Ara Parseghian, who took over as head coach at Northwestern seven seasons ago and who has had his ups and downs since then, may be the happiest Armenian in America at the moment, and all because of the presence on his Northwestern football squad of a tall, baby-faced, 19-year-old sophomore quarterback named Tom Myers. Myers, the most impressive new face—or arm—in college football this year, won the first-string quarterback job at Northwestern six months ago in spring practice, when he was still a freshman. Last month, in his first varsity game, he threw 24 passes and completed 20 of them, including 15 in succession, which may well have been the most auspicious debut a sophomore quarterback has ever made. He completed seven of 11 in his second game, 16 of 25 in the next (including four for touchdowns) and 18 of 30 in his next. Last Saturday against Notre Dame he shook the defense apart with his soft, sharp passes, and Northwestern breezed to its fifth straight victory 35-6. Myers completed 11 of 18 passes, two for touchdowns, threw two more for successful two-point extra points and then left the game halfway through the third period, his team leading 29-0 and his work for the day done.
The extent to which Myers and his extraordinary skill as a passer dominate Northwestern football can be shown in statistics, but beyond statistics, the significant impact Myers has had on this team lies in the extraordinary fact that even when he was a freshman his genius as a passer was so obvious that Ara Parseghian completely restyled his offense to take advantage of it. Where most college coaches are following Bear Bryant of Alabama and Woody Hayes of Ohio State into the conservative, close-to-the-vest, wait-for-your-opponent-to-make-a-mistake school of football, Parseghian turned to an aggressive pro-style offense with a flanker back out wide who is used only for pass receiving. The entire offense is geared to the quarterback's ability to throw the ball. Northwestern still runs with the ball two times out of three, but the rushing attack—though sharp and effective—is essentially a diversion to set up the pass patterns.
This gamble of Parseghian's—to bet everything on Myers—is paying off. Last year Northwestern was ninth in the Big Ten in passing; this year it has been leading the nation. Total yards gained has gone up from about 280 yards per game to just under 400. More important, Northwestern last year scored 131 points all year. This year that figure was passed in the fourth game of the season.
With the abundance of good passers in college football, how can one particular one suddenly erupt into brilliance? Well, the answer to that is that Tommy Myers did not suddenly erupt. He's 19 now, and he started his long surge upward to fame eight years ago when he was a grammar school kid In Troy, Ohio. Lou Juillerat, now coach at Findlay College, was then football coach at Troy High School, and he says he first became aware of Tommy when he was in the sixth or seventh grade. Tom's older brother, Mike, had shown considerable skill as an athlete, though he wasn't very big, and Juillerat, hearing that another Myers was coming along, was sort of keeping an eye out for Tommy. "At Troy we started them in the fifth or sixth grade in touch football and in the seventh they began tackling. Tommy was slightly built and I wasn't sure he'd ever develop physically but he sure could throw that ball."
Juillerat says that Tommy, a very earnest youngster, began lifting weights to build himself up and was very active in Troy's physical education program. He was a star tumbler in grammar school, a good diver, a good pole vaulter (he set a Troy High School record in the pole vault), but his prime interest was football.
"He was such a determined kid," says Juillerat. "As a sophomore he must have been a strapping 5 feet 9 and about 135 pounds, but he beat out our senior quarterback for the starting job in his first game. Bob Ferguson, who was All-America at Ohio State two seasons in a row, had just graduated from Troy and he left behind him three straight unbeaten seasons. Tommy was under some pressure in that first game but he threw two touchdown passes and he won it easily. He had such poise. I remember later that season, after our winning streak had finally ended at 35 straight, we were beating Xenia. Tom had a hot night. Late in the game after a touchdown I sent in directions for a quarterback dropkick for the extra point. We'd never drop-kicked before and I didn't do it after. It was just for kicks and I wanted to see how Myers would react. I can still hear him calling the signals: 'Quarterback drop-kick on two. Quarterback dropkick on two—who me?' But he didn't hesitate and he made a perfect dropkick for the extra point. You just don't rattle this kid."
Myers threw 73 touchdown passes in high school, 33 of them in his senior year, and made the Ohio State High School All-Stars. The question is frequently—and sometimes maliciously—raised as to how come Woody Hayes of Ohio State let this local prize escape. Juillerat says, "Well, Woody gave it a good try, but Tommy was smart enough to realize that Woody's football was not his style. I had to be honest with both Woody and Tommy and recommend that he go to a school where his passing ability could be utilized. It narrowed down to Northwestern and Wisconsin, and he finally picked Northwestern."
Paul Shoults, Northwestern's defensive backfield coach, was the talent scout who brought in this prize. "Our recruiting rules say we can talk to a high school coach once, away from the school, and get game films from him. I first noticed Myers on film when he was a junior, when I was actually looking at another kid. He was very impressive. The next year, when he was a senior, we were interested a Tommy and a boy named Vaughn, whose grades weren't quite high enough to get into Northwestern. He went to Iowa State. But Tommy came here. He gets tuition, room, board, books and standard football scholarship. He wanted to play Big Ten football and I told him that since Northwestern was the smallest school in the Big Ten—we have only 27 freshmen playing football this year—his chances of getting into the lineup were that much better."
This paragon of football virtues is 6 feet tall and weighs 183 pounds ("But he's still growing," says Paul Shoults. "He'll be a 190-pound quarterback before he finishes"). At Northwestern he is taking a business course in the school of education. His interest in classroom work is mild but he works hard because if he doesn't get passing grades he can't play football. He has a steady girl back home in Ohio named Letitia Bristley, and he doesn't date at Northwestern. In recent weeks he has been under almost constant pressure from visiting reporters and photographers—so much so that Ara Parseghian blew his top one day last week after Tommy had had a bad day in practice. Parseghian, who knows as well as anyone that Northwestern has never had an undefeated season, in effect put his star in isolation for the time being.
Despite the attention and the pressure and the lavish praise Myers remains quiet, startlingly modest and reserved to the point of shyness. In street clothes he looks more like a high school cheerleader than a college quarterback. Paradoxically, on the field he has no qualms at all about taking charge and running a team that consists in good part of experienced juniors and seniors.