Then there were the fans. In Pittsburgh they're tough and knowledgeable and spoiled by years of Steeler and Panther success. "They think nothing of booing a player who's not a pro, not even a man yet," says John Pelusi, the center on Pitt's 1976 national championship team and now a local financial consultant. The fans got on All-America quarterback Marino so mercilessly for having a subpar senior season that even Joe Paterno, coach of archrival Penn State, was moved to tell a Pittsburgh reporter in early December, "I think we got to get rid of that junk."
Pitt has no athletic dorms and few special rules for athletes. Nothing insulates the players from the commotion around them. The campus consists of a number of high-rises near Forbes Avenue at the eastern end of the city, just below the Hill District's ghetto. Bars, night spots and liquor stores dot the area, and drinking is almost de rigueur for students. In fact, there's a bar less than a hundred yards from where Becker fell. The urban setting is both the beauty and the blemish of the school. "It takes a special kind of kid to go to Pitt," says Aschenbrenner. "It's not Happy Valley U., with a quaint little campus. But it's always exciting. Just stand on Forbes Avenue for 45 minutes and see how many fire trucks and police cars go by."
O'Brien recalls that when he was a freshman at Pitt in 1960, a Panther football player was stabbed in a city bar. O'Brien also remembers celebrating his 21st birthday, the first day he could legally drink, in a tavern where he and his pals had already been drinking for two years. "You're not in an incubator at Pitt," says O'Brien. "This school prepares you for the real world." Last year, perhaps, Pitt's football players could have used a buffer zone, an area where they could have rested and been debriefed before leaving their world up on the hill at Pitt Stadium and entering the one below.
By late November, dissension had begun to plague the team. Pitt had lost two of its last three games and everyone was dumbfounded. Lewis, who's now with the Green Bay Packers, publicly blasted some of his teammates for not giving their all. Eventually, Associate Athletic Director Dean Billick called a press conference just so Lewis and others could explain their statements. But the biggest problem was so natural it defied resolution. The players felt rootless—"There was always the question, 'Whose team is it, Sherrill's or Fazio's?' " says Bozik—and they were unable to rally as a group. They were simply too young. Senior Wide Receiver Dwight Collins claims that pressure isn't a problem for him now that he's married. The commitment, says Collins, gives him "discipline and order." But he quickly adds, "Other guys may not have it."
Order is not a natural gift of youth, particularly not of young football players. In this context order doesn't mean the drive to work or the willingness to make sacrifices for a larger goal; football players have that to an extreme. What is meant is the order one obtains from having priorities set, from being at peace, from knowing the difference between a violent game and a society that frowns on violence, from knowing, as Bozik says, "when to turn it on and when to turn it off."
Becker was still learning when to turn it on and off. The Panthers' 1982 media guide says the 6'2", 214-pounder's favorite pastime was lifting weights. "He was such a good football player," says his father, Al, a trucker. "He was a killer." But the same aggressiveness that delighted every coach Becker ever had was a problem off the field.
On his left calf Becker bore a tattoo of a grinning Sylvester the Cat hanging Tweety bird by the neck with a piece of rope. It was a violent tattoo, and Becker sometimes seemed violent himself. "He sort of scared you at first, because you couldn't tell what he was going to do," says John Caito, a junior defensive back who was a friend of Becker's from Massachusetts. "But he wasn't a brute. He cared for the people around him. And he loved kids. But he was kind of...wild. I remember my dad saying to me, 'You can only cross that white line so many times.' And I'd think, 'Todd's crossing it again. What's going to happen to him? Something is.' "
Bozik has often thought about the dilemma of youthful exuberance, in both sport and war. "Football training is very much analogous to military training," he says. "In both cases young men are trained to do things they instinctively would not do. This has to condition your psyche, but the question is, can you convert that training and use its positive elements in normal life? In the military we have what we call 'war lovers,' the ones who can't turn it off. But everyone is constantly trained to act like gentlemen when not in a battle situation.
"Basically, I believe in the Aristotelian philosophy of striking a median, a balance. Any characteristic taken to an extreme becomes a vice. After all, getting into trouble, doing stupid things—that's not really the province of football players. It's traditional for young people to get into trouble."
But football players tend to be wilder than other students. At Pitt this is particularly true of defensive players. In a primitive way Panther defenders have always seemed to represent those Pittsburghers who would love just once to strike out from their dreary jobs—or joblessness—and tear into the big guys. "People here love to see Pittsburgh teams beat the hell out of teams from prettier places," says O'Brien.