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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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There was the 24-10 thrashing of Pittsburgh at Pitt Stadium, when McPherson completed 8 of 17 passes for 178 yards and two TDs—with no interceptions—and rushed 14 times for 48 yards and one score. And there was the regular-season climax, the Donniebrook against West Virginia. McPherson struggled nobly through three quarters of a horrid four-interception evening and then merely moved toward immortality. In the final period of his Dome career, McPherson not once, not twice, but three times brought Syracuse back from a touchdown behind. With 87 seconds left, an undefeated season on the line and a chance at a national championship still aglimmer, the Orange trailed 31-24 when McPherson calmly took Syracuse 64 yards in seven plays, nailing tight end Pat Kelly over the middle with a 17-yard touchdown pass that still left the Orangemen a point behind with 10 seconds left. Then on the two-point conversion, McPherson whirled and rolled left and, at the instant two tacklers squashed him, flipped the ball to running back Michael Owens, who took it in for the game-winning points. The final: 32-31. And a legend was born. Or sustained.

In McPherson's marvelous final year he has, frog-to-prince, gone from being a journeyman option guy (translated: iffy defensive back in the pros) to a first-round draft pick as a genuine NFL-caliber, strong-armed quarterback. "He's maybe the most exciting player in America," says Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys' talent domo.

Such encomiums never would have been expected early in McPherson's Syracuse career, when he labored against injuries and a quarterback coach (since departed) who was convinced that McPherson was not up to the demands of the position.

As a sophomore, McPherson rushed for more yards, 489—and mostly for his life—than Jim Brown did at the same stage, and the Orange finished the season with a loss in the now-defunct Cherry Bowl. Then last year, with star nose-tackle Ted Gregory sidelined, Syracuse began 0-4 ("Disasterville," says Coach Mac) before Mc righted things and Syracuse won four of its last six.

"I used to get by on athleticism," says McPherson. "I knew the plays, but I didn't really perceive the meaning of the sequence or the system. Last summer I studied hard and worked on my passing technique and arm strength. A lot of repetition, throwing from my butt, from one knee. I've got all the passes now. But this year we've had a great offensive line, and the running backs are hot. I know I don't have to do everything on my own anymore."

"Donnie's taken us two levels higher," says Syracuse offensive coordinator George DeLeone. "His mental capacity...his versatility. Is there any other player who could have been a contender for the quarterback position at either Oklahoma or Brigham Young?" Probably not. But what a long trail it has been. Back in high school McPherson contended with his two bigger, stronger brothers for the approval of his dad. "The other two guys were aggressive, physical, crazy," says Gene McPherson. "Donnie was skinny, weak, a finesse guy. I just said two out of three ain't bad."

But Donnie changed so much that when he transferred from his home school, Malverne High, to the more prestigious, football-oriented West Hempstead by pretending to five with an aunt, both schools investigated his legal residence. Gene—a police detective at the time and now working in the state attorney's office—taught Donnie how to beat a stakeout, and the ruse succeeded. "Donnie's always had a halo over his head," says brother Mark. "Or an angel."

Like Amanda Brown, a stunning Thiel College senior who—speaking of fairy tales—appeared virtually out of nowhere after exchanging letters with McPherson early in the season and then showing up to meet him at the Syracuse-Pitt game. After McPherson's spectacular closing scene against West Virginia, the first person in Donnie's arms was Mark. The second was Amanda.

"Have you seen her? Am I lucky or what?" says the still-astonished McPherson. "I mean, I don't go looking for girls. I haven't had a date all year. In high school I saw a redundancy in social life. It was a rut I had to get out of. So I stopped following the crowd and looked for other angles."

In the Syracuse huddle following a big play McPherson sometimes eschews common superlatives as well. "Groovy," he will say. "Hey, guys, that was really groovy."

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