Already he has been a very good quarterback, with 29 touchdown passes in less than two years, third in Fighting Irish history, behind Rick Mirer (41) and Joe Theismann (31). True, he has thrown 16 interceptions and fumbled the occasional snap, but he has been at the controls of a team that suffered through several unsatisfactory recruiting years in the early 1990s and is just beginning to recover. Yet each weekend Notre Dame's success or failure is packaged and delivered to Powlus, tied to pronouncements on his future. Why he has even shrunk; he's listed now at 6'2".
In the week before the USC game, Powlus betrayed a weariness that he has stoutly masked through two seasons of emotionless, gee-whiz interviews. "If I have a good game, then everybody says I'm going to be great," Powlus said. "If we lose, or we come close to losing, then I'm the problem and I'm in trouble. It's as if my entire career is defined from week to week. I understand it's all part of being here, at least for me, and I don't know what it's ever going to take to change it. Maybe winning a big bowl game. Maybe becoming a senior. Maybe it won't ever change."
Holtz, however, has never wavered in his praise for Powlus and has subtly shifted blame away from him. " Ron Powlus won a national championship in high school," Holtz says. "I believe he will win a championship in the NFL...." At Notre Dame, of course, time has grown short, but not because Powlus has failed.
And how badly have the Irish failed? With each week their losses to Northwestern and Ohio State seem less humiliating. The Buckeyes are 7-0 and pulling down first-place votes in the national polls, and the Wildcats are ranked No. 8. Even the Army escape took on a different meaning after the Cadets crushed Boston College 49-7 last Saturday. "Yes, sir, I noticed those scores," said Leahy. "Maybe they weren't all slouches we were playing, after all."
The celebration that followed the victory over USC, however, had nothing to do with comparative scores. As students spilled from the northwest corner of the stadium and danced in the rain, Leahy swam through the masses, pumping his golden helmet in his right hand. Edwards, the junior fullback who rushed for three touchdowns, was hoisted into the air as students reached up to rub the stubble on his head. "This was to show everybody we're better than they think we are, that we can still play with the big boys," said Wooden.
Powlus was the last Notre Dame player to leave, exiting the locker room through a door that spills into the belly of the stadium, a concrete labyrinth smelling of stale, spilled beer. Even there the fair-weather faithful found him and asked for his autograph. On a program. On a poncho. On a picture. On a seat cushion. Three times he posed for pictures wearing his white baseball cap from a produce farm back in Berwick—Zehner Bros.—a blue blazer and a tie. Finally freed, he turned and dropped his left arm across his mother's shoulder and walked into the night, loafers clacking on the cold floor, redeemed. For this week.