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Trying Not to Be His Own Worst Bieniemy : Orange Bowl: He can’t forget the Fumble, but Colorado back will get a second chance at Notre Dame.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eric Bieniemy is a big fan of negative reinforcement. He has no choice.

He closes his eyes and there it is--images of “the Fumble.” He wakes up and there on his dorm room wall a photograph taunts him. It is a picture of the Fumble. He attends a Colorado team meeting and there on the film screen is the Fumble, played again and again like some bloopers reel. He agrees to an interview. Two questions into the session, someone asks, “Uh, Eric, about the Fumble . . . “

This wasn’t any bobbled ball, mind you. This was a national championship blunder watched by an SRO Orange Bowl crowd and another 59.5 million on television. This was a turnover so big that then No. 1-ranked Colorado never recovered that night against Notre Dame.

Worst of all, it was a fumble caused and executed by Bieniemy himself. Not a single Notre Dame defender touched him. Not a hand grazed him.

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A recap:

Second and five at the Irish 35. About five minutes gone in the first quarter. Bieniemy took the handoff from quarterback Darian Hagan, broke free and sprinted toward the end zone. He dashed past the 30 . . . the 25 . . . the 20 . . .

NBC’s Dick Enberg made the call those 59.5 million heard.

“Bieniemy, quick off the block ... and he drops the ball! And Notre Dame recovers! Pat Terrell. As he was shifting the ball without a hit, Bieniemy drops it at the 19-yard line!”

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And that was that. A sure Colorado touchdown was lost. So was Colorado momentum.

Later, the Buffaloes missed a field goal and then botched a fake field goal attempt. Notre Dame went on to score three second-half touchdowns and won, 21-6.

“We watch (the fumble) every day,” Bieniemy said.

“We rewind it, rewind it. It’s heartbreaking. We learned as a team to never take the little things for granted. Three or four plays and we probably could have been up, 24-0.”

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Instead, the game was scoreless at halftime. From there, a tiny Notre Dame wide receiver named Raghib Ismail took control. Bieniemy watched. And learned.

“I’d rather get caught than fumble in the open field,” Bieniemy says now.

Actually, he plans to do neither when Colorado, again ranked No. 1, faces No. 7 Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. At stake is another national championship, another opportunity to do the improbable and, in Bieniemy’s case, another chance to make things right.

If nothing else, this has been the theme of Bieniemy’s strange 1990. He has taken a step back to take two steps forward.

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On New Year’s Night, he fumbled away a Colorado touchdown and maybe, a Colorado national title.

On July 3, he tried to prevent firemen in Aurora, Colo., called to his parents’ house to extinguish a small garage fire, from poking holes in the walls while searching for possible hot spots. He was given a deferred sentence by a municipal judge.

Colorado Coach Bill McCartney suspended him from the Buffaloes’ season opener against Tennessee.

On Aug. 16, the Doak Walker Award steering committee, whose job it was to compile a list of the nation’s best collegiate running backs, removed Bieniemy’s name from its list of candidates. Reason? Doubts about “the important dimension of citizenship.”

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On Aug. 26, Tennessee rallied to tie Colorado, 31-31.

This is how it went for Bieniemy during the first eight months. Adversity followed by embarrassment, followed by calamity. He reported to fall practices in the best shape of his career, but he couldn’t play. He visited local elementary and junior high schools to give anti-drug speeches and yet, his commitment to citizenship was questioned.

Now look at him. His regular season began on the bench and ended at the Downtown Athletic Club, where he finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Take that, Doak Walker steering committee.

Bieniemy, all 5 feet 7 inches and 195 pounds of him, missed that Tennessee game, but not much else. He gained 1,628 yards, scored 17 touchdowns, set 18 school records and averaged 148 yards this season, which was second in the country. Against Nebraska, Bieniemy scored four fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat the Cornhuskers. And except for a 99-yard effort against Texas, there wasn’t a game in which Bieniemy didn’t gain at least 115 yards.

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“He’s a little snot-nosed kid,” said Joe Garten, CU’s All-American guard, but he said it with affection.

“When he puts on those pads, he thinks he’s 6-8, 320 pounds and nothing can stop him. He fears failure. I think Eric’s going to have a hell of a game (against Notre Dame).”

Watch Bieniemy during practice or a game. McCartney said he has never seen a more competitive player than his senior running back.

“He wrote the book,” McCartney said.

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Bieniemy’s pregame intensity is legendary. Center Jay Leeuwenburg marveled at it.

“He’s just excitable,” Leeuwenburg said. “You can see the energy in him.”

But the best description of Bieniemy came from Hagan, who once called him a “tough, rugged, little pig.” Bieniemy took it in the spirit it was intended: as a compliment.

Watch Bieniemy run. He is a less quick version of Barry Sanders, but still powerful, elusive and, for the most part, durable. You have to be to play that position, a notion confirmed by Colorado wide receiver Mike Pritchard.

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Pritchard was moved to the backfield during Bieniemy’s one-game suspension. He gained 217 yards against the Volunteers, scored twice, but also gained a greater appreciation for what Bieniemy does each week.

“I respect Eric a lot,” Pritchard said. “Coming out of that game, I didn’t get over the bumps and bruises until the third game of the season.”

And that was after only 20 carries. Bieniemy averaged 26 rushing attempts a game in 1990.

“You take a few shots,” said Bieniemy, from Bishop Amat High. “But you never let your opponent know you’re hurt.”

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Then he breaks into a smile.

“I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m tired. (On Sundays) I usually get in an ice tub and just relax.”

This is obviously Bieniemy’s final Colorado game. There is talk of retiring his jersey, No. 1, which seems fitting. There also is talk about Bieniemy’s place in the NFL draft. Barring injury, he probably will be a top-10 pick, maybe top-five.

But Bieniemy said he has greater considerations on his mind. His brother, Corey, a Marine, is stationed in Saudi Arabia. Coincidentally, the Heisman Trophy ceremony was dedicated to American soldiers sent to the Middle East.

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And as you might expect, Bieniemy would like to replace the memory of that awful Orange Bowl fumble and defeat and replace it with more pleasant highlights. He needs no more reminders about the Mistake in Miami.

“Things happen,” he said. “You learn from them.”

Of course, Bieniemy isn’t referring to a single fumble. For him, the words reflect a season he won’t, or can’t, forget. No matter how hard he tries.


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