In his previous life Chris Weinke would have slumped in a backseat and quietly endured the bus ride from the stadium. It was after midnight, and he had played a decent game on Monday—not great, not bad, nothing to keep him awake. In his former career this would have been another day of running in place, of playing the sport for only one person—himself—and wondering if he would ever get off these darn buses and into the big time.
In this life the bus ride was part of the fun, and no one cared that he had been mediocre on the field. His team, Florida State, had won 23-14 over Texas A&M in the Kickoff Classic, and nothing else mattered. So does it make sense now? When Weinke (pronounced WINK-ee) gave up a six-year career in minor league baseball two years ago to chase a dream in college football, some people thought he was crazy. But at Giants Stadium on Monday night, the reasons for his unusual career decision were on display.
While his much-anticipated debut at quarterback was less than spectacular (21 for 36, for 207 yards and one TD), one thing was clear: He may be 26 years old, but as a quarterback, he has some growing up to do—and the Seminoles are just the team to allow him to do it. "Obviously, I didn't have a great performance, but we still won the game," said Weinke. "I didn't want to do too many things, and with the athletes I have around me, I didn't have to."
With Weinke showing the rust from not having started a game in nine years, his teammates picked up the slack. Sophomore tailback Travis Minor carried the ball 34 times, for 146 yards, and junior wide receiver Peter Warrick made nine catches, for 106 yards. The Florida State defense held A&M to 133 yards, including a mere 20 in the second half. Weinke may not be ready, but he may not have to be. Once again the Seminoles have the type of athletes who make their opponents look like they're running in oatmeal. You need some time, old man? Take all you need.
On the first play from scrimmage Weinke completed a 30-yard pass, his first as a starting quarterback for the Seminoles. He was relieved to finally put up some numbers because the words were starting to grow mold. "I know it's an interesting story, but I've told it a million times," he said on Sunday. "It's getting old." Not that there's anything wrong with old. Weinke is so old his teammates call him Old Man or Gramps. He's older than the DH or Monica Lewinsky. He's older than 10 projected starting NFL quarterbacks, including one of his predecessors at Florida State, Danny Kanell, who's in his third season with the New York Giants.
A quick review: Weinke spent four days at Florida State in August 1990 before signing a contract with the Toronto Blue Jays and banking a $375,000 bonus. Before Weinke left school, Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden told the kid he would save him a scholarship in case he changed his mind. Bowden kept his word, although Weinke was no longer a kid when he reappeared in Tallahassee in '97. "He played six years of pro ball," says Bowden. "So what if it wasn't football? It still was pro sports."
To Weinke, it still wasn't Florida State football. A first baseman, he made it as far as Triple A in the Blue Jays' system—his batting average as a pro was .248—but he never lost the desire to step up to the line of scrimmage and feel like he was standing at the center of the sports universe. "I liked baseball, but football gets in your blood," he says. "It's much more intense, more exciting. No matter where I was playing baseball, I'd get up on Saturday and watch all the preview shows. Then I'd come back after my game to my apartment or hotel room and watch all the wrap-up shows."
Weinke twice appeared in a mop-up role for Florida State last season and was expected to spend another year as an understudy, until Dan Kendra tore the ACL in his right knee in the spring game. He gave himself a grade of C for his debut performance but awarded himself an A-plus for leadership. With the Seminoles leading 10-7 with less than a minute left in the first half, Weinke rolled right and looked downfield, unaware of rushing Aggie linebacker Christian Rodriguez, who drilled him and forced the fumble. Cornerback Jay Brooks scooped up the ball and returned it 21 yards for the TD that gave A&M a 14-10 lead at the half. "When things got tough, I didn't get down," said Weinke. "We were losing at the half, and no one expected that. We never quit. We went back out and won."
Bowden says Weinke is "wiser than any quarterback we've ever had," and apparently that wisdom extends to the way in which he invested his baseball bonus, in real estate and stocks, among other things. He has none of the money worries that plague most sophomores. He's investing wisely still: To help 6'8", 300-pound offensive tackle Ross Brannon stay beefed up, Weinke filled Brannon's freezer with a dozen steaks. He took his wide receivers to dinner at the restaurant of their choice. " Red Lobster," he says, rolling his eyes. "Hey, it was their idea. Don't blame me."
"Wink Dog's old, and he's got more money than any of us," Minor says, "but he acts like everyone else, goofs around, has a good time and plays hard. I think we're going to grow together this season."