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Things began to jell, ironically enough, during Penn State's only loss, 42-21 to Alabama. Warner and the running game and Blackledge and the passing game approached parity. Warner carried only 12 times for 40 yards, but he also caught five passes for 90 of Blackledge's 234 yards. Over the last six games, against Syracuse, West Virginia, Boston College, North Carolina State, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, Warner averaged 130 yards per game, up from 52.2 during the first five, while Blackledge's passing yardage dropped from an average of 241.4 to 168.5.
The end result was a 1,041-yard season for Warner and a Sugar Bowl team with exceptional offensive balance: 2,283 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground, 2,369 yards and 22 touchdowns through the air. "If this isn't the best team I've had here," says Paterno, "it's certainly as good as any...as good as the '71 team when we had Franco [Harris] and Lydell [Mitchell] in the same backfield, probably better." In the Heisman Trophy balloting, Warner finished 11th and Blackledge finished sixth. Along with the signal success of his team, what Paterno has enjoyed most this year has been watching Warner grow up. "People say to me, 'Why do you stay in college coaching?' You stay in college coaching because of guys like Curt. It just doesn't seem possible that in four years someone can come from being a big, wide-eyed, naive kid with a lot of enthusiasm out of a small town in West Virginia to where he's a very mature, confident man."
Warner grew up in tiny Wyoming (pop. 200) at the southern end of the Allegheny Mountain coal-mining region, near the Virginia and Kentucky borders. He was a year-round sports nut who could always be found with his older brother Robert—known as Peewee—at the school yard down the road from their home, playing whatever game happened to be in season. His was the only black family for 20 miles around; the Warners had been there for some 60 years, ever since Curt's great-grandfather, a Baptist preacher, moved to Wyoming from North Carolina.
Warner's "parents" are really his grandfather, Jim, whom Curt calls Pops, and his grandmother, Lottie Mae. They adopted Curt and Peewee as babies. Curt's natural mother, with whom he exchanges occasional phone calls, lives with her husband in Cleveland. Jim Warner worked in the coal mines for 41 years. For 22 years Jim coached Little Leaguers, including Curt. Since 1978 he has been assistant coach of the girls' softball team at Pineville High (450 students), which Curt attended. At Pineville, Warner scored 89 touchdowns in three seasons, including 48 in his senior year, and Governor Jay Rockefeller tried to recruit him for West Virginia University. Paterno became sold on Warner while watching him play basketball. Curt was a star in baseball, too. Once a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies drove the serpentine route through the mountains to Warner's home, took him to a baseball diamond and got a friend of Curt's to throw a dozen new baseballs to him. Warner lost most of them in the woods behind the leftfield fence.
But Warner found baseball to be "too slow," and he was too small for big-time basketball, so off he went to play football at Penn State. In his first game, against Rutgers, as a freshman he ran for 100 yards, caught two passes for 71 more, returned four kickoffs for 109 and scored three touchdowns. "We didn't even know who Warner was," said Rutgers Coach Frank Burns after the game. "Who is he?"
There are still a lot of people who don't know who Warner is, four years, 3,398 yards and 30 TDs later. And, among those who do know who Warner is, few know how good a running back he really is. Paterno believes he's as good as Herschel Walker—that name again—as do most of his teammates.
"I know how good I am and I don't know how good anyone else really is, O.K.?" says Warner. "I'm better than I was last summer, and my team is much better than it was last week, so don't ask me anymore, O.K.?"
But he's softening.
"Good team," Warner says.