Johnny Bailey's day started out like a bad dream. Halfway through the second quarter of Saturday's game at Abilene Christian, the Texas A & I tailback—who began the afternoon as the NCAA Division II leading ground-gainer and scorer—had struggled to only 12 yards on six carries. This would not be the day that Bailey, who is a sophomore, would break the Division II career record of eight 200-yard rushing games, a mark he tied against Eastern New Mexico on Nov. 7.
What was worse, a lower-back problem that had been plaguing Bailey off and on since spring was acting up again. The pain was such that Bailey couldn't accelerate or cut sharply. It didn't help any that the second time he ran the ball, he had taken a hit that was heard all the way up in the Shotwell Stadium press box.
Even worse, Bailey's most reliable blocker, fullback Heath Sherman, was lying on a dormitory bunk back on the A & I campus in Kingsville, Texas, listening to the game on the radio, his right leg in a brace.
And, worst of all, Bailey's team, top-ranked in Division II with an 8-1 record, already trailed Abilene Christian 21-0. The Javelinas' explosive offense, which had been producing 521 yards a game, had no first downs and seemed flustered by a 25-mph wind that had the American flag behind the north goalposts standing out as if it were bronzed.
Now it was Bailey's choice to make. Told by his coaches to take himself out of the game if the pain became too intense, he decided to keep playing. "I had confidence in my backups, but I wanted to be there for the comeback," he said.
Bailey, it turned out, was the comeback. He got the hard yardage in a 44-yard drive that ended with his run over right tackle from the two for the first A & I touchdown. He ran 25 yards around left end with a pitch from quarterback Darcy Davis for TD No. 2. He swept left from the eight for touchdown No. 3. When Bailey finally had to bench himself near the end of the third quarter, A & I trailed 21-20 on the way to a 35-28 win, and he had 94 yards on 18 carries. It was only the third time in 21 games that he had been held to less than 100 yards, but he had helped A & I avert an upset.
"One of the hard days," Bailey said before boarding the bus for the trip back to Kingsville. But not all that hard: He still led Division II in yardage (1,598) and scoring (20 TDs, 12.0 points per game).
If Bailey's back holds up, he figures to break virtually every rushing mark in the Division II record book. To cite a couple of notable examples: The standard for career rushing yardage is 5,042, and Bailey already has 3,609; the record for career per-game rushing average is 150.4, and Bailey has averaged 171.9. Amazingly, he has produced these gaudy figures even though A & I coach Ron Harms rests him whenever the Javelinas have a big lead. This has served to limit Bailey to 20 or so carries a game. "Johnny's attitude has kept the pressure off me," Harms says. "He's more for winning than he is for yards."
At 5'9" and 180 pounds, Bailey relies on speed and quickness to get his yards. "Johnny seems to be able to get through some of the smallest holes I've seen," Harms says.
Bailey admits that slipping through holes—no matter what size—in Division II wasn't exactly his dream back when he was starring at Yates High in Houston. "What brought me here was my grades," he says. "By the time I got serious about school it was too late—Prop. 48 got me. I'm sad that it happened, but it was my own fault."