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A Touch Of Class
Curry Kirkpatrick
December 14, 1987
Nobody did it better than Don McPherson, the soul of undefeated Syracuse
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December 14, 1987

A Touch Of Class

Nobody did it better than Don McPherson, the soul of undefeated Syracuse

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The differences in Don McPherson start with his face: the soft features, the fragile chin, the feline, green eyes, the almost imperceptible mustache that he has cultivated since high school. "Hey, I just noticed. You got a mustache!" said McPherson's older brother Mark the other day.

Mark McPherson, 25, is a pianist who became a professional boxer. Another older brother, Miles, 27, was a defensive back for the University of New Haven and the San Diego Chargers before becoming a minister for the Horizon Fellowship Christian Church. But Don, 22, is even more different; a loner, a rebel, a "nonconformist." "That was my dad's word," Don says. "I hope he meant it as a compliment."

In case you were wondering, Don or Donnie—or, as he is known all over the snowy tundra of central New York State, Donnie Mc, the Quarterbck—is the leader of the undefeated, untied and unappreciated 11-0 Syracuse Orangemen, the only 11-0 team that won't be playing for a national championship on New Year's Day.

Of course, the fact that he'll be playing in nonpursuit of the title won't set McPherson's life back by one iota. There are other fish to fry besides football. Especially in New Orleans, where Syracuse will play Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. "Party?" McPherson says. "I just want to find an old bar with a guy slumped over the piano and a sax wailing away. Bluesy, smoky, quiet. Or maybe I can find an auction down there where they're giving out Louis Armstrong's handkerchiefs."

Off the gridiron, out of uniform, after those three or four hours devoted to practice, weights, laps, scrimmage and meetings each day, McPherson, a fifth-year senior, is done with football. He doesn't hang around much with the other Orangemen. Doesn't go to discos. Doesn't even eat breakfast with them. "The rule is to sign in, so I sign in, and then I'm gone," he says. "I'm a coffee and doughnuts man.

"Football, girls, drinking. Drinking, girls, football. I don't like locker room talk," says McPherson. In addition to his 200-plus cassette tape passion for jazz, McPherson has this thing for coats and ties, which is what he wears to his classes. He's a psychology major. He reads The New York Times every day. After games he avoids the feasts at Syracuse's famous pasta parlor, Grimaldi's, so he can relax alone with milk and cookies. "Chips Ahoy," he says. "Very calming. Seriously. You can't rush milk and cookies."

"Strange dude," says Orange linebacker Derek Ward, with affection, if not complete understanding.

McPherson has a Garboesque yearning for privacy, those special times outside football when he can immerse himself in the rainbow vocal trills of Bobby McFerrin or browse through his elegant wardrobe or merely read something other than a playbook. "They [his teammates] probably think I'm some kind of put-on, but football players don't really take the time to understand one another," says McPherson, who would love to live alone if there were not a Syracuse team rule against it. Paul Frase, a defensive tackle who is McPherson's roommate at the Skytop apartment complex where most of the Orange athletes reside, says, "We're friends but not really close. Actually, we don't see much of each other."

The fact is that McPherson sounds as if he must be a kicker or something, not a jaunty, electrifying, trick-option, high-powered signal caller. Yet, lest you get the impression that he's some kind of aberrant sociopath, he happens to be the immensely popular tri-captain of the nation's fourth-ranked team. Friends and associates agree that he's the most people-oriented loner you can imagine. But, asked for a self-description, McPherson uses the word "isolationist." And he says with a straight face, "I'd rather be a fly on the wall."

Even his coach, Dick MacPherson, who, despite press reports to the contrary, isn't his quarterback's father—note the small a toward the front of the surname—goes so far as to say, in the fashion of the times, that "Donnie needs his space."

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