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Freedom Bowl : His Lean Years Have Passed : College football: Coach Bruce gave Mike Gimenez, Colorado State’s quarterback, his big break.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The worst moment, Mike Gimenez. Think hard.

He looks back at you, incredulous. The worst? He will be the starting quarterback for Colorado State in the Freedom Bowl Saturday, but back then? Back then it was bad. You want him to single out one moment?

“Everything was a worst moment,” Gimenez said. “You’re sitting there, not playing, and the score is 52-7.”

What’s worse than not playing? How about not even playing in practice ? How about sitting on the bench for a team that loses 10 games one season, 11 the next?

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The coaches looked at his quarterbacking skills his freshman year and made Gimenez a running back. As a sophomore, he wasn’t even on the Rams’ three-deep roster. Did anybody type up a 13-deep? That’s how far down he says he was. He didn’t make the scout-team three-deep for a team that went 1-10.

“We won two games in two years,” Gimenez said. “It would have been easier sitting if we won seven, eight, nine games each year. But when you’re not winning, you say, ‘Well, why aren’t I playing?’ We were 1-10, 1-11. They couldn’t have been that good.”

His mother, Paula, convinced him to stick it out. He was on scholarship, after all, and you never get another chance to play college football.

Thank goodness, Gimenez thought, thank goodness.

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“I thought about quitting,” he said. “It was not very fun.”

It was not fun for anyone, those difficult final seasons under Leon Fuller, who was 25-55 in seven seasons.

“I don’t think he liked me, and I didn’t particularly like him either,” Gimenez said. “When you’re not winning, everyone starts pointing the finger.”

Then Earle Bruce came to town, replacing Fuller. Gimenez saw his opening.

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“Coach, I’m no running back,” he told him. “I can’t play it.”

Bruce looked back at Gimenez, a lanky, 6-foot-2, 200-pound sophomore from Woodland, not far from Davis. He didn’t see a running back, either.

“I’ll give you a shot,” he told him.

“That’s all I want,” Gimenez said.

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That’s all he has gotten--a shot. Sometimes Gimenez pulls it out. Sometimes he doesn’t.

The past two seasons have been an unending quarterback battle between Gimenez, a senior now, and Kevin Verdugo, a junior.

It is Gimenez, who once did nothing more in practice than “just hang out,” who has won the final skirmish and is scheduled to start Saturday.

Verdugo is probably the best quarterback and certainly the better passer. He transferred from Kansas after starting about half the Jayhawks’ games as a freshman, looking for a school where he could pass more and get beaten up less.

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Verdugo won the starting job last year, and Colorado State played Tennessee tough before losing, 17-14.

The next week, in a loss to Colorado, Verdugo separated his shoulder. He played the rest of the first half with it, but after halftime, he couldn’t raise his arm. Gimenez took over.

“That’s where she all started, right there.” Verdugo said.

Ever since, the quarterback job has never been settled.

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“You stay out there till you see the other guy run on the field,” one of the quarterbacks said. The other nodded and repeated it. “That’s right. You stay out there till you see the other guy run on the field.”

Gimenez started the last nine games of last season, including a 52-0 victory over Texas El Paso in the final game. After that, Gimenez said his team was headed for a bowl in 1990.

“I caught a lot of flak for that,” Gimenez said. “They just thought, you crazy guy, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Before this season, Gimenez beat out Verdugo, who was coming off surgery in which a bit of his clavicle was removed.

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Gimenez won the job, but Verdugo won the first game, coming off the bench in the third quarter against Air Force. The Rams trailed, 26-14, when Verdugo came in. They won, 35-33, after he completed 14 of 18 passes--including his first 10 in a row--and threw the game-winning touchdown pass with 1 minute 18 seconds left.

Verdugo started the next four games, beating Montana State, losing to Arizona State, beating UTEP and losing to Arkansas.

In the Arkansas game, the score was tied, 17-17, before Colorado State lost, 31-20.

“We missed a couple of opportunities,” Verdugo said.

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Gimenez, who attempted only one pass against Arkansas and failed to complete it, started the next game, a victory against Utah. It was back to Verdugo the next week against Brigham Young, a 52-9 defeat.

Once again, it was back to Gimenez, who started in a victory over New Mexico and the four remaining regular-season games, losing only one, 31-30, to Louisiana Tech.

Verdugo, meanwhile, injured his shoulder in the 10th game against Tulsa during one of his regular relief appearances.

Gimenez might have played his best game in the season finale against Hawaii. He threw for a career-best 250 yards and two touchdowns, leading Colorado State to a 30-27 victory on a nine-yard touchdown pass to Brian Copeland with 28 seconds left.

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Verdugo’s statistics are better. The backup, he is averaging 128 yards passing. Gimenez is averaging 92.

Bruce has used the two creatively, going to Verdugo between the 20s and to Gimenez on either end. Other times, he has used Gimenez in the first and third quarters and Verdugo in the second and third.

Gimenez can always use those running back skills he honed on the sideline for a season.

“I wouldn’t say I have one overall strength,” Gimenez said. “Somebody always finds something to complain about. It doesn’t bother me when people say you don’t do this or you don’t do that. It’s not how many yards you throw for, it’s whether you win or lose. No one remembers a guy who throws for 400 yards but loses by three touchdowns. People don’t remember that a guy throws four interceptions. They remember he comes in and wins the game.

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“Not everybody can be a star.”


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