The Lomax house in Lake Oswego, a woodsy Portland bedroom community, is surrounded by blue drifts of grape hyacinth. Pink camellias shed thick mounds of blooms into the pachysandra, as they have done every spring for the 19 years the family has lived here. Just now all the Lomaxes but one are gathered in the living room, awaiting the telecast of a Trail Blazers playoff game.
Dave Lomax, Neil's father, is a calm, thick-waisted man who teaches music in the Portland public schools. Neil's mother, Carol, is an administrative secretary with the Lake Oswego schools. She was a fine swimmer for the Multnomah Athletic Club. "I wanted Neil to be a swimmer," she says, describing the natural efficiency of his childhood stroke, "and when he was six years old he broke Don Schollander's park pool record in a 25-yard race. Don himself was there to give him his ribbon."
"He shook my hand," says Neil, "and that was my last taste of the lake."
"Neil saw that swimmers had to get up at six to work out before school," says Dave, "and he said, 'No way.' "
"I was always a fairly good size as a kid, and played little league football and baseball, and basketball in school," says Neil, whose father coached him in baseball and eventually became president of the Lake Grove Little League. "But my freshman year at Lake Oswego High, I was too slow to be a running back and too small for the line positions." So the coaches asked him a fateful question: "Can you throw the ball?"
"I did well enough to start on the freshman team, then made jayvee as a soph and quarterbacked the varsity my last two years," Neil says. But in high school Lomax' light was hidden under a bushel known as the Power I. "We ran the ball a lot. My whole senior year I only threw for seven touchdowns." He looks at his knuckles, humility struggling against the urge to report more recent statistics. "This year I threw seven in one quarter," he adds.
Baseball was Lomax' favorite sport in high school. He pitched and played first and batted .350 for three years. "I had higher aspirations for baseball in college than for football," he says. But in the winter of his senior year, 1977, he came to feel the attraction of Darrel (Mouse) Davis. Then the head Portland State football coach and now an assistant at Cal. Davis is a small man with a voice like the middle register of a chain saw. His diligent wooing, combined with the absence of anyone else's, persuaded Lomax to sign with PSU, a Division I-AA school with a shoestring athletic budget.
"I have absolutely no regrets," says Lomax. "I have a solid education in speech and journalism. I'll be shy nine hours after this spring because I've dropped a couple of classes to travel to NFL physical exams, but I'll get that degree if it's the last thing I do."
Lomax began at PSU as a freshman fifth-string quarterback. By the eighth game he had worked up to second, and then the starter was hurt. "Someone's broken leg here, someone else's mistake there," says Dave, "and all of a sudden he was playing. It came so suddenly."
And once Lomax was playing, success came like an avalanche. In his last four games of that first season, he threw for 1,411 yards and 16 touchdowns. "I was astounded at myself," he says. "I mean, I knew I could compete. I always felt I could strike out a guy or complete a pass. I always wanted to be the dominant, the take-charge kind of guy...." But even in his wildest dreams the 18-year-old freshman never imagined the sort of game he would have in the season finale against Montana State, completing 41 of 59 passes for 469 yards and six touchdowns.