The spirit of the 72nd East-West Shrine Game was captured two days before kickoff on a patch of grass outside Stanford Stadium. There, surrounded by barbecuing hot dogs, spools of cotton candy and a troupe of crazily bewigged clowns, players from both college all-star teams sat beneath a tent signing autographs. While lines leading to stars such as Arizona State and West team quarterback Jake Plummer snaked back dozens deep, the less heralded players were also held in awe. "Look," gushed one teen after scanning the East team photo, "there's Lance Funderbruk of Valadosta College!"
Well, almost. It was actually Lance Funderburk of Valdosta State in Georgia, the first Division II quarterback ever selected for the Shrine game. By any name, he was happy to be there. "I've never been further west than El Paso," said Funderburk, who grew up in tiny Blackshear, Ga. "There's all these mountains out here, and that Golden Gate Bridge. Wow!"
Even in his golly-gosh wonder, Funderburk never forgot that he had a dream hanging in the balance. He may have thrown for 4,226 yards and 38 touchdowns this season, but the week of the Shrine game—a time when passels of pro scouts hover around practices—can make or dash a small-school player's draft prospects. "I just hope one team fell in love with me," Funderburk said after last Saturday's game. "I don't need all 30, just one."
Time will tell what Funderburk accomplished with his solid practices and his 2-for-6 passing performance, which included a 20-yard touchdown toss to Southwest Louisiana's Kenyon Cotton that helped the East win 17-13. What there's no doubt about is that he'll long remember the whirlwind week of player-feting during which he met collegians from faraway Hamilton, Ont. (defensive end Mark Farraway of St. Francis Xavier University), and farther-away Japan (defensive end Takaaki Kawata of Kwansei Gankuin University near Osaka, who—home hemisphere be damned—suited up for the West). The all-stars bonded over such thrills as meeting actor Pat Morita (The Karate Kid) at the player awards dinner. "Hey! That's Mr. Miyagi," exclaimed Utah defensive back Harold Lusk to Kansas State receiver Kevin Lockett.
Funderburk, 22, is a modest young man and an earnest Christian who spends an hour each morning praying and reading the Bible. And as dazzled as he was by the attention—he'd never appeared on national television at Valdosta State—Funderburk was most deeply affected by the players' trip to the San Francisco Shriners Hospital. There he met nine-year-old Nicole Farley, who is paralyzed from the armpits down as a result of a car accident. Nicole showed Funderburk how she had learned to walk using crutches to drag her legs. "She was so proud," he said last Thursday. "It reminded me that as much as I love football, there are more important things."
Chief among them is his close-knit family. Lance's parents, Steve and Nancy, attended every game of Funderburk's college career and flew in for the Shrine game, their own maiden voyage to California. Funderburk's fianc�e, Malisa Martin, did not make the trip, perhaps because she was still giddy from the on-his-knees, on-the-turf proposal Funderburk delivered moments after Valdosta State beat Central Arkansas 63-30 on Nov. 9 in the Gulf South Conference title game.
With the week's revels ended and the pageantry all but faded late Saturday afternoon, Funderburk looked back at Stanford's emptying stadium, where he had just taken his last college snap. "Just being on that field with players I watch on TV was a thrill," he said. "It's my dream to go to the NFL. But if I never strap on the pads again, I'll look back at this week and say it was a great way to go out."