If nothing else, Chris Weinke is a stickler for having things in their proper order. “I’m a perfectionist,” confesses Weinke, quarterback of the sixth-ranked Florida State University football team. “If you walk into my room, my bed will be made, the hats will be lined up, the clothes will be folded, and the shirts will be organized in my closet in terms of long-sleeve and short-sleeve.” Which makes it all the more remarkable that the 6’5″, 229-lb. athlete has taken one of the most unconventional routes ever on the way to becoming, at the ripe age of 28, one of the top quarterbacks in all of college football.
Raised in St. Paul, Weinke grew up loving football, baseball and hockey. His parents—Ron, a warehouse supervisor, and Betty, a high school office worker, both 52—were enthusiastic supporters of Chris, his older brother Derek, 29, and their younger sister Sarah, 22. “I don’t think our parents ever missed a game,” says Weinke. By his senior year in high school, Chris was one of the country’s most highly touted young athletes. A hard-hitting first baseman on the Junior Olympic team that summer, he was also considered the country’s top high school quarterback prospect. Recruiting feelers came from 70-plus Division I schools. “I was getting as many as 40 calls a week from college football and baseball coaches,” says Weinke.
Hoping to play both sports in college, Weinke settled on Florida State. But in 1990, just before classes for his freshman year were to start, he got an offer he couldn’t refuse: Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays dangled a $375,000 signing bonus in front of him. The money—and the opportunity—were simply too good to pass up. When he broke the news to FSU, head coach Bobby Bowden was gracious. “He said, ‘I wish you the best of luck,’ ” Chris recalls, ” ‘but remember that if you ever want to come back and play college football, there’s going to be a scholarship waiting for you.’ ” Bowden had no inkling of how his promise would play out. “I thought maybe in a couple of years [he’d be back],” he chuckles, “not seven years later.”
As it happened, things didn’t turn out the way Weinke had expected either. Playing pro baseball was fun at first, and Weinke did well. But years of minor-league games took their toll; Weinke began to doubt he’d make it to the majors. In the summer of 1996 he began to think about going back to school and resuming his gridiron career. The obstacles, though, were daunting. First and foremost, he hadn’t touched a football in five years. And his family was dubious. “My brother was like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Weinke recalls.
Nonetheless, in 1996 Weinke contacted Bowden, who agreed to give him a scholarship—with the understanding that he might not make the FSU squad. But Weinke did, and a 1997 injury to incumbent quarterback Dan Kendra gave him his chance to start. Since then, his record as FSU’s No. 1 is 27-2, including last season’s national championship. Weinke’s only setback came in 1998, when, during a game against the University of Virginia, he was sacked and broke two vertebrae in his neck. Doctors said the injury could easily have paralyzed him from the neck down. “That was I pretty scary,” says his father. “As parents, that was the hardest time in our lives.”
But eight months later, after surgery to fuse the two vertebrae followed by four months of often grueling rehab, Weinke stepped back on the field. Even more surprising, he returned this season for his senior year rather than enter last April’s NFL draft. He is currently one of the top candidates for the Heisman Trophy, awarded to college football’s best player, and is widely seen as a first-or second-round pick in the next pro draft. “The NFL is desperately looking for quarterbacks of his ability,” says ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit. “I don’t think people will shy away from him because he’s 28.”
That’s certainly the case with Weinke’s younger teammates and classmates. The genial Weinke has managed to fit in well, maintaining a 3.3 grade point average as a sports management major and being named the most eligible bachelor in Tallahassee by a local newspaper. Although Weinke doesn’t like to talk about his dating habits since returning to college, he admits that at times it can be complicated. “This summer I met this girl who was 19 or so in a bar,” says Weinke. “I was talking to her for a while, and I asked her who she was there with. She said, ‘Funny you should ask. My mom was wondering who you were here with.’ I guess I am the old man around here.”
Kristin Harmel in Tallahassee and Margaret Nelson in Minneapolis