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For that matter, since when did Syracuse have such a college quarterback? Syracuse, the basketball school. Syracuse, the broadcasters' school—Marty Glickman to Dick Stockton to Bob Costas. Syracuse, the home of number 44 Jim Brown and number 44 Ernie Davis and number 44 Floyd Little, so many terrific running backs; so many terrific number 44's (not to mention a non-44, Larry Csonka) that the zip code for Syracuse's administration buildings (13244) honors it. Sports information director Larry Kimball was rattling off McPherson's quarterback records recently when a reporter asked who had held them previously. "You've never heard of him," Kimball said. (For the record, most were held by Bill Hurley.)
Now if McPherson were white, he would really be different. While everyone was busy multiplying the touchdowns at Oklahoma and Miami this season, black quarterbacks seemed to have taken over the game. Of the 105 schools in Division I-A, 26 have started blacks at quarterback. Of the 12 teams in the upcoming New Year's Day bowl games, half will come to the line with a black quarterback. How long has this been in coming?
The perception that blacks couldn't handle the responsibilities of the position, be a virtual coach-on-the-field, has changed ever so slowly. Even now the stereotypical notion persists that a black quarterback wins only out of the option, as demonstrated by Oklahoma and Nebraska, whose quarterbacks are not renowned for their passing. In which sense McPherson, with his archer's accuracy and fabulous numbers (129 completions in 229 attempts for 2,341 yards and 22 touchdowns with but 11 interceptions), may be a genuine breakthrough.
He has been a quarterback since the age of 12 in peewee ball on Long Island. He was also an outstanding track athlete at West Hempstead High, high-jumping 6'10" and winning the Nassau County 110-meter hurdles championship. But most of the colleges that recruited him for football weren't thinking of him as a quarterback.
It might have been his size. Even today, the McPherson physique doesn't exactly inspire gasps. He's barely six feet tall, 185 pounds, with a body defined only from the rib cage up. He's sneaky strong, having increased his bench press to 325 pounds, but his legs remain matchsticks and he has virtually no rear end. "Butt-less," in the words of brother Mark, who was fairly sense-less himself when knocked out by middleweight Frank Tate in a TV bout last spring.
Still, when McPherson asked the recruiter from his favorite school, "Are you ready for me at Penn State?" and the Nittany Lions never called again, he figured he knew the reason. "[You] can't even picture a black kid in that white helmet lining up behind center at Penn State," McPherson told Newsday in a Oct. 18 local-boy-makes-good story.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno was said to be livid over that remark—and, in fact, had a black fourth-string quarterback named Darin Roberts on the roster this season. But that wasn't enough to quench the fires of revenge. McPherson stunned the Lions with a first-play 80-yard touchdown bomb on the way to a 15-of-20, three-scoring-pass, two-touchdown-run, 375-yard-total-offense explosion in the Orange's 48-21 victory over Penn State in October.
That game signaled the arrival of Syracuse, as well as its sophisticated muse of a quarterback, who immediately nominated himself for the Heisman. No matter that Brown was already a mortal lock for the award. Maybe it's the water in the nearby Finger Lakes. The last collegian to be similarly outspoken about the trophy was Cornell running back Ed Marinaro, who lost it to Pat Sullivan of Auburn in 1971.
"A reporter asked me about it and that was all I needed to run my mouth," McPherson says. "I didn't really care if there was a positive or negative reaction. What I wanted was a reaction. I felt it was the only way to get noticed."
Surely McPherson's season demanded notice. There were the comebacks—from 7-21 against Virginia Tech (final: 35-21) and from 0-17 against Boston College (45-17). "I jumped on him before the BC game because he had the wrong socks on," says Mac of Mc. McPherson tried to sneak on the players' preferred solid whites instead of the coach's favorite striped jobs. "It's embarrassing to me to admit this. No wonder it took Donnie so long to get going."