speed up during crunch-time, Tommy Booker would take the ball, hug it against his body and take off toward another touchdown. But when his life began to speed up, it wasn't so easy. There were no timeouts or two-minute drills. He couldn't ask the quarterback to throw the ball out of bounds and stop the clock.
Life started going faster and faster, and he couldn't slow it down, and there were so many choices to make, and suddenly . . .
It was about the time he arrived at San Diego State, in the fall of 1987, that his life began turning into one big broken play. A gap opened up the middle, but Booker cut left. A wedge formed around left end, but Booker slashed right.
Some of it was his fault. Some just happened. Injuries. Personal problems. A pregnancy. A marriage. Fatherhood. Confusion. A decision to redshirt last season. A nagging feeling in the back of his mind causing him to wonder if he ever wanted to carry a football again.
Then, one night last fall, while he watched the Aztecs play Brigham Young, his desire returned. He talked with SDSU Coach Al Luginbill. He was back with the program in time for practice last spring.
He pulled a hamstring.
That wasn't all. In the middle of spring practice and during finals week, his wife of two years told him she wanted a divorce.
And now, another season has arrived.
Tommy Booker is back at it, practicing under the hot sun, running, blocking, working. He has not been unlike Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure who was sentenced to roll a boulder uphill for the rest of his life; just when he neared the top, the boulder rolled back downhill, and he started all over again.
What's done is done. Booker practices, in the familiar No. 29 jersey, and he talks, in the familiar voice that is not much more than a whisper. He is entering his junior year of eligibility, and there is no guarantee how much playing time he will get.
The Aztecs have four running backs in the picture--Booker, community college transfer T.C. Wright, Curtis Butts and redshirt freshman Kipp Jeffries. Coming out of the spring, Wright was No. 1 on the depth chart. Luginbill says Booker, 6-feet, 200 pounds, is in the hunt, but still. . . . Much of the glitter is gone. You get the impression that this is a man whose future is slipping away.
"I thought about that," Booker said. "Some people do stuff in high school, as far as playing ability, and some people do stuff in college. I don't know when mine is supposed to stop. Maybe here. Maybe in the next level. We'll see."
During his senior year at Vista in 1986, he rushed for 2,124 yards, then a San Diego County record. USC, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Auburn were among those who called. His decision came down to three schools. He liked SDSU and Washington. His father pushed for Arizona.
"A lot of things happened too fast," said Thomas Booker, Tommy's father. "He didn't have time to sort them out. It was overwhelming for us. We had a very difficult time during that time. I can imagine the stress he was going through.
"If we ever have another son (in that situation), it will never happen like that. It was too much."
Finally, Tommy Booker held a press conference and announced his decision: SDSU.
When you're a schoolboy legend, and you elect to play your football at home, the only thing left to do is step into the starting lineup and rumble for several hundred more yards.
That's not what happened.
He sprained an ankle in 1987, his freshman year. While he sat, junior Paul Hewitt established himself as SDSU's leading rusher. So, come Booker's sophomore year, he sat again. Both years, though, he was the Aztecs' second-leading rusher. In 1987, he gained 246 yards, and he rushed for 214 more in 1988.
His biggest moment of glory came during his freshman season in 1987 when he ran 65 yards for an apparent touchdown during a 47-14 loss at UCLA. Glory? It was nullified by a penalty. Figures.
But there is another play that Booker remembers more, the one that preceded the 65-yard run. Booker took a handoff from quarterback Todd Santos, started up the middle and was met by UCLA strong safety Carnell Lake, who makes his living these days playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"All I remember seeing is Carnell Lake," he said. "When I seen him, it was too late. I wasn't low enough, and he put me straight up on my back. Maybe that's why I got the 65-yarder on the next play. I said, 'I'm not going to do this again.' "
This is the moment Booker remembers most about his college career. Welcome to college football, kid.
They weren't easy years. There were nagging injuries--the ankle, a hamstring, a shoulder. And when people who knew him would ask why he wasn't starting, there wasn't much to do but look down at his feet and start his answer with something like: "Well, uh, you know. . . . "
He decided to redshirt in 1989. He had pulled a hamstring again, and he had some personal problems that he still will not discuss. Regardless of what was bothering him, he had developed a reputation as a guy who was always hurt and didn't want success badly enough. Booker won't argue with the reputation. Maybe success had come too easily to him.
"I wouldn't say I haven't played hard," he said. "But I would say I haven't been fully dedicated as far as being the best player I can be."
He thought long and hard about whether he even wanted to play football again. He thought about his priorities. Then, he looked at his 2-year-old daughter, Desiree.
"I was thinking about dropping out of football completely," he said. "But if I did, I don't know if I could have continued in school. If I didn't go to school and get a degree, then what? A mediocre job? My daughter deserves more than that.
"You never know what can happen if you do well on the football field. Other opportunities may come up."
So he continued--he is majoring in physical education--and, toward the end of last season, during that BYU game, he decided no, this wasn't the way he wanted to finish his football career. He informed Luginbill he would join the team in time for spring practice, which began last April.
A talk with a neighbor had helped as well.
"I was talking with a friend of mine, Mike," Booker said. "He said, 'If you don't go all out and prove yourself, you will doubt yourself once you get out of school and stop playing college football.' He basically said give it all you've got, and you'll feel confident in knowing you tried to do your best. I thought about that a long time."
Spring practice started, and then his wife, Adrienne, told him about the divorce. They had been separated for about a month, but Booker said he figured they would get back together.
"At first, I didn't think she was serious," he said. "But I could tell by the look on her face afterward that she was. I thought we could work it out, but then again. . . . "
Booker and Adrienne had started dating during his senior year of high school. They were married on Valentine's Day, 1987. He was a star football player who had just finished his freshman season at SDSU. She was four years younger and a month or two pregnant.
Booker talks of his attachment to his daughter. He says that he still wishes he and Adrienne could work things out.
"That was very tough for him, being a young, dedicated father," Booker's father said. "We compliment him highly on being so dedicated to his family and baby. He didn't want the divorce. He protested. But he's had to submit to it. It's a hard problem to have. But his focus on football and school is pretty strong. He's determined he is going to do it.
"We talk a lot now. At one time, we went through the father-son breakaway thing. He was trying to claim his own identity. . . . (Now) He's the son I always knew. At one time, I thought maybe I had a stranger. Now, we have a close relationship. We talk quite a bit."
A harsh reality of divorce sometimes is child support, and that's the wild card in this one. The thing is, NCAA rules stipulate that athletes cannot work during the school year.
"We don't know," Booker's father said. "His lawyer says, yes, there is a good possibility that they might tell him to get a job and support his family. Which I can understand.
"I hope that's not the case. I hope she will be a little considerate toward what he is trying to accomplish and allow him to finish his education and his football."
Booker has moved back home with his parents, and says he has worked out an arrangement in which they will help him with child support.
"It should be no problem," Booker said.
He thinks he finally has turned things around. He says he feels good--both physically and mentally. Unlike personal problems in the past, he says, the divorce is not going to affect him.
"I can honestly say it's tough right now, but it's not affecting me on the field or in the classroom," he said. "I've had a lot of help getting through this--from my parents, my church and my pastor, and my friends."
He talks of rediscovering Christ, a part of his life he says he abandoned after high school. He says that because of that, his mind is at ease.
He also says he worked out harder this summer than in any in the past. He and a group of local athletes, including offensive lineman Jack Harrington, a former Rancho Buena Vista All-County player who is now playing at Hawaii, worked out at RBV.
And while working on the hamstring, Booker didn't miss any rehabilitation appointments with SDSU doctors. Head trainer Brian Barry said the strength in Booker's hamstring is 90%, a significant increase from a few months ago.
It will not be easy for him to crack the starting lineup. The top four running backs have all impressed Luginbill. Wright broke eight school records at Mesa Community College last season, rushing for 1,073 yards, and was named community college All-American.
Butts is the only returning running back to have played for the Aztecs in 1989, and he has taken advantage of limited opportunities. He rushed for 156 yards on 17 carries against New Mexico last season. Jeffries had a good spring and tied Butts for the No. 2 running back spot.
Then there's Booker. And there is not much room in the Aztecs' one-back offense.
"Tommy has got to have a good fall camp," Luginbill said. "He knows that."
Said Booker: "I don't know if it's been decided that T.C. is the No. 1 guy right now. If I get a chance to show something or prove something, I'm going to do it, 110%. That's what they want to see.
"To play at this level, you're going to have to give an extra push. (Before) I just did what I needed to to get by. Now, I hate to be doubted--can he play or what?"
There is still talk when Tommy Booker walks by, but now, people see Booker and whisper things about how he is washed up and what a disappointment he has been. As if he personally let them down or something.
Booker hears the whispers and sees the looks. Sure, it bothers him, but he has discovered that all of life isn't lived over 100 yards, from goal-line to goal-line. He is just a kid, 22, who happened to be a pretty good football player. He has been disappointed, too, during the past couple of years, and he has learned that things don't always work out as planned.
"It's one of those things I've learned to live with," he said. "Everything don't go your way all of the time. The coaches tell me if things don't go my way, to work through them. That's what I'm trying to do."
So he straps on his shoulder pads and buckles his helmet, searching for another year or two of magic and hoping his talent supply has not run dry.
There are 2 1/2 weeks left before the Aztecs open the season at Oregon. Booker is still running, hoping to catch up to his past before it disappears completely.
The Aztecs will hold their first scrimmage of the fall at 3:20 p.m. this afternoon on the lower practice field at SDSU. They will also hold their normal practice this morning at 8:40 a.m. As for the scrimmage, SDSU Coach Al Luginbill said there will be officials and the team will run 100-125 plays. "It will be very, very simple from both sides of the ball," Luginbill said. "It's our first time out, we don't want to get too fancy. We'll run our basic offense--quick passing, we'll run the ball. We will not run a lot of our double tight ends.". . . . Linebacker Lou Foster (hamstring) will not participate in the scrimmage, linebacker Sai Niu (hamstring) is doubful, defensive back Zac Stokes (bruised shoulder) is questionable and linebacker Andy Coviello (hip flexor) is probable. . . . Luginbill said he has started drilling the team on rules changes for the coming year, the main one being that the defense can return a fumble in front of the line of scrimmage beginning this year. If there is a fumble in the backfield, the defense is still not allowed to advance the ball. . . . Luginbill on what he plans to do Sunday, the Aztecs' last day off before opening the season Sept. 8: "I'm going to go home and hug my wife. It's her birthday, and I haven't seen her anywhere but here (at SDSU) for two weeks."