Weinke takes long way to college football stardom
Posted: Thursday December 07, 2000 6:08 PM
Updated: Wednesday December 27, 2000 12:24 AM
Chris Weinke initially came to Florida State in August 1990 when Charlie Ward was the QB. AP
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Chris Weinke was a 24-year-old freshman when he walked into his first college class four years ago, looked around at the teen-agers and asked himself, "What am I doing here?"
Weinke wasn't just worried about getting ready for football at Florida State after a seven-year layoff. There were the courses, too.
"Some people think it's hard to come back and play football after seven years," he said. "Try to come back and read a book when you haven't picked up a book in seven years."
Weinke has conquered both, and on Saturday could become the school's second Heisman Trophy winner after leading Florida State to its third straight appearance in the national championship game with a record-breaking season.
"I'm overwhelmed just with the possibility of having my name there with the guys who have already won the award," said Weinke, the Atlantic Coast Conference's leading career passer and its 2000 Player of the Year.
The 6-foot-5, 229-pound Weinke threw for a school-record 4,167 yards and 33 touchdowns this season as he led the Seminoles to an 11-1 record, their fifth straight year with at least 11 victories.
Most were surprised in January when Weinke decided against going pro a year early to return for his final year of eligibility, becoming coach Bobby Bowden's first three-year starter at quarterback.
"It's worked out better than I'd ever dreamed," said Weinke, who graduates Dec. 16 with a sports management degree and a 3.4 grade point average, good for an NCAA postseason scholarship.
"I don't get surprised anymore when he succeeds as much as he does," said his older brother, Derek. "His work habits are amazing to me and I'm his biggest critic."
Weinke's route to the Downtown Athletic Club, where he hopes to join Charlie Ward, Florida State's only other Heisman winner, has taken many turns.
Weinke initially came to Florida State in August 1990 when Brad Johnson and Casey Weldon were battling for the starting quarterback job with Ward, already a basketball star, in the wings.
With a baseball signing bonus of $350,000 awaiting him, Weinke signed with the Toronto Blue Jays' organization and left school before classes began.
Bowden, whose personal touch is the hallmark of his remarkable career, sent a letter to Weinke's St. Paul, Minn., home address inviting him back if baseball didn't work out.
The letter remained on Weinke's mantle for six years.
"It was always there," Derek Weinke said.
After Toronto wanted to move Weinke from first base to catcher after six minor league seasons, he became discouraged with baseball. A talk with Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning in the summer of 1996 rekindled his football desire.
Derek Weinke, who is 29, said they both laughed when Chris talked about trying to play college football after the long baseball hiatus.
"At that time, we didn't even know if it was possible he'd be allowed to play or what his eligibility was," Derek Weinke said. "The worst case scenario was he would go back to college and get his degree."
He called Bowden, but Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt was unsure it would be a good deal after the lengthy layoff.
"I didn't want him coming in here out of the blue and then after one semester deciding, 'This isn't for me,'" Richt said.
Also, Richt was ready to sign Drew Henson, who went to Michigan, and already had Dan Kendra in the wings.
Weinke, however, was unfazed after hundreds of forgettable bus trips around the country as a minor league baseball player.
"He knew it would be a long road in front of him," Derek Weinke said. "They were real clear with him when he came back there were no guarantees. He was going to have to work hard to earn a starting position."
Thad Busby was the Florida State starter. Kendra, one of the most heralded high school prospects to ever enroll at Florida State, was being groomed as his replacement. Plus, Bowden recruits a quarterback every year.
When Kendra suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 1998 spring game, the path was cleared for Weinke to become a starter in his sophomore season.
"If he [Kendra] doesn't get hurt, you may not even know who I am," Weinke said.
In his second start, Weinke was intercepted a school-record six times as Florida State was upset 24-7 at North Carolina State.
"Everybody wanted to get rid of him after that," Richt said.
It made Weinke obsessed with succeeding.
"Sometimes you've got to struggle before you become successful," he said.
Weinke didn't throw another interception in his next 218 attempts, then was knocked out for the year in the Virginia game with a neck injury that required surgery. Weinke didn't practice again for 10 months and went through the 1999 season with a protective brace.
Last season, distractions around a midseason shopping scam by teammates Peter Warrick and Laveranues Coles led to suspensions, but Weinke drove the Seminoles to a perfect 12-0 record and Bowden's second national title. Weinke led comebacks in several games, including the season-finale at Florida and in the national title game at the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech.
Now Weinke would like to follow Ward as a Heisman Trophy winner, taking the Seminoles to a national championship.
"They're both fighters," Richt said. "With those guys, we were never out of a game. If we lost, we just ran out of time."
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