Sometimes obscured by his relentless quest for overstatement and the pursuit of the dramatic is the fact that John Corker of the USFL's Michigan Panthers, a big, strong and not so silent type, is one terrific outside linebacker. "I'm just what the doctor ordered," says Corker, writing his own press release. "I'm 6'6", 240 and I can run. I'm all you ever want on a pass drop, and running backs don't get around me."
Hard-noses find the loquacious Corker a bit much, but if you like your linebackers to have a little style, then he's your man. His is imposing a personal reign of terror on quarterbacks, leading the league in sacks—and cracks—while finally living up to his heralded potential.
As Washington Federals Quarterback Kim McQuilken put it to his offensive line earlier this season, during a siege in which Corker decked McQuilken five times: "Isn't anybody going to block him?" Those five sacks didn't even constitute Corker's best game. On May 16 against New Jersey this rampaging loudmouth, who's known as Sac Man to his friends, got to the quarterback six times.
Last Sunday he probably wished he had saved up a couple of those as Michigan lost a heartbreaker 29-20 to the Philadelphia Stars, the USFL's best team—12-2 on the year—in Philly's Veterans Stadium. The Stars knew all about Corker and didn't run once to his side of the field. It's news when Corker doesn't get a tackle in the opponents' backfield, and to help make that news, the Stars stationed three receivers on his flanks, sent men in motion and focused a great deal of attention on him. Philly Tackle Brad Oates, who earlier in the week had come into the club offices at eight in the morning several times to study Michigan game films, said, "The line tried to neutralize Corker's game by going at him. You can't be tentative or sit back and wait for him. You really have to be aggressive."
The Stars, who had yielded 45 sacks in their earlier games, gave up only two on Sunday, neither by Corker, who was kept so busy that he was able to rush Quarterback Chuck Fusina only 10 times all afternoon. Fusina, whose slowness in getting rid of the ball had made him a vulnerable target in previous games, was in top form, connecting on 24 of 32 passes for 227 yards and three TDs.
Nonetheless, Corker still leads the USFL with a resounding 21 sacks, 10 more than runner-up Fred Nordgren of Tampa Bay. If he were a fighter pilot, the emblems on his plane denoting enemy kills would stretch back to the tail assembly. No wonder Corker, who thinks false humility is dishonest, talks about himself. Teammate Thorn Dornbrook, an offensive guard, says. "He's got a right to be flamboyant. He's the best linebacker in the league."
It's intriguing to think, as Corker goes about singlehandedly dismantling opponents' game plans, that he might be playing out of position. In college at Oklahoma State in 1976-79, he was primarily a middle linebacker and in his junior year tore apart the Big Eight before an injury to his left knee stopped him. "He had 130 tackles in seven games that season before he got hurt," says Jim Stanley, the former coach at Oklahoma State who's now head man with the Panthers. "I've never seen anything like it, before or since."
Michigan's linebacker coach, Larry Coyer, worked under Stanley at Oklahoma State, and occasionally they muse about the possibility of shifting to a 4-3 defense so they could move Corker into the middle. "I've seen all of the great ones—Jack Lambert at Pittsburgh, Lee Roy Jordan at Dallas—and it's not even close," says Coyer. "The guy we saw at Oklahoma State, he was better than all of 'em."
Surprisingly, were it not for the USFL, Corker might by now have disappeared from pro football. With the Houston Oilers, for whom he wore a uniform and often a sour expression in 1980, '81 and '82, Corker was strictly an understudy behind Robert Brazile and Ted Washington, Houston's top linebackers.
"John's not the kind of guy you can mislead [Corker felt the Oiler coaches had promised to give him a better shot at a starting job than he got]," says Stanley, trying to explain Corker's dismal showing in the NFL. "Once he doesn't trust you, you're just whistlin' Dixie. He's got a deep pride, contrary to what you might gather from his outward behavior."