Reduced to Playing for Pride : Cotton: Weldon and former No. 1 team Florida State aren't in the New Year's game they had anticipated.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Need directions to the Cotton Bowl? Just follow the signs.

Resume speed: It is late August and Casey Weldon (does he have the greatest name for a quarterback since Joe Montana?) prepares to launch his Heisman Trophy campaign for Florida State in the Disneyland Pigskin Classic against Brigham Young.

Weldon, a one-time fire extinguisher salesman, sounds as if he is seeking the eternal flame: "I'd love to win the Heisman, but the national championship is far more important . . . . "

Detour: Less than three months later, in the deathly quiet of the locker room, right after Miami has snuffed out Weldon's Heisman Trophy bid and the Seminoles' chances for the national title with a 17-16 upset, there is the unmistakable sound of a helmet banging against a metal locker, followed by muffled sobs.

The helmet, the locker and the tears belong to Weldon.

So what does that make Florida State's matchup in the Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M--a; dead end? Sort of. But for Weldon, maybe it will be sort of a new beginning, since after one last game he is on his way to a career in the NFL, where all the signs point to a bright future. Sort of.

Sorry, but it's all sort of confusing right now, for Florida State and Weldon.

If you had collected all of Florida State's hopes for a national championship and laid them end to end, they would probably have stretched all the way to Miami, where they would have filled up the Orange Bowl. That is where Weldon and his arrow-helmeted Seminoles expected to be playing on New Year's Day, against the Cornhuskers from Lincoln, Neb., not at Dallas, against the Aggies from College Station, Tex.

Weldon could have been a contender. Actually, until consecutive defeats by Miami and Florida, Weldon was one. He was still in the Heisman race, flinging touchdown passes, and the Seminoles were in there tracking down a first national title for Coach Bobby Bowden.

Instead, Weldon lost out to Michigan's Desmond Howard in the biggest Heisman landslide since O.J. Simpson won 23 years ago, and the Seminoles dropped like a tepee with the tent poles pulled out. Not only had Weldon's Heisman disappeared, but in the last two games of the season, Florida State wasn't the best team in the country anymore. In fact, the Seminoles were only the third-best team in Florida.

Weldon accepted the Miami defeat as it was seen by all, at least all those in Tallahassee--a tragedy of stupefying proportions. After he had performed the postgame billiard shot with his helmet off the side of the locker, Weldon picked up a stool and took it into the shower. Then he sat down and began to cry. He paused to utter only one word, which he said over and over: "Why?"

The why , well, he will never know, Weldon realizes. But it's the what , the losses to Miami and Florida, that have put him where he is now, and that's the Cotton Bowl. So the only thing left for Florida State is to make the best of it, Weldon said.

"Pretty devastating," Weldon said, describing the loss to Miami. "If we had beaten Miami, there is no way we would have let Florida beat us for the national championship. We were not up. We had a week off (after Miami) so we moped around. We tried not to think about (Miami), but it was tough.

"We were No. 1 for 11 weeks, all of our dreams were right there and we weren't prepared for a loss. So when it happened, it really hurt us. We were right there. Had we beaten Florida, we're still No. 3 and pulling for Nebraska and Michigan (on New Year's Day), so we were still in it and I don't think a lot of guys realized it. But that's gone now. I guess it's time to refocus and pay a one-game season here. Go out with some pride."

There you have it. Florida State is reduced to playing for pride. Weldon's incentive, however, might be more tangible. If he has a good game, then performs well in all-star games and camps, he could become a very rich NFL quarterback and do a lot better financially than when he sold fire extinguishers and water purifiers during the summer in Tallahassee.

Weldon didn't become the starter for good until late in his junior season. He won 16 consecutive games as a starter, until dropping the Miami-Florida daily double.

A fifth-year senior, Weldon is listed at 6 feet 1 and 200 pounds. But if he isn't an imposing physical specimen, he somehow manages to produce those glittering examples of athleticism.

Weldon finished the regular season with 22 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions, having completed 60.4% of his passes for 2,527 yards. He was chosen as a first team All-American by Walter Camp selectors and Football News, and won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award as the nation's top senior quarterback.

So if nothing else, Weldon's Cotton Bowl appearance might help him move up in the NFL draft, maybe get him closer to the acknowledged No. 1 quarterback, David Klingler of Houston. Agent Leigh Steinberg rates Weldon among the top three quarterbacks in the draft, along with Klingler and Notre Dame junior Rick Mirer, who might leave school early.

"Weldon is a very classy quarterback that some people want to compare to Joe Montana in terms of smoothness," Steinberg said. "He has this uncanny last-minute decision-making ability to adjust. Plus, tremendous coolness under pressure. He's sort of a Cool Hand Luke quarterback that might put you in mind of Ken Stabler."

According to Steinberg, Weldon's principal liability is his physical stature.

"But he's tall enough and he's big enough and he's very, very smooth," Steinberg said.

Weldon scoffed at not being big enough to play with the big boys.

"I think I've proven myself, as far as toughness, and besides, my size was a question mark and I think I proved it should not be," Weldon said.

Maybe by the time the Seminoles take the field, Weldon and the rest will find that playing for pride is just the ticket to forget about Miami and Florida.

Then again, maybe not.

"I'm not sure they're over it yet," said Wayne Hogan, Florida State's media relations director. "I'm not sure they'll ever get over it."

Just now, weeks after his dreams unraveled, Weldon can start piecing together what went wrong with the season. Part of it, he said, was the mental burden of being No. 1 for so long, with each opponent pulling out all the stops to beat the top team in the nation.

"But we knew that was going to happen," Weldon said. "I feel like we did the job, week in and week out, but I guess it slowly took its toll on us. But I think we also peaked early. "We crushed Michigan (51-31) at their place. Syracuse came down here and we crushed them (46-14). Then we really didn't have any challenges for a while so we kind of coasted. Then Miami. For some reason, we just didn't quite get it."

As for that national championship, they didn't quite get it, either. Weldon's Heisman proved equally elusive, but that doesn't mean he has forgotten how near he got. What was the margin? A foot? That's how far off walk-on kicker Gerry Thomas was when he missed a field-goal attempt that would have beaten Miami.

Weldon said he could measure the Heisman race another way: "I think a catch and a better throw here or there in the Miami game and maybe it's a closer race."

So, that's how you get to the Cotton Bowl. It is a very nice bowl, sure to offer a competitive game featuring the would-be champions of college football reduced to playing for pride under a quarterback trying to forget his recent streak of bad luck while looking to a kinder, if not gentler, future. The way Weldon sees it, he is due.

"Maybe I'm saving my lucky bounces for the pros and maybe win a Super Bowl or something," he said. "A championship has avoided me so far and that's a goal, to move on to the next league. Hopefully I'll get a few breaks."

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