But that was only the Fiesta Bowl, after all; no national championship was at stake. This year it's another story, and another test, against the 1982 Heisman winner, Walker. "Yes, I've met Mr. Walker," is all Warner will say for now.
The lesson of last season spurred Warner to work harder than he had before; he wanted to gain strength and to avert the nagging muscle pulls that kept him from being all that he felt he could be. He forsook spring football practice to run the sprints in track—not to win but to get his legs in better shape. He stayed in State College over the summer, running twice daily and lifting weights religiously, adding 10 pounds of muscle to his chest and shoulders. He knew his yardage would be tougher to come by in the '82 season, because the Nittany Lions had graduated four outstanding offensive linemen—Sean Farrell, Mike Munchak, Jim Romano and Vyto Kab—but Warner felt his new strength and determination would offset the losses.
The early result was bitter disappointment. Although Penn State won its first four games, it did so not on the strength of the running game, but on the passing of junior Quarterback Todd Blackledge, Warner's roommate and best friend.
In the opener against Temple, Warner carried just 13 times for 49 yards, while Blackledge threw for 203 yards and four touchdowns. In the locker room Warner was badgered by reporters. Was Warner disappointed? Was he jealous of his roommate? Did he think his Heisman hopes were dashed? He tried to contain himself, but couldn't. He was seen crying. He complained about the coaching. Everything he said and did made the papers, and things only got worse for a while. Against Maryland, Warner gained 45 yards; Blackledge threw four more TD passes. Against Rutgers, Warner had 49 yards; Blackledge threw four more TD passes. In the Nebraska game, Warner finally got on track, rushing for 69 yards in the first half, but in the second his legs cramped up so badly because of the tight elastic girdle he wore to protect his thick thighs from muscle pulls that he hardly played at all—and the game was won with a last-minute miracle drive led by Blackledge and a touchdown pass, his third.
Warner was torn up and his relationship with Blackledge had inevitably become difficult. They have been the closest of friends for three years—"Curt is the brother I never had," says Blackledge—and do everything together. They go to practice together, come home together, eat dinner together, play together, pray together. They are leaders in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter on campus. The one thing Warner couldn't do was let his own disappointment cast a pall over Blackledge's success. "I'm happy that Todd had a great year this year. I really am," Warner says now, though a measure of his own sacrifice is audible in his words.
"For a while, I was afraid I wouldn't even gain a thousand yards for the season," he says. "When you're carrying 13 times for 49 yards a game, you don't think of yourself as a top-caliber running back. I really got down. I had set goals for myself and, one by one, I had to let them go. After the first three or four games, there was no further use in me even thinking about the Heisman. By that point I just wanted to have one good game—forget about a great year. I'd get to the middle of a ball game and not feel like playing anymore. There were times when I really, honestly doubted myself, everything that I had thought about myself up until that time. All of a sudden I found myself wondering how good I really was. What was going on? It would have been different if I had been hurt, sure. Then I would have had an excuse. But I had no excuse. I'd go to the sidelines saying to myself, 'Hey. What's going on? Had I thought too much of myself before? Was my ability an illusion?' That shook me because I had never lacked confidence since I was about 15 years old."
"It was kind of a trying time," says Blackledge. "We tried running in the early part of the season, but the holes just weren't there, and I think Curt may have put a little too much pressure on himself, thinking there was something with him. He was full of doubts, while I had never felt more confident about myself."
Although the team was winning, the two friends couldn't discuss matters comfortably, so they discussed them not at all, creating periods of embarrassing silence in their three-bedroom off-campus apartment. "Curt's the kind of person who doesn't open up real easily, except with me," says Blackledge. "But that was a time when he was closed for a while. He was happy that I was doing well, but he had to fight through his own disappointment alone."
Seeing Warner sulking and doubting himself troubled Coach Joe Paterno greatly. Paterno knew long before the season started that, with an inexperienced offensive line, the running game would take time to develop. Because he had Blackledge and a number of veteran receivers—including Warner—Paterno decided to concentrate on passing, hoping that a quality ground attack would follow. At first Paterno thought Warner understood this; then he realized that he hadn't prepared his star running back for the reality of the situation. "A lot of it was my fault," says Paterno. "I should have sat him down and said, 'Hey, Curt, you know you're not going to be able to carry the ball too much early in the season.' " By now Warner has come to understand what Paterno was trying to do, and regardless of whether Penn State wins or loses the Sugar Bowl, the way the offense did develop can only add to Paterno's reputation.
Says Warner, "Some of the dreams that I had kind of went down the drain, to tell the truth. But I think I became a tougher football player. Really. By the end of the season I was as tough a football player as there was in the country."