They say it's a long road to the Heisman Trophy, but in the case of UCLA quarterback Cade McNown, it's possible to be more specific: 600 miles of Interstate 5. In the summer of 1994, after his junior year in high school, McNown packed his life into a VW Rabbit, put the dusty farming town of Hollister, Calif., in his rearview mirror and pointed north for the sleepy Portland suburb of West Linn, Ore. Thus began the unlikely journey that has taken him to the top of this fall's list of contenders for college football's most prestigious award. Four years ago his football prospects were as bleak as a deserted highway, owing to a sophomore season at Hollister's San Benito High spent on a weak, run-oriented team that underused his passing skills, and a junior season aborted after four games by an emergency appendectomy. But a failing football career was hardly the most painful issue he was dealing with at the time.
When Cade left Hollister and headed to West Linn to live with the in-laws of his older brother, Jeff Jr., he did so because his parents' divorce had left him few other choices. His mother, Vicki, and his two younger sisters were planning a move later that summer to West Linn. (Jeff Jr. would move there in 1995.) Cade had become so estranged from his father, Jeff, whom he was upset with over the family breakup, that he hit the road without so much as a goodbye to him, beginning four years of silence between father and son. Recalling his exodus from Hollister, Cade says, "People are born in that town, they live their whole life in that town, and they the in that town because they are afraid to try anything else. I wasn't afraid to see how far I could go. I wasn't afraid to fail.... It was kind of like starting a new life."
Being born again might be a better way of putting it. In West Linn, McNown found renewal that was spiritual as well as athletic. A stellar senior season at West Linn High earned him a full ride to UCLA, and in three seasons as the Bruins' starting quarterback he has roused their hibernating program. Last year, in leading UCLA to a 10-game winning streak and a stirring victory over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, McNown, a 6'1", 214-pound lefthander, put together one of the finest college football seasons ever. His 168.6 quarterback efficiency rating not only led the nation but was also a Pac-10 record and the 12th-highest figure in NCAA history. Much of his genius is in his ability to scramble and improvise, to create something beautiful once the structure has broken down. He has done the same with his life.
"On TV They always say he's from West Linn," says Cade's father, nursing a soft drink poolside in the backyard of his home in Hollister. "He's fourth generation in this town, and this is where he learned to play football. One year away from home doesn't change any of that. He may want to pretend he was never here, but he was."
It's no wonder Cade was able to forget Hollister. He was West Linn High's punter, punt returner and an all-stater as both a body-rocking free safety and rocket-armed quarterback. After a 5-4 regular season, McNown led the Lions to three upsets in the playoffs before they were beaten in the state semifinals. In Hollister he hadn't even attracted the attention of the local junior college football coaches, but as he became successful for the Lions, the big-time colleges came calling. McNown's season in West Linn's pro-style offense was his first as a true drop-back quarterback, and, says Lions coach George Crace, "Cade came so far so fast it was just incredible."
The same could be said of McNown's spiritual journey. Shortly after moving in with Linda and Dale Ebel, the pastor of Rolling Hills Community Church, Cade was struck by Jeff Jr.'s renewed devotion to Christianity. "He had this peace about him I really admired," says Cade. "I had lived my whole life not being accountable to anyone or anything, and I realized there was something missing."
That Jeff Jr. would have a profound influence on Cade is no surprise. Jeff Jr., who is four years older, had spent three seasons as the starting quarterback at San Benito High and had sparked Cade's interest in becoming a quarterback. "Jeff has always been my hero," Cade says. Inspired and encouraged by Jeff, the Ebels and others in West Linn, Cade was baptized in a friend's swimming pool in the spring of his senior year.
"Fatherless kids reach out for guidance," says Cade. "Some find it in MTV, some in gangs. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by godly, Christian men."
McNown is loath to impose his religious views on others, but it's impossible not to be struck by how squeaky clean he is. "Cade's a good-living, high-morals guy," says UCLA coach Bob Toledo. "I've never heard him swear. I know he doesn't drink or carouse."
He's also a dedicated student—his grade point average has been as high as 3.65, and he's on track for a degree in history—who would rather spend his time talking to church congregations, which he does in the off-season, than tripping the light fantastic in El Lay. It has been reported that McNown hasn't had a steady girlfriend while at UCLA. He refutes the charge with a laugh and says, "Girls in L.A. are a little different. If I was looking just to hook up, this would be the right place. But I don't want something shallow."