Buffing the rough edges

National | League-leading Vikings benefit from Cunningham's new clarity

Issue: "Pilgrims' progress," Nov. 28, 1998

There's nothing else in American sports like the task of quarterbacking. It requires a mind able to decipher opponents' defenses and make last-minute, play-changing decisions, an arm ready to whip the ball many yards downfield, and a will strong enough to inspire tired teammates. It's a challenge to the old, the young, and the troubled. The reborn pro quarterback Randall Cunningham retired from the NFL with a reputation for concern about his own statistics, not his teammates. But, away from football for a year and spending his days working in a marble and granite business, the 35-year-old came to see that he and others were alike raw material for God: "You shine that stuff up and it looks real good." Mr. Cunningham says that God shined him up during the tough times-economic and psychological-that he had after leaving football. He credits a closer relationship with Christ and a strengthened bond with his family for his newfound clarity on and off the field. No longer self-centered, by early November he had led his new team, the Minnesota Vikings, into first place in its division-and then a knee injury threatened to take him out of action. The old Cunningham would have been angry, but the shined-up one told reporters, "Hopefully the bench will be warm." Good thing for the Vikings he never had to find out. Right after the injury, doctors removed two bone chips from his right knee. Mr. Cunningham played the next game despite soreness and led his team to another victory.
-Zander Blunt The young Heisman candidate
As a top high-school quarterback, Tim Couch had every huge football school in the country eyeing him. He turned down the top-rated programs to help revive football at the home-state school he had dreamed of since childhood, the University of Kentucky. Revive it he has. Basketball-crazy Kentucky has suffered years of football futility, but the Wildcats improved immensely last year, when Mr. Couch passed for 37 touchdowns and could have gone pro-but he felt he "needed a little experience." This year he is leading Kentucky to a bowl game and is one of the top five candidates for the Heisman Trophy, given to the player deemed the best footballer in the land. For once, then, an approach that Southern agrarians would like-don't abandon your roots in a search for big-time glory-is paying off. According to several draft insiders, Mr. Couch could become the first overall pick in the NFL draft, which would make him the quarterback-to-be of an expansion team, the Cleveland Browns. That's a revival prospect even more daunting than Kentucky's, but Mr. Couch is for the moment putting aside such thoughts: "Right now, it's time to play college football, and that's the only thing I'm thinking about."
-Andrew Fox The troubled talent
Randall Cunningham has learned from his mistakes, and Tim Couch has yet to make his. Kerry Collins is right in the middle of a mess he has made. Last month, with unkempt hair, sloppy clothes, and a fat cigar gripped between his lips, New Orleans Saints quarterback Kerry Collins strolled by reporters outside the North Carolina jail where he had been booked. It was not exactly the scene of remorse one might expect after having just been charged with drunk driving. Mr. Collins was the Carolina Panthers quarterback, but the team released him earlier this season after he told head coach Dom Capers that he no longer had the heart to play for the team. The prodigal quarterback was quickly signed by Mike Ditka, who coaches the New Orleans Saints and over the past several years has become a Christian, and a vocal one. Mr. Collins desperately needs the Ditka touch, because nine hours after his old and new teams played each other, with the Carolina crowd constantly booing him, he was arrested near the stadium in an area filled with restaurants and bars. Mr. Collins contends he does not have a drinking problem, but that he suffers from "a severe lack of judgment." Instances of boozing and womanizing can be tracked back to his days at Pennsylvania State University. Last season, after a night at a bar, the quarterback's teammates-those he is expected to lead-accused him of making racist comments to a fellow team member during an altercation. On the day after his arrest, Mr. Collins read a self-prepared statement to the media. With shaking hands and a subdued voice, he said, "I completely accept full responsibility for my actions. Driving under the influence of alcohol is a serious offense, one which should not be taken lightly. This is my first offense, and it will be my only offense." But does he have within himself the power to back up his words with his actions? Or does Coach Ditka need to teach him something much more important than how to call the right plays on the field?
-Chad Scott, Blaine Bybee, and Erin Anthony

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