Ma Frances worries about her Boo Boo. But not as much as the teams that appear on Temple's schedule do. Boo Boo is Paul Palmer, the brilliant little Owl tailback and Ma Frances's great-grandson. She named him Boo Boo when he was an even smaller tyke than he is now. "I was afraid my Boo Boo was too tiny for football," says Ma. Boo Boo had to sneak out to play with his buddies in Potomac, Md. He might still be sneaking out if his pee-wee coach hadn't come around to see Ma. " Mrs. Palmer," he said, "do you understand football?"
"No, sir," she replied. "All I understand about football is that the boys are trying to break each other's necks."
Palmer has grown up to be a very tough 5'9", 180-pound senior who keys the Owls' offense. He's the only running back to bring national attention to Temple besides Bill Cosby, who wore the cherry and white in 1961 and '62. The inner-city campus has blossomed with T-shirts that ask the basically Talmudic question, A HEISMAN FOR TEMPLE?
Last season Palmer set 15 school records and finished second in the nation in rushing (168.4 yards per game) and all-purpose running (193.7). This year he's leading the country in both categories. In a 45-28 win over East Carolina last week, Boo Boo ran for 349 yards—8 shy of the NCAA record—on 43 carries, to raise his average to 165.7. He also returned three kicks for 68 yards, which gave him 417 all-purpose yards on the day. That equaled the NCAA record and boosted his all-purpose average to 239.5.
"An adrenaline guy," says San Diego Chargers scout Steve Schnall, who speaks in a clipped shorthand. "Quick burst of a sprinter, nimble feet of a dancer. Elusive. Evasive. Multidimensional. Cuts with both feet on ground. Possible first-rounder. Not a Rip van Winkle."
Boo Boo, says Ma Frances, never was much of a sleeper. "He was a jolly, playful boy," she recalls. "Never was fussy nor sassy." Ma is a warm, comfortable woman who wears her 77 years as lightly as her cheery floral dress. She can still play a mean electric guitar, though she's troubled with emphysema and walks with a cane.
She took charge of Boo Boo when he was three. Ma also brought up his brother, Mark, and sister, Tonya. Boo Boo never asked Ma why she was raising him. "I just accepted it," he says. "I assume my parents couldn't take care of me."
For a young man who spends his time running around and bumping into people, Boo Boo is as polite as Miss Manners could wish. "Ma Frances was very big on respect," Boo Boo says. "When I messed up, she'd tear my butt up." If Boo Boo was bad, she would say, "Boo Boo, you go out and break me down a switch."
He began playing football in earnest in high school. "Deep down she thought football was good for me," says Boo Boo. "It kept me from getting in with the wrong crowd." Although he ran for 1,920 yards and 27 TDs in his senior year, few big-time colleges were interested. Boo Boo didn't have a terrific grade point average, but Temple backfield coach Spencer Prescott promised, "If you get your two-oh, we've got a scholarship for you."
He got his two-oh, and Ma Frances is reconciled to her great-grandson's football career. But she's still getting used to the two diamonds he wears in his left ear and the BOO BOO tattoo on his right arm. "I hope that boy gets the yardage he needs to win the Heisman," she says. "But even if he doesn't, I'll be tickled to death. I know he's putting his heart in it. Whatever he does, I'm satisfied."