Oklahoma linebacker Rocky Calmus didn't play a starring role in the Sooners' 35-31 defeat of Texas A&M last Saturday. In racking up a team-high 13 tackles in the come-from-behind road victory, Calmus kept No. 1 Oklahoma's defense humming, while the Sooners' Heisman front-runner, quarterback Josh Heupel, threw for a season-low 263 yards and had two passes intercepted. Fellow linebacker Torrance Marshall had the highlight-reel interception and return for the decisive touchdown that pulled the Sooners, who had trailed by 14 points in the third quarter, ahead with 7:18 left. Calmus, by contrast, was about as flashy as the tiny crucifix and wire-rimmed glasses he wore on the plane ride back to Norman. "I'm not an overwhelming presence," says Calmus, "but I hustle and have a knack for knowing where the ball is."
That knack is what has made Calmus, a 6'3", 240-pound junior, one of three finalists for the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker. Though his statistics (a team-leading 84 tackles, 11 for losses) aren't as gaudy as those of co-finalists Keith Adams of Clemson (121 tackles, 17 for loss) and Dan Morgan of Miami (113 and 12), Calmus has been crucial to Oklahoma's undefeated run. Against Texas on Oct. 7 he returned an interception 41 yards for the touchdown that buried the Longhorns 35-0 in the second quarter. Three weeks later he had 16 tackles in a 35-14 overthrow of then No. 1 Nebraska. Now he's in a position to become the second Sooner to win the Butkus. In 1985 and '86 the award went to Brian Bosworth, whose moves (and haircut) Calmus sought to copy as a kid in the football-crazed town of Jenks, a 90-minute drive from Norman.
Playing for Class 6-A state champion Jenks High, Calmus, the Oklahoma high school defensive player of the year in 1997 at 215 pounds, says he "didn't have to work hard" for his 128 tackles and five sacks. He showed up in Norman having done little to build up his body for the college game. "Some of the older guys were saying, 'This skinny kid is our new linebacker?' " says Calmus. "I began to lift my butt off." Along with the coaches' offices, where Calmus studies film most days after lunch, and Oklahoma City's Emmaus Baptist Church, where he turns out every Sunday morning, the weight room has become Calmus's sanctuary. Since his freshman year he has gained 35 pounds of muscle.
While Calmus is no man-mountain, he is "the most instinctive player" Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables says he has ever seen. "He is always in the right position."
If you are out of position, says Marshall, "Rocky will talk your ear off until you get in line. Off the field he mostly keeps to himself."
That changed when a group of small boys in Sooners jerseys engulfed Calmus as he walked out of the locker room after last Saturday's game. By the time he had signed all their programs, he was one of the last players to climb on the bus. "I'm not the biggest, strongest or fastest guy on the team," says Calmus. "There's a chance I could have the biggest heart."