As a dedicated Christian, Curt Warner is practiced at handling temptation. As it does with any superior athlete, it comes looking for him all the time. If Warner happens to be taking a pitchout seven yards deep in the Penn State backfield, there's no problem. If he can, he'll skip-step one way or another to find an opening and then speed away, with would-be tacklers sprawled on the field behind him. If he must, he'll tighten up his muscled body—all six feet, 205 rock-solid pounds of it—then uncoil and sock it to the defense.
It's when he isn't carrying a football that temptation confronts Warner. It invites him to supplement his deeds with words, as though the deeds themselves are not proof enough of his worth. It is as if two straight seasons of 1,000-plus yards rushing (preceded by one 78 yards short of 1,000), the breaking of 11 single-season and 10 career Penn State records set by the likes of Lydell Mitchell and John Cappelletti, are less meaningful because Warner hasn't won the Heisman Trophy, because Penn State hasn't been No. 1, because Warner might have done a whole lot more if not for recurring hamstring pulls and leg cramps—if not for this...if not for that. Warner knows he could have done a whole lot more in his four years at Penn State, and he is very often tempted to say so. something he knows isn't right, especially for a dedicated Christian. At such times, the only thing for him to do is plant himself resolutely and go eyeball-to-eyeball with the temptation, until it is defeated.
This is all the more difficult because Warner, intelligent and well spoken, loves to talk. He's a speech communications major interested in a broadcasting career—or possibly the ministry—when an expected hitch in the NFL is completed. In the weeks leading up to his team's date with destiny—the battle for the national championship against unbeaten and top-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's night—Warner has been sorely tried. Wait for the game, he keeps telling himself.
Here he was, fooling around one day on campus at the statue of the Penn State mascot atop the Nittany Lion Shrine trying not to think about Georgia or New Orleans. In the gray cold of the December morning, the animal and the man seemed to have been sculpted from the same stone. Then Warner's face melted. Temptation. He tried to fight it off but couldn't this time. Warner couldn't resist becoming playful. He scratched the mountain lion's limestone ears and said, "Tell me, if a lion was going to fight a bulldog, which one would you want? No contest. The lion is the meanest animal in the business."
"Herschel Walker is a pretty mean Bulldog," someone said.
There it was: the red cape brandished. Temptation heaped upon temptation. Herschel Walker! Warner rolled his eyes. He coughed a couple of times into his fist. "Oh, yes. I've met Mr. Walker," he said.
"I've met Mr. Walker."
A shrug signaled end of comment. But then he added, "We'll see on January first." Warner has confronted superstars before.
A year ago Marcus Allen of Southern Cal, the Heisman Trophy winner, was the bait. Penn State had a New Year's date with USC in the Fiesta Bowl, and Allen was the focus of pregame attention. Warner might be lucky to attract a reporter or two looking for a sidebar. Mind you, Warner had had big games of his own—238 yards against Nebraska and 256 against Syracuse—and had rolled up 1,044 for the season despite missing two games and half of two others because of injuries. Once he went so far as to say he felt "stabbed" because he hadn't even received enough votes to finish among the Top Ten in the Heisman balloting. But the reporters kept trying to get him to say something specific about Allen, and finally, on New Year's Eve, he succumbed. "I haven't told anybody else this," he said to The New York Times. "But...I'm going to steal his spotlight." On the following afternoon he outrushed the Heisman winner 145 yards to 85 and scored two TDs in Penn State's 26-10 victory.