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ROSE BOWL / USC vs. NORTHWESTERN. Jan. 1, Channel 7, 2 p.m. : He’s Seeking the Spotlight : Would-Be Actor Darnell Autry Had Lead Role in Northwestern’s Dramatic Run to the Rose Bowl

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To be, or not to be. That was the question last year for Northwestern running back Darnell Autry--and it didn’t arise during a school production of “Hamlet.”

Autry, a theater major, was miserable during his first months of college. The wind whistling off Lake Michigan made him long for his hometown of Tempe, Ariz., and he felt overwhelmed by Northwestern’s academic and athletic demands. After the Wildcats’ season finale against Penn State, in which he made his first start and gained a freshman-record 171 yards on 39 carries, he told Coach Gary Barnett he was thinking about leaving.

To be a Wildcat, or not to be a Wildcat?

“I came real close to transferring,” said Autry, who considered going to Arizona State or to a junior college. “I was gone. I decided otherwise, and it’s all panned out.”

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There’s an understatement.

Persuaded by his father, friends and teammates to honor his commitment to Northwestern, Autry returned and gave the performance of his life. He tied or broke 25 school records, finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy--the best showing by a Wildcat since Otto Graham finished third in 1943--and was the catalyst in Northwestern’s overnight transformation from perennial doormat of the Big Ten to conference champion.

Autry was one of only two players in Division I to rush for 100 or more yards in every game this season (Toledo’s Wasean Tait was the other). He smashed a 25-year-old, single-season school record set by Mike Adamle when he carried the ball 355 times, and his 1,675 rushing yards broke Bob Christian’s season record by nearly 400 yards. He led the Big Ten in rushing with a school-record average of 152.3 yards per game, fourth best in the nation.

“Anyone who can carry the ball 355 times and only fumble one time and average the number of carries and yards he does, has all the qualities you want in a running back,” Barnett said. “He has durability, strength and patience.”

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A sturdy 6 feet 1 and 211 pounds, Autry can absorb poundings from defensive linemen and push for another yard or two, in the mold of Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith. Autry likes comparisons to Smith, the Dallas Cowboy star. “We’re a little bigger guys, physical guys. I like to think I’m physical,” Autry said. “It’s good to think I’m in the right realm of things and your play is similar to someone like that.”

He also has surprising speed, having been clocked at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and the intuitive ability to read defenses and find holes. No wonder Barnett took Autry’s request for a release from his scholarship “with a bottle of Maalox.”

Barnett had avidly recruited Autry and won him by promising Autry could play tailback, when other coaches talked about turning him into a defensive back. Barnett saw him as the centerpiece of the Wildcats’ offense after the graduation of Dennis Lundy, Northwestern’s all-time leading rusher. He wasn’t going to let Autry go easily, but his concerns extended beyond Autry’s value to the team. Barnett wanted to be sure Autry considered not only football, but how Northwestern could prepare him for life.

“I just appealed to his better judgment,” Barnett said. “There was no question his dad had a key role in his decision to stay. We refused to give him his release, and we outlined his parameters.”

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John Wristen, the Wildcats’ running backs coach, acknowledged he had to make a persuasive sales pitch to get Autry to stay.

“Yeah, it was close,” Wristen said, smiling. “We just talked about doing the right thing, and I knew Darnell would weigh all the options and do the right thing. We talked about a lot of other people I was associated with [as an assistant coach] at the University of Colorado who were homesick. Any normal kid would be.”

He went home for comfort, but his father threw him out of the house and he moved in with his older brother. “During that time, I was kind of thick-headed,” Autry said. “It was probably the worst 10 days of my life.” Finally, he decided to give Northwestern another try.

“It was all about growing up. I didn’t see clearly,” he said. “I wanted to be Big Man on Campus, and I wanted my mommy and daddy around.

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“I went home and talked to my dad a couple of times and I talked to Coach Barnett and he said, ‘Do you really think that would be the best thing for you?’ My dad said, ‘You worked so hard to be in the position you’re in, why leave now?’ ”

Autry’s father is called Gene, but he’s not the Gene Autry who starred in Western movies and owns the Angels. This Gene Autry was in the Air Force and was stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany, when Darnell was born in June 1976. The family moved to Arizona when Darnell was kindergarten age, and he remembers a childhood highlighted by repeated visits to the movies. He learned every line of his favorite films, and he would sit in the dark and dream that one day, he would be up there on the screen.

“I was a big movie watcher and videotape watcher. Me and my friends, we would go to movies and watch over and over,” he said. “ ‘Robocop,’ all those action-type movies. Even the love types, there wasn’t anything we wouldn’t watch.

“I was thinking back in those days, ‘Maybe I could do it.’ Who knows? I wanted to be a model and went into an agency. Maybe it just wasn’t the right agency. They’d tell me I was either too big or too small or wasn’t the right physical type.”

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But he proved to be the right type of player to reverse Northwestern’s dismal football fortunes and lead the Wildcats to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1949.

He began the season by gaining 160 yards on 33 carries in Northwestern’s 17-15 upset of Notre Dame at South Bend, Ind. Northwestern’s third game, a 30-6 rout of Air Force, was a good example of his sheer power. He gained 190 yards, including 104 after he had been hit by an opposing tackler. It was typical of the extra effort he learned to make this season.

“He needed to understand what’s expected out of a great college back,” Wristen said. “He has all the God-given tools, but there’s a lot of people who have those. The difference is the attitude the great ones have. It’s not like we really had to work with him much. It was more reinforcement and guidance and telling him what makes great players so great.

“I really did envision him having a big year, but I didn’t think he would be this productive and be a finalist for the Heisman. I knew he would be one heck of a tailback because he had the size, speed, quickness and great hands. Best of all, he’s a great blocker.”

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He gained 103 yards in the Wildcats’ 19-13 upset of Michigan, their first victory over the Wolverines since 1965 and first at Ann Arbor since 1959. He gained 169 yards and scored three touchdowns as Northwestern rallied to beat Minnesota, 27-17, on Oct. 14, and he scored three times against Iowa on Nov. 11 in a 31-20 victory. He recorded a season-high 226 yards in the finale against Purdue, helping guarantee the Wildcats at least a share of the conference title.

“I rely on the linemen to keep it going,” Autry said of his consistency. “As much as I’ve stepped right up, they’ve stepped it up.”

Autry hoped to “meet as many people as I can meet and do as many things as I can do” during the Wildcats’ two-week stay in California, but Barnett’s exhausting practices put a crimp in that. As much as he’d like to play tourist, Autry knows his primary task is preparing for USC.

“They’re a talented team, physical and big,” he said. “They’ll come back and beat you. We can’t play lackadaisically. We can’t say, ‘The defense will do it.’ We’ve all got to do it.”

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Autry, who admits he is “kind of a ham,” has basked in the attention focused on him all season and the extra scrutiny he’s getting as the Rose Bowl approaches. He is pleasant during interviews and patient with repeated questions about his near-departure from Northwestern and his acting aspirations. The bandanna he wears beneath his helmet, he joked, is to make sure his hair doesn’t get mashed. It wouldn’t do to have a bad hair day when a Hollywood casting agent might be watching.

“I hope sometime down the road somebody will tell me beforehand that I cannot act or somebody will give me a shot,” said Autry, whose role model is actor Laurence Fishburne.

None of Northwestern’s famous theater grads has contacted him, but he did spot Northwestern alumnus David Schwimmer of the hit TV show “Friends” watching a workout last week. “I didn’t want to bother him, though,” Autry said. In case someone has discovered him, he’s checking his phone messages. “At least I’m in the right place for Charlton Heston to call,” Autry said. “Maybe I’ll call him. I’ll check out the phone book. ‘Hey, Charlie, what’s happening?’ ”

Autry and the Wildcats are what’s happening, as they try to write a happy ending to one of the most dramatic stories in college football history. USC is favored, despite Northwestern’s superior record (10-1 to the Trojans’ 8-2-1). Autry is ignoring the odds.

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“We’re still underdogs, as usual, but that’s OK, absolutely,” he said. “It’s been that way almost all season.

“We don’t just want to go out and play this game and say we were happy to be here. We promised each other we won’t do that. We’re here to win.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Wildcats’ Main Man

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Darnell Autry’s 1995 rushing statistics for Northwestern:

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Date Opponent Att Yds Avg TD Sept. 2 at Notre Dame 33 160 4.8 0 Sept. 16 Miami (Ohio) 35 152 4.3 0 Sept. 23 Air Force 37 190 5.1 2 Sept. 30 Indiana 28 162 5.8 2 Oct. 7 at Michigan 26 103 4.0 0 Oct. 14 at Minnesota 28 169 6.0 3 Oct. 21 Wisconsin 27 113 4.2 2 Oct. 28 at Illinois 41 151 3.7 1 Nov. 4 Penn State 36 139 3.9 3 Nov. 11 Iowa 32 110 3.4 1 Nov. 18 at Purdue 32 226 7.1 0 Totals 355 1,675 4.7 14

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