On the morning of Jan. 3, six days before he would announce The Decision, Tennessee junior quarterback Heath Shuler was shifting about in a stand of trees, staring aimlessly into the north Alabama woods. He had left his home in Bryson City, N.C., to go hunting, but he was really trying to draw a bead on his future. So when a doe crossed the winding creek in front of him and scampered up a hill, Shuler wasn't motivated even to raise his Browning rifle. "It just wasn't in me to pull the trigger," he says. "I was deep in thought. I just didn't know what to do."
In the preceding month the 6'3", 212-pound Shuler had compiled some 200 pages of notes to help him make The Decision between matriculating early in the NFL and returning to Knoxville for a double-barreled shot at the national title and the Heisman Trophy. He had called rookie NFL quarterbacks Rick Mirer and Drew Bledsoe, who had faced a similar choice, and Hall of Famer Roger Staubach, whose playing style and business savvy Shuler has long admired. But they offered more godspeed than direction. The Tennessee coaches had polled 15 pro teams to see when in the draft Shuler, the 1993 Heisman runner-up, might be selected. Some said he would go No. 1, others weren't so certain. Shuler had also conferred with his parents—Joe Benny, a mailman, and Margie, a yogurt-shop owner—and his brother, Benjie, a freshman wideout for the Vols. Each urged him to follow his heart.
So he lingered in the woods, watched the deer go by and prayed for guidance. He didn't pause to consider the draft order or the Heisman or the millions of dollars at stake. "Every time I thought about it, I came back to this one thing," he said. "Then I knew what I had to do."
He returned home on Wednesday and slept on The Decision before sharing it with his family on Thursday and swearing them to secrecy. Meanwhile the 1,200 good folks of Bryson City—UNCROWDED, UNHURRIED, UNSPOILED, UNCOMMON, its welcome sign reads—were unabashedly consumed with speculation, whiling away hours in heated debate, just as they had three years ago when Shuler was choosing among Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama. "If somebody says Heath's doing one thing, I say he's doing the other," said A&P manager Glenn Jones. "That's the way to get a good conversation going."
As far as the town was concerned, Shuler could make no wrong choice. Whatever he did, he would still combine boy-next-door warmth with a worldly outlook, down-to-earth values with a mythic right arm. On Friday evening at NaBers Drive-In, where they serve Heath's favorite drink, cherrylemon 7-Up, Joe Benny sat and sipped a cup of coffee. "He needed to be by his self for a while," he said. "To set in the woods where it's quiet and hear the birds. That's where he can do his best thinking."
Heath had just driven an hour and a half around the Great Smoky Mountains to, Knoxville, where suspense and foreboding gripped the city. The Decision dominated call-in shows, conversations and the sports pages. At a restaurant a local radio station set up a STAY HEATH STAY banner, which was signed by 200 patrons. Columnist John Adams of the Knoxville News-Sentinel revealed that he had received $120 in contributions to his jesting Keep Heath Fund. For two days Shuler moved around like an underworld figure on the lam.
On Sunday morning he visited Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer at his office and told him The Decision. In the early afternoon he met up with his family and a few friends at the house of Roger Jenkins, the former dean of the Tennessee business school, who had been Shuler's contact with Mirer and Bledsoe. Heath put on a gray suit, gave his mom a small gift (an ice-cream-cone charm) and rehearsed the two-page speech he would give at his press conference. In the backseat of the Shulers' '88 Chevy van on the way from Jenkins's house to Thompson-Boling Arena, he held the hand of his girlfriend, Nicole Watson. He asked his mother if she was nervous. "Of course I am," Margie said. "Your father's driving."
And then, at 6 p.m., before some 100 members of the media and a statewide TV audience, Heath Shuler finally squeezed the trigger on the biggest decision of his 22 years. His epiphany in the woods had been to follow the desire he had at age 10, when he became serious about football. "No matter how many ways I looked at each point, I kept coming back to my dream of playing in the pros and that need to stretch myself," he said. "That's why I've decided to declare my eligibility for the 1994 NFL draft."