The jokes won't cease, because a 28-year-old college football player is simply too inviting a target to leave alone, even if similar quips about him have been circulating for the past three years. Only a couple of weeks ago Florida State's aged quarterback Chris Weinke was on the phone with former Seminoles teammate Kevin Long, a three-year NFL veteran who's the starting center for the Tennessee Titans. "Don't worry about your age, because lots of 28-year-olds are still going to school," Long reassured Weinke. "It's just that most of them are doctors."
As Weinke moved within 128 yards last week of eclipsing the ACC career record of 9,614 passing yards set by Duke's Ben Bennett in 1983, Bennett shrugged off the inevitable. "If somebody has to break my record, I'm glad it's a guy who graduated from high school in the same year I did," said Bennett, a 38-year-old assistant coach at Duke who, in fact, graduated from high school in '80,10 years before Weinke. Somewhere, rim shots echo. "I hardly know anybody older than Chris, except maybe the coaches," says Florida State senior wideout Marvin Minnis.
It's hard to lay off a guy who enrolled at Florida State in August 1990, with the same freshman class as seven-year NBA point guard Charlie Ward; who made enough money in a six-year minor league baseball career before returning to Tallahassee in '97 that nobody questions how he can afford to drive a 2000 Ford Expedition; who holds such sway over his youngest teammates that when freshman quarterback Chris Rix talks about Weinke, he sounds nothing short of reverential. "When I'm with him, I cut down on my messing around and try to be as mature as possible," says Rix. "I try to keep my focus, because I want Chris to respect me and be proud of me." Are you sure you're not talking about your father?
Weinke, meanwhile, is laughing all the way through a brilliant senior regular season that concludes on Saturday night in Tallahassee when the No. 3-ranked Seminoles host No. 4 Florida. After passing for a routine 324 yards and five touchdowns in last Saturday's 35-6 victory over Wake Forest, Weinke has thrown for 30 TDs in 11 games, tops in the nation, with nine interceptions. "Physically, he has amazing arm strength, and mentally he's become a quarterback who never makes you ask, Why did he do that?" says Duke's Bennett, who watched Weinke throw for 536 yards and five touchdowns against the Blue Devils on Oct. 14.
Despite missing those six years of football while playing baseball, despite a neck injury that nearly ended his career two years ago and despite the many fans and even teammates who view him as a curiosity the Old Guy—Weinke has carved out one of the best college quarterback careers in history. Even though he played minimally as a freshman, he needs only 14 passing yards against the Gators to become the second college quarterback to pass for 9,500 yards and win a national championship. ( Danny Wuerffel was the first, at Florida between 1993 and '96.) Pending a victory over the Gators and another in the right bowl game, Weinke could become the first quarterback in 25 years to lead a team to consecutive national titles. ( Oklahoma's Steve Davis in '74 and '75 was the last; Tommie Frazier played on Nebraska's '94 and '95 title teams but missed most of the '94 season with blood clots.) Weinke also remains in the thick of a three-way, all-quarterbacks Heisman Trophy race with Oklahoma's Josh Heupel and Purdue's Drew Brees.
"I believe I'm a confident person, and I thrive on people telling me I can't do something," said Weinke two days before the rout of Wake Forest, "but I never imagined all the things that have happened to me. Starting quarterback at Florida State? Win a national championship? Maybe win another one? Hear my name mentioned for the Heisman Trophy? None of it sinks in."
Last fall Weinke threw for 3,103 yards and 25 touchdowns in leading the Seminoles to a wire-to-wire No. 1 ranking. After he passed for 329 yards and four touchdowns in the 46-29 Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech that gave his team the national title, it seemed certain that, at 27, he would enter the NFL draft. Yet he heard that he would probably be picked no higher than the third round, so he stayed put. "I felt the scouts might have been right," says Weinke, who will graduate in December with a degree in sports management and a 3.4 average. "I felt I could make myself a better quarterback."
He also liked his life in Tallahassee, where the weather is idyllic and the football is fantastic, and the social life is full of opportunity. "Let's just say he has a lot of fans in Tallahassee," says Long.
The 6'5" Weinke needed improvement in two aspects of quarterbacking: short passes and foot quickness. He improved the former with countless repetitions and the latter by dropping his weight from 245 to 228 pounds and spending long summer hours doing agility drills in a deep sandpit. His NFL future will hinge on winter tryouts, but there seems far less uncertainty now than a year ago. "Big, strong guy, looks almost like a weightlifter," says one NFL personnel man. "The age doesn't hurt him; might even help him with some teams because you know he's mature. He reminds me of Kent Graham, who's kind of a career backup, but also a millionaire. The big negative on Weinke is his foot speed."
Another NFL executive says, "I think Weinke has more upstairs than Graham, in terms of understanding game plans and reading coverages. By playing for the last two years, he's shown that he's at no unusual risk of injury. Arm strength isn't a problem. The negatives are his lack of mobility and the question of whether he has been made better by the system. Most Florida State quarterbacks haven't done well in the league. He's going to be a tough decision for some teams, whether they go second round, third round or wait."