It was easy to spot Lee Becton on the Notre Dame campus during his freshman and sophomore years. He was the guy who always carried a football with him, even when he went to class, because he was so concerned about fumbling. "I hold it and play with it and get comfortable with it," Becton explained. "If I can get the ball to be part of the body, it won't let go. I pride myself on not fumbling."
Becton's self-discipline was to pay off, as it did in Notre Dame's 24-21 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M. The six-foot, 190-pound junior tailback earned offensive MVP honors as he rushed for 138 yards on 26 carries against the Aggies and became the first back in Notre Dame history to gain at least 100 yards in seven consecutive games. So, Lee, how about that?
"I never think about getting 100 yards," Becton says, modest as always. "All I want to do is whatever it takes to get a victory. If it takes me getting 100 yards, so be it. A lot of the credit goes to the guys who block for me. All I have to do is wait for the blocks to develop and read them."
There has to be something more, of course, something special, and yet the puzzled A&M defenders, like almost everyone else who tried to stop Becton this season, seemed at a loss to explain his effectiveness. Pretty much echoing Becton, Sam Adams, the Aggies' splendid defensive end, said after the game, "The offensive line was making good holes, and he was finding them. He was very elusive."
While Notre Dame's huge and talented offensive line certainly deserves credit, it's also true that Becton is a most artful dodger. He almost always gains extra yardage once he clears the line of scrimmage because of his uncanny instinct for doing whatever it takes—spin, cut. dodge—to get away from tacklers. "You cannot tackle Lee Becton one-on-one," says Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz. "I've never seen anybody else with the same ability to stop instantly, freeze and change direction."
So what kind of an overachiever are we talking about here? Well, as a child, Becton had arthritis and a heart murmur. Those infirmities had disappeared by his senior year of high school, when he rushed for 2,011 yards and 32 TDs, but Becton was still surprised when a Notre Dame scout showed up to take a look at him. He couldn't believe the Irish would be interested in somebody who grew up in Ernul, N.C., but he jumped at Notre Dame's scholarship offer despite his misgivings about whether he could ever be more than a practice player for the Irish, another reason why he was devout about getting comfortable with the ball.
Becton had only 15 carries as a freshman, then spent last season as the backup to Reggie Brooks, averaging 5.5 yards for 68 attempts. When Becton pulled a hamstring before the '92 BYU game, Holtz, noting his modest 4.5 speed for the 40, quipped, "I didn't think he could run fast enough to pull a hamstring."
Before this season Holtz hoped only that Becton would be "adequate" at tailback while he groomed freshman sensation Randy Kinder. But after Becton gained a mere 25 yards against Stanford on Oct. 2—he had suffered another hamstring injury—he began his seven-game streak, during which he averaged 135 rushing yards a game. Oh, yeah, one more thing. Over that span he didn't lose a single fumble.
In fact Becton's feel for the ball might have saved the Irish in the Cotton Bowl. On the touchdown drive that pulled the Irish into a 14-14 tie early in the third quarter, he twice was on the receiving end of shaky, knuckleball option pitches from quarterback Kevin McDougal. Each could easily have been a fumble, but Becton handled both deftly. "I just didn't want to have a turnover," he said later—an explanation that will come as no surprise to those who remember him toting balls to class in South Bend.