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From the hospital Fazio went to his office, where he met Athletic Director Ed Bozik. A former Air Force colonel, Bozik was stunned. "I've sent men into combat, and some of those men haven't come back," he says. "But this death was so...unnecessary."
Perhaps this incident should be forgotten, written off as an aberration, an inexplicable college tragedy. But in its poignance it points to something deeper, something in youth itself. It also points to something in the fabric of big-time college football and to something in the atmosphere at Pitt, a school that boasts 93 years of proud football tradition, nine national championships and 57 All-Americas. Pitt is little different from the Oklahomas and Michigans, except that it resides in an NFL city where football is seen almost as a birthright of its citizens. And this matters.
"So much is expected of Pitt athletes," says Sports Information Director Jim O'Brien, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh and graduated from the school in 1964. "They aren't compared with other college players; they're compared with the Steelers. When a Pitt team plays a game, it's not just representing the university; it is representing the city of Pittsburgh, the City of Champions. Everything at this school is done under a magnifying glass."
Fazio shakes his head as he ponders Becker's fatal plunge. "There were so many events building up," he says. "So many things were bringing him closer to that window."
A lot of it had to do with pressure. Much of that was on Fazio himself. As a first-year coach Fazio, a former Pitt linebacker (class of '60) from nearby Coraopolis, was taking over a program that was so successful—the Panthers have more wins (71, including bowls) over the last seven years than any other Division I school—that he seemed more a cosmetic addition than a true leader. Pitt was most everybody's 1982 preseason pick for No. 1. It seemed that all the big-hearted, fun-loving, local-boy-makes-good Fazio had to do was roll out the ball, and the talent brought in by former Coach Jackie Sherrill could whip the Steelers themselves. Indeed, three Pitt players, Dan Marino. Tim Lewis and Jimbo Covert, were selected in the first round of this year's NFL draft, and six others were picked in later rounds.
Just winning wasn't enough, however. People wanted routs, annihilations. "We were seven and oh and getting ripped," says Fazio. "We beat Syracuse 14-0, and everybody said, 'What's wrong with the offense?' " Unlike most major football schools, Pitt is situated in a major media market, and thus the team comes under the scrutiny of a sophisticated press. From the start, Fazio's players felt the heat from the media. "Even training camp was like the Democratic National Convention," says Fazio. "Maybe I should have kept it looser. I don't know. But we did not play loose."
"The press was so hostile that I always felt it was us against the world," recalls Joyce Aschenbrenner, the football sports information director at Pitt last year and now the SID at UNLV. "I remember a column in a newspaper that referred to the 'well-oiled Pitt publicity machine.' I cut that out and put it in my wallet because it was so funny. People had no idea what we were going through. We were just hanging on for dear life."
In the beginning, Fazio stayed up in his observation tower, a la Bear Bryant, and surveyed his team darkly. Shortly before the start of preseason practice he learned that his wife. Norma, had cancer. "They operated on her on picture day," says Fazio. "I remember that." Norma was in and out of Presbyterian Hospital for more than a month, and suddenly her husband's world became very small. "We live three blocks from this office," says Fazio, leaning over his desk at the stadium and pointing out the window. "And the hospital's right across the street. To be honest, I was so busy with football and getting our two kids off to school and going over there that I don't know what I thought."
Fazio does know that the pressure on his players was "unbelievable." Money brought on part of it. As is the case at most big schools, Pitt's football program more or less subsidizes the university's entire athletic department. The team had better generate a given amount of TV and bowl-game income by season's end, or all hell can break loose. "What it means is that this is big business," says Bozik, "and that some 18- or 19-year-old is going to drop or catch a pass that will cost or make you a million dollars."
Also, for many of the players, getting drafted by the pros was a constant concern. Becker had plenty of time to make his mark, but he wasn't starting, and that frightened him. The ghosts of Panther stars past measured him daily. Just inside the Pitt locker room door, Tony Dorsett's Heisman Trophy glints dully. The retired lockers of Dorsett, Marino and Hugh Green, sealed over with Plexiglas and marked with metal plaques, remain in place and speak silently, almost mystically, of greatness. Becker's deepest fear focused on a bottling plant near his hometown in Fitchburg, Mass. "He always said he'd end up back at the plant if he didn't make it to the pros," said teammate Chris Warman the day after Becker died.