He built a cocoon and lived in it. Practice, study, eat. Regular week. From his self-imposed distance, he saw the pressure building again. Number 2 versus No. 7. Rose Bowl on the line. Not only did his mother, Thelma, and his father, Lincoln, make their customary seven-hour drive to State College, but his five siblings were there, too, and the whole family had never been together to watch him play, except when gathered in front of a television set. Still, Enis stayed calm.
Last Saturday evening he found quiet in a small training room adjacent to the Penn State locker room. His father leaned against a nearby wall, and Curtis let his emotions spill. "When I ripped that letter up before the game, I just said to myself, We'll see who sucks," he said, every word catching in his throat. "Since I've been playing football, I've been in so many big games, but this is the first time I've ever won one." Case in point: In 1993, Enis's senior season at Mississinawa Valley High in Union City, with the conference title at stake, he rushed for 371 yards and broke the state single-season rushing record in a 29-28 loss to rival Ansonia High. "He was unbelievable," said Roger Jeffers, then the offensive coordinator for Mississinawa Valley. "Ansonia had given up something like 800 rushing yards in nine games, and Curtis goes for 300-plus in one day, and we lose. But you know what? He didn't cry that day." So he saved it up and cried on this one instead. "I'm so happy to be part of something like this," Enis said. Then he fell against his father and locked him up with both of his meaty arms.
Lincoln and Thelma Enis are responsible for the courtesy Curtis exhibits, all those Yessirs and Nosirs. "You can teach a little kid just about anything if you start him out young enough," says Lincoln. "We worked hard on teaching our kids to respect older people."
In search of work, Lincoln and Thelma had moved separately to Union City: Lincoln from Fayette, Ala., and Thelma from Hope, Ark. Each had children (Lincoln two daughters, Thelma a son) before they met, married and had three more, of which Curtis was the second. For 24 years Lincoln has worked on an assembly line for the Union City Body Company, which manufactures truck parts. When Curtis and his brothers and sisters were old enough to care, they clamored for him to take them to the plant, to show them where Daddy worked. Lincoln refused. "I told them, 'You see me coming home all cranky and tired every day? That's because of where I work,' " he recalls. "I told them that factory is no place you ever want to go. So far none of my kids has ever set foot in that building." Thelma works most of the year as a flagger for a paving company, resting only when the cold arrives and shuts down the operation for the winter.
They were the only black family in Union City, which, except for the auto body plant, is largely a farming community. When Curtis was a star as a sophomore at Mississinawa Valley High and his brother was a senior, both played in a game at Ansonia High, where they were subjected to the most vile racial invectives. When Curtis returned two years later for what turned out to be that 29-28 loss, he didn't hear as much abuse directed at him, but his sister Alicia become a target. The wounds opened by these experiences have healed, but their scars remind Curtis how to take the worst in human behavior and put it to use. "I've been called a nigger to my face by people," Curtis said after Saturday's game. "I know how to make things motivate me."
He has long been motivated by Ohio State's marginal interest in him when he was developing into the state's player of the year as a senior. One of the school's early recruiting letters was addressed to Furtis Fenis, a later one to Chris Enis. Yet the path to making the Buckeyes pay has been circuitous. Enis was a borderline academic case as a high school senior and thus spent a year at Kiski Prep in Saltsburg, Pa., near Pittsburgh. In the fall of 1995, Penn State put him at linebacker, where the freshman played a few bewildered snaps in the season opener against Texas Tech. Since the second week of that season he has been at running back, and the chants of "Heis-man" that followed him from the field last Saturday suddenly don't seem so far-fetched.
He has the type of body, 6'1", 233 pounds, that wears on defenders as a game goes on, and so it was against the Buckeyes. When Penn State took possession with 3:56 to go in the third quarter, trailing 27-17 after 17 unanswered Ohio State points, Enis had rushed for a quiet 81 yards on 12 carries. His day was on the cusp of forgettable; then he broke loose. He started Penn State's comeback with consecutive carries for 16 yards, leading to sophomore fullback Aaron Harris's 51-yard touchdown run, which cut the lead to 27-24 with 20 seconds left in the third quarter. Enis covered 53 of Penn State's 86 yards on the game-winning drive and later rumbled for 27 yards after the Lions were backed up at their own 15 with a little more than six minutes remaining. He finished with 211 yards on 23 carries. "I've seen him gain more yards," said Jeffers, "but I've never seen him better."
Enis was among the last to leave the Penn State dressing room. Waiting patiently were his family; his girlfriend, Penn State graduate Heidi Hanna; and her family. There were also high school friends, college friends and two buddies from Kiski Prep—one drove from Rochester, N.Y., and the other from Pittsburgh just to give Enis a hug and a slam across his broad back.
They were all standing there in the dim light when Enis popped through a set of steel doors into the cool air, planted his feet and raised both his arms to the night sky.