Detmer has been an unlikely Heisman candidate ever since he and his family first motored north from San Antonio to Provo, the first stop on a tour of campuses that was supposed to help him choose a college. That was in 1986, the summer after Ty's junior year in high school. He had just been named Texas Player of the Year while playing for his father, Sonny, at Southwest High. He was not entirely a secret to the big colleges, but then again it was early in the recruiting process and nobody had put the full rush on him. The idea of the tour, as Sonny remembers it, was to preempt a senior season of recruiting pitches with a quick strike of their own.
Ty's visit to BYU has grown into comic myth. Some BYU coaches have turned the occasion into a monologue. "Recruit him?" says Norm Chow, the quarterback coach. "You don't know the story? He recruited us!" Head coach La Veil Edwards says, "I'd heard of his numbers [8,005 yards in his high school career], of course, but we hadn't really recruited him, didn't have film on him. So I'm thinking John Elway, and in walks Pee-wee Herman." By now, Edwards has used this line so often that he ought to take up residence in Pee-wee's Playhouse.
Ty had seen Bosco go pass-crazy in a televised game, and put BYU on his list of 10 prospective schools. But the clincher was Provo itself. Ty took one look at the rugged wilderness behind the campus and realized how many opportunities it offered for an outdoors enthusiast. Though a Methodist, he felt he could forgo one of his favorite refreshments, iced tea, in accordance with Mormon proscriptions against not only alcohol but also caffeinated beverages. So he committed himself on the spot to BYU.
The way Edwards and Chow tell the tale, there was a lot of head-scratching over Ty's decision. "That seemed kind of easy," Edwards says he told Chow at the time. "Is there something we don't know?" According to the legend, the coaches weren't quite sure about offering Ty a scholarship but decided to, kind of on a whim. The Detmers, meanwhile, cut short their campus tour and spent the rest of their time fishing the Provo River.
As in many tall tales, there is a kernel of truth here. The Detmers did indeed fish the Provo. But assistant coach Claude Bassett, who was actively recruiting Ty, is so weary of this retelling that he actually begins sputtering: "That is so much..."—say it, Claude—"...folklore."
The recruitment story is only one element of the legend that has grown up around Detmer in Provo. Everything but his accomplishments invites caricature. Perhaps overly sensitive to the fact that Detmer will never be mistaken for Troy Aikman in terms of physical stature, university publicists have gone a tad overboard the other way. He's kind of pitiful-looking, they tell you. "You haven't seen him yet?" asks Chow, delighted at the prospect of another opportunity for mistaken identity. Zobell once arranged an interview for an out-of-town reporter and walked into the office to see the reporter totally ignoring Detmer across the room. The reporter thought the slight young man was one of Zobell's student interns. Zobell now offers a helpful identification tip. "He has my Adam's apple," he says.
"Ty Detmer," says Edwards, pretending to think it over, "looks more like Pee-wee...."
The other thing BYU wants you to know is that Detmer can hardly throw that ball. "His passes kind of flutter," says Chow. "Take forever to get there." Wide receiver Andy Boyce admits, "they're not bullets." La Veil, who would you say he throws like? Never mind.
So this is what the Heisman Trophy has come to? The winner is a virtual walk-on, undersized and athletically bankrupt? Well, this is all—say it, Claude—folklore. In truth, Detmer has remarkable skills and abilities. Sonny remembers Ty as a natural athlete who excelled in golf, baseball and basketball, as well as in football. "And he's always been extremely competitive," Sonny says.
As far as coaching young Ty, Sonny says he did nothing extraordinary. "About the only thing I told him was, 'Keep your elbow up.' I remember we'd throw this itty-bitty white plastic ball. He was about one year old, and I'd say, 'Keep your elbow up or I'm going inside.' " Folklore alert! Folklore alert!