The evening was young, but this drunk had gotten a jump on it. Four Purdue football players were busy devouring prime rib at a roadhouse on the outskirts of West Lafayette, Ind., earlier this month when a hirsute gentleman began weaving his way toward their table. Slurring his speech and neglecting to introduce himself, he announced that come hell or high water, he would be in Pasadena on New Year's Day to watch the Boilermakers. As everyone in these parts knew, Purdue was on the brink of clinching its first Rose Bowl berth in 34 years.
"I'll drive to California and live in my car if I have to," the man declared, and no one had trouble believing him. He rambled for 10 or so minutes, telling the fellows about himself ("I grew up here; I've been watchin' Purdue football all my life") and his regrets ("Too bad you guys had to leave Madison right after the Wisconsin game, 'cause that's a hell of a party town"). The players were too polite to ask him to leave. And who knows? Maybe they were enjoying the attention.
They don't get much of it. You've heard of Drew Brees, the Boilermakers' gun-slinging quarterback. Meet Drew Crew, the core of Purdue's immensely productive and largely anonymous receiving corps. Last weekend the four Crew members caught 18 of the 29 passes that Brees threw, helping the Boilermakers to a 41-13 victory over Indiana in their Old Oaken Bucket rivalry and clinching Purdue's trip to Pasadena.
The quiet ones in the amiable bunch are sophomore Seth Morales and freshman John Standeford, both wideouts. The little guy is Vinny Sutherland, a senior wide receiver who's listed as 5'9" in the media guide but in real life is an inch shorter. Sutherland is a sprinter on the Boilermakers track team and the only guy on the football roster capable of scoring every time he touches the ball.
Playing Mutt to Sutherland's Jeff is his best buddy and fellow party animal, Tim Stratton, a 6'4", 252-pound junior tight end whose 40-yard dash could be timed with a sundial. Stratton makes up for his lack of speed by having the best hands on the team. Of all the receivers, says Purdue coach Joe Tiller, "I think Drew has the most confidence in Tim."
Brees passed for 3,393 yards and 24 touchdowns this fall, and the guys catching those throws have remained strangers to nearly everyone but their parents and the-hard Boilermakers fans, one of whom is still standing at the table, offering to spring for a round. "No thanks," says the 18-year-old Standeford, who hails from tiny Monrovia, Ind. It's one of half a dozen phrases he'll utter during the evening.
Next to this kid, a geisha seems overbearing. "He doesn't say boo," says Stratton. At a team meeting this season the hulking tight end performed a chest-slap, a move borrowed from the World Wrestling Federation, on Tiller. "I don't think John thought it was funny," says Stratton.
Stratton was lightly recruited out of Elmhurst High in Oak Brook, Ill., where he starred in, of all things, volleyball. During his first two collegiate seasons, the coaches yelled at him, "Quit blocking like a volleyball player!" While he now rates as an above-average blocker, Stratton is on the field because he hangs on to virtually every ball thrown his way. He has 56 catches this fall and is best known by Boilermakers fans for his habit of pointing up-field, like a referee signaling a first down, after making a catch that moves the chains. "Yep," he says, grinning, "I'm the ass—— who does that." He does it a lot. Purdue has converted 58% (108 of 187) of its third downs this season, by far the best percentage in the Big Ten.
While the Boilermakers have the conference's most prolific passing offense, the most talented receivers in the Big Ten—Michigan's David Terrell and Marquise Walker and Ohio State's Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo—play elsewhere. How to explain this paradox? Critics say that the receivers are beneficiaries of Brees's accuracy and the wide-open spread offense Tiller installed after he arrived at Purdue in November 1996. "I could catch 50 balls in this system," says one writer who covers the Boilermakers. While such talk rolls off the back of the resilient Drew Crew, it annoys offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. "The system doesn't catch the ball," he says. "The system doesn't run after the catch. These guys could play for a lot of teams."
They're at Purdue because not a lot of teams pursued them. As a wideout, running back and kick returner at Palm Beach Lakes High in West Palm Beach, Fla., Sutherland averaged 35 yards every time he touched the ball as a senior. None of Florida's Big Three, not the Gators nor the Hurricanes nor the Seminoles, recruited him. So he visited Purdue and made a lasting impression. "He was actually kind of a punk," recalls Stratton, who visited on the same December weekend in 1996. In training camp the next summer, says Stratton, "the seniors wanted to kill him. One day Vinny got hit so hard he had a bloody nose. They were trying to take his head off."