Sports Illustrated, September 23, 1996


The Can't Miss Kid

That's the role Ron Powlus was supposed to play at Notre Dame. This is real life: Everyone misses sometimes

by Rick Reilly



This is what the janitor, tilted back in his folding chair, yelled to Ron Powlus last Friday, the day before the Purdue game, as Powlus was hurrying to his 12:50 marketing management class: "Tomorrow is your day, Ronnie! Don't forget that! Tomorrow is your day!"

This is how many people were in the stands the day Powlus played his first varsity high school football game for Berwick (Pa.) High: 40,000.

This is what ESPN's Beano Cook said the weekend Powlus played his first game for Notre Dame: "Ron Powlus will win the Heisman two times and be the greatest quarterback in the history of Notre Dame."

These are a few of the guys who have played quarterback at Notre Dame: George Gipp, Johnny Lujack, Paul Hornung, Daryle Lamonica, John Huarte, Terry Hanratty, Joe Theismann and Joe Montana.

This is what Notre Dame quarterbacks before Powlus won: 13 bowl games, 13 All-America awards, 11 national championships and 4 Heismans.

This is how many bowl games Powlus has won, national championships he has won, Heismans he has won, Heismans he has been in the running for and weeks Notre Dame has been ranked No. 1 since he started playing (combined): 0.

This is what NBC's John Dockery said as part of a violin-accompanied, soft-filtered five-minute tribute before Powlus's first snap at Notre Dame Stadium, in September 1994: "We're unveiling a very special painting today, like a Mona Lisa."

This is what the human painting has gone through so far as the most hyped athlete in modern Notre Dame history: a broken collarbone (twice), a broken left arm, a swollen elbow, a strained knee, a concussion, seven losses (including one to Northwestern), a tie, a near loss to Vanderbilt, repeated rumors that he was transferring, one rumor that he'd broken his foot, one rumor that he'd broken his right arm and one rumor that he was marrying his high school coach's daughter.

This is how many broken bones Powlus had while starting a school-record 42 straight games at Berwick High: 0.

This is what Theismann said after Powlus had spent two seasons under the Golden Microscope: "Ron Powlus's skills, unfortunately, have not improved."

These are the Notre Dame records Powlus owned at week's end: most touchdown passes in one season (19), most touchdown passes in one game (4), most passing yards per game in a career (175.5) and most touchdown passes per game in a career (1.39).

This is who wanted pictures of him the day before the Purdue game, as he tried to be a student/son/boyfriend/idol/legend-in-training: NBC; Sports Illustrated; 37 fans with 37 cameras, most of whom forgot to take their lens caps off; Channel 16 in South Bend; and the photographer for his senior picture, who sat him down in the middle of it all and reminded him to try to relax.

This is what his high school coach, George Curry, thinks: "This kid is flawless. I mean, he's perfect! Oh, man!"

This is the only trouble with being the Can't Miss Kid: Sometimes you miss.

This is what his best friend, Thomas Wolfgang Krug, says about him: "He's to himself, dude. He's a great guy, but he won't tell you about it."

This is what it says above his desk: do good, then disappear.

This is what an 81-year-old man gave him the day before the Purdue game as Powlus was coming out of his 10:40 industrial marketing class: a picture of the man's gravestone, with the green Notre Dame logo on one side and a green shamrock on the other. "I want you to have this, Ronnie," he said.

This is what the headlines said after his first college game, in which he threw for four touchdowns in a win over Northwestern:

Chicago Sun-Times: overnight sensation.

Chicago Tribune: promise is fulfilled.

South Bend Tribune: he's among immortals.

This is what ESPN's Lee Corso said he would do if he were Lou Holtz at halftime of the Irish's 14-7 season-opening win over Vanderbilt on Sept. 5: "I'd make a quarterback change."

This is what the South Bend Tribune's Dave Haugh wrote about Powlus after the Vanderbilt game, Powlus's first game back after doctors removed the metal rod they had inserted on Nov. 5 through his left shoulder to stabilize his broken arm: "Surgery didn't cure his happy feet or quick-trigger finger.... He doesn't have Tony Rice's smile, Rick Mirer's supporting cast, Peyton Manning's release or even [backup] Jarious Jackson's quickness.... When he dropped back to pass against Vanderbilt, he often looked as disheveled as a man running late for work in search of his car keys."

This was what his dad, Ron Sr., says about media criticism of his son: "Why do they do that? He's just a kid. He's doing the best job he can. He's just a kid."

This is what his mother, Susan, says through watery eyes about what has happened to her son: "The media lifted Ronnie higher than life. It's everyone's opinion, I guess, but I don't have to read it. He doesn't want to read it. Ronnie is not a machine. Nobody winds him up in the morning. But imagine picking up a newspaper and reading horrible things about your son. It hurts."

This is what Susan Powlus did for 10 years: ran the public relations department for the local newspaper.

This is the kid's horrible performance against Vanderbilt that had everybody so upset: 19 of 32, no touchdowns, no interceptions, 434 yards of total offense and a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter that included five straight completions, a first-and-27 and a third-and-14.

This is how many catches his entire wide-receiving corps - except senior Emmett Mosley - had going into this season: 1.

This is how many E-mail messages Powlus had one night in the 1994 season when he got home from a game: 600. Because they took up so much memory space, his computer was unable to open any of them.

This is what Powlus wrote about his first year in college football's only hyperbaric chamber:

Graduation.
Leave Home.
I can do anything.
Great start.
Pressure Building.
2 Heismans?
Expectations Unreal.
Broken collarbone.
... I'm human?
Regular person.... First time, ever.
I'll show them.

This is what his dad said to him every day after school: "Make an A today?"

This is what the referee said to him in the fourth grade when he stepped up to the fourth-grade free throw line in the fourth-grade basketball league: "You've got to shoot from the regular free throw line. You're too good."

This is what he said to his dad that afternoon through his tears: "Why does everybody treat me different?"

This is when 12-year-old Ron Powlus finished delivering his newspapers, the ones that had to be there by 7 a.m.: 5:30 a.m.

This is what 14-year-old Ron Powlus would do for hours in his basement while the rest of his buddies were out playing: watch film of his footwork.

This was Powlus as a senior at Berwick High: star quarterback, honor-roll student, homecoming king, state player of the year, national player of the year, quarterback of the state champions, quarterback of the undefeated, top-ranked team in the nation, still in love with his seventh-grade girlfriend, the biggest celebrity in town, the biggest target in town, the kid who stayed home more Friday nights than anybody else.

This is why: One night, police busted up a huge teenage beer bash. Reporters from the local paper called 10 students, asking if Powlus was there. They all said he wasn't. No story ran.

This is what the New York photographer said to Powlus's parents toward the end of his senior year in high school: "What a great kid. Too bad we're gonna ruin him."

This is what Lou Holtz said about him after seeing him at the end of the summer before his freshman season: "It's obvious when he traces his ancestry, it will go back to Krypton, not Europe." Also, the week before he snapped his collarbone the first time: "He's starting."

This is what goes through your mind when your bones seem to be snapping like kindling, even though you're drinking enough milk to supply a preschool: You're dying. "I mean, I finally said to the doctors, 'Is there something wrong with my bones?'" Powlus says. The doctors said no, his bones were healthy.

This was the skit everybody remembered from the student comedy review during Powlus's freshman year: An actor playing Powlus was sitting at his desk. He dropped his pen, reached to get it and broke his arm. Everybody laughed. Powlus didn't go.

This is how Powlus finished the sentence on the sports-

information-department questionnaire that read, "Since coming to Notre Dame, I've learned ______": how to read X-rays.

This is how many times Powlus lost in his first college season: 5.

This is how many times Powlus lost in his entire high school varsity career: 5.

This is what he said when he lay there with his dreams and his arm shattered last year after things had just begun to go so well, after he'd won seven of eight games and was finally getting people to climb off his back, what he told everybody in the hospital room through all the sniffles and tears and shocked expressions: "Hey, we'll be all right. This is just another character builder." And that's when his mom smiled and said, "Ronnie, how much character do you need?"

This is how much character he has: When his best friend from Berwick, Chris Blockus, was struggling at Mansfield (Pa.) University, Powlus called him nearly nightly to encourage him to hang in there. He sent Blockus inspirational quotes and stick-to-it cards. "You can do it," he would say. "You're a great student. Keep plugging along." And Blockus got to thinking, How could I let down the quarterback at Notre Dame? So he stuck it out, and he graduated. Now he travels all over Pennsylvania, working with foster kids, and sometimes he encourages them by saying, "You can do it. Keep plugging along." He would probably never tell his buddy this, but he's telling you now: "I'm a helluva lot better man just for having known him."

This is what Powlus wrote in big block letters and hung in his dorm room: fear is not fatal.

This is what it says on his Berwick High T-shirt, the one he has worn under his jersey for 81 straight games now, every game since he started high school, the shirt with the sewn tears and the frazzled collar and the faded letters, the one thing he owns that has been through nearly everything he has been through: w.e.t.s.u. (we eat this stuff up.)

This is what Powlus had to do before he could get his $40 out of the ATM the day before the Purdue game: sign six autographs, pose for five pictures and pause for two I-just-wanna-shake-your-hands.

This is what amazes his girlfriend, Sara Ivanina, 600 miles away at Kutztown (Pa.) University: "How can someone keep all that pressure inside and not burst?"

This is how many people he takes with him on those long, aimless, high-decibel drives in his blue Explorer all those days when the fans and the press and the coaches and the teammates and the well-wishers and the doomsayers and the cameramen and the students and the priests and the teachers and the alumni are closing in from all sides, when he needs to "just get away from my life": 0.

This is what he says every time he is asked if this will be his last year at Notre Dame, if he will turn pro next year or stay to use his fourth year of athletic eligibility, whether finally running that hitch pattern with Sara after all those years is a factor, whether he thinks he could improve his position in the draft with a great fourth year or whether he is as high now as he is going to get and might as well cash in, being already 22 and having such fickle luck with bones and all: "Depends."

This is the number of NFL Pro Bowl quarterbacks who have played for Holtz in his 26 years of college coaching: 0.

This is what Powlus has said about why a pure drop-back passer would play for a coach who has a crush on the option, why a quiet kid would come to the highest-pressure college team in the country on the back bumper of three years on the biggest-pressure high school team in the country, why a kid with a dream to star in the NFL would come to a place that Theismann says doesn't teach quarterbacks the skills they need "to move on to the next level," where Powlus himself has said he has felt "uncomfortable" running the option, where the coach himself has said that Powlus "doesn't have great feet - he's not real fast": "When we went on our visit," says Powlus's father, "we were walking through campus and the students were hurrying off to class, and it was so beautiful and Ronnie turned around to me with this big grin and said, 'Dad, look at this! This is what college is supposed to be about!'"

This is what Curry, Powlus's high school coach, says when you ask him how Powlus would've done in the BYU offensive scheme: "Ohhhh, mannnnn!"

This is why Florida State coach Bobby Bowden says he would pick Notre Dame if he were a high school quarterback: "If you can just halfway play football, you can win the Heisman. I mean, all you gotta do is wear that shirt."

This is what was going on at Notre Dame basketball's home, the Joyce Center, the day before the Purdue game, with 12,000 screaming fans, thousands more wanting to go but having to settle for watching it on television: a pep rally.

This is how many college quarterbacks besides Powlus have had their every game televised nationally: 0.

This is what Ivanina says about him: "He likes to live up to the expectations. He likes to live up to his fans' expectations. He likes to be a crowd pleaser."

This is what Holtz says about him: "I wish he could learn to forgive himself more easily."

This is what Powlus thinks of forgiving himself: "That'd be like giving up. That's not how I am. I'll never give up."

This is what he wrote about pressure in a little blue notebook in which he jots down his thoughts: "The crown is heaviest on the head that wears it—Phil Jackson."

This is a list of some Notre Dame quarterbacks who didn't throw for as many TDs and yards in their first season as Powlus: Montana, Theismann, Hanratty, Lamonica.

This is the reason Powlus never whines about bad luck or broken bones or omnivorous expectations: Thomas Wolfgang Krug.

Krug is the guy who has the most reason to hate Powlus but is his best friend instead; who kept trying and failing to unseat Powlus; who had the most reason to transfer but stayed; who had the most reason to secretly rejoice in Powlus's record-setting trips to the infirmary, but who was instead always there when the Tylenol couldn't come close to quelling the pain. Krug was pretty good in his own right. It was Krug who came on in the Navy game last season when Powlus broke his arm, came on to throw for two touchdowns and rally the Irish, came on to beat Air Force the next week, came on to throw three touchdowns in a loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl and yet was told that the job would always belong to Powlus.

But it was Krug who wound up with the worst break of all. It was Krug who was handed the worst X-ray of all, revealing that what he thought was a simple sprained neck would end his football career. The X-ray showed his first vertebra fused to the base of his skull and the second vertebra fused to the third, leaving his spinal cord vulnerable in between. Any whiplash could paralyze or kill him.

It was Powlus whom Krug took with him to the doctor's office that day, Powlus he needed to hold him up for the news he'd been warned he would get. They said nothing for about a half hour afterward, played cards wordlessly for another half hour, then they both cried. "I don't want this to sound like what happened to Tom made me feel better," says Powlus. "But it put things totally in perspective for me." Says Krug, "In a way, everything worked out for the best; Ronnie convinced me of that. I was lucky to find out when I did. I could be dead today. Or paralyzed. And I feel lucky I got my shot. Now Ronnie is able to finish his career. That's the way it should be.

"But it's weird. All that time, we were worried about it happening to him and it ends up happening to me."

This is what happened when Powlus finally got to the Purdue game: He threw one pass that was nearly intercepted in the first quarter, tossed another that was picked off in the end zone in the second, but threw for a touchdown with two seconds left in the first half, was seven for nine in converting third downs with passes, had the same stats as he'd had in the Vanderbilt game—19 for 32, just less than 250 yards passing—yet took no grief. This might be because Notre Dame won 35-0.

This was the dark cloud Powlus was able to find behind his silver lining: "I threw an interception. That puts a black mark on this game for me."

This was Holtz's reaction to Powlus's having thrown 23 passes in one half: "I don't ever want to see that happen again."

This is the quarterback Powlus passed to move up to No. 2 on the Notre Dame list for career touchdown passes: Theismann.

This is what an NFL scout says about him now: "Good arm, not great. Great thrower when his feet are set, not so good on the run. Great kid who's been through a lot. Nobody on earth could've lived up to those expectations. Probably a third-round pick."

This is what really has happened to the Can't Miss Kid: He has been, in sequence, overrated, underrated, underappreciated, misunderstood and, finally, unchanged. He has not been a Mona Lisa, but he has not been a $19 Starving Artist, either. He will make it to the NFL, but he will probably be more of a Joe Sixpack than a Joe Montana. He still stays home a lot of Friday nights, still loves his dog, his family and his seventh-grade girlfriend. He needs only one more class next semester and he will have his Notre Dame degree. The other day, with nobody around, his dad asked him, straight out, "Whaddya think, Ronnie? You think you made the right decision?" And the son said, "Dad, I couldn't imagine being anywhere else."

This is what that New York photographer told Powlus's parents the other day, told them with a big smile: "I stand corrected. We couldn't ruin your son."

This is what still stands between Powlus and the dream he dreams every day, perfectly awake, the dream of winning a national championship: Texas this week, Ohio State next, Washington two weeks after that and USC at the end.

This is what Holtz said to him as Holtz piled into his car after the Purdue game: "Gotta play perfect next week, Ronnie."

"Yessir," said Powlus.

This is what he wrote about it:

All eyes are on #3.
I can feel it.
I love it.
I'll show them.