Won McPherson is sitting in a campus restaurant, scarfing down pancakes in a state of near elation. Without getting too syrupy, things couldn’t get much better for the cannon-armed Syracuse University quarterback. He finished a surprising second in the race for the Heisman Trophy. Pro scouts drool at the mere mention of his name. And on New Year’s Day he’ll lead the Orangemen against Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, their first major bowl game in 23 years.
The interview is rolling right along. Yes, the attention is exciting. No, he’s not dating the homecoming queen. Yes, he’s sure he’ll make the pros. Suddenly it’s time to throw out the inevitable Black Quarterback Question. It is one of the shameful little secrets of big-time football, college and pro, that until recently blacks, though regarded as creatures of talent, were thought to lack the acuity to direct a team on the field. Are they getting more respect now? McPherson, 22, who just happens to be black, handles the toss as nimbly as he does the safety blitz.
“When I was a kid I was a Terry Bradshaw fan,” says McPherson. Bradshaw, former golden-boy quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is white, of course. “I was cocky and always thought, if he could do it, why can’t I? But there are a lot of black kids who don’t have anyone to look up to. Now I’m told there are black kids out in the playgrounds pretending to be me.”
And probably white kids too. For once you look deeper than skin color, McPherson is that rarest of all signal-callers, a winner. In this, the year of the black college quarterback—Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway, Nebraska’s Steve Taylor and Notre Dame’s Tony Rice are but three standouts—none looms larger than the 6′, 185-lb. McPherson. “I tell him he’s the Roger Clemens of football,” says Dick MacPherson, 57, the Syracuse head coach. “Everything he throws up is magic.”
Never mind the mixed sports metaphor. The coach is right. McPherson helped rejuvenate the Orangemen, perennial also-rans, with a passing attack unequaled in recent school memory. Expected to bask in mediocrity once again, the team finished the regular season No. 4 in the nation and went undefeated (11-0) for the first time in 28 years. So much for the canard that black quarterbacks aren’t leaders.
As for the pros, McPherson is high on more than one team’s Christmas wish list. “We’re very interested in him,” says Gil Brandt, chief scout for the quarterback-hungry Dallas Cowboys. “He’s a winner and a very smart player. He’s a lot like Jim McMahon.”
McPherson, one of three boys and two girls born to a police detective and his wife, a nurse, grew up in the comfortable New York City suburb of West Hempstead, Long Island. Like his athletically gifted older brothers, he started playing in Pop Warner football. Sort of. At age 8, he trotted out to the field with his dad, got frightened, started crying and dashed home. After two years of that, Dad got wise and sent him to the field alone; only then did little Donnie overcome his performance anxiety.
Later he was recruited by some 70 colleges, including Miami, Michigan and Iowa. Some of the schools wanted him to use his speed and agility as a running back, wide receiver or defensive back—the traditional fate of black quarterback prospects. But McPherson flatly refused to change position. “I was very direct,” he says. “I told them, ‘If I’m not going to get a sincere shot at quarterback, I’m not going to your school. It’s that simple.’ ” When Syracuse tried to sign McPherson, he asked, “Coach, do you want me as a quarterback?” Coach MacPherson said he did, but Don was skeptical. Recalls the coach: “He asked me, ‘How do I know you’re not going to move me?’ I said, ‘I’ll make you a promise—I won’t move you till you tell me to.’ ”
Although it never came to that, McPherson was hardly an instant success. A knee injury and a separated shoulder kept him out of action for nearly two years. “Remember the astronaut Jose Jimenez from The Ed Sullivan Show?” he says. “They’d ask him what he planned to do in space, and he’d say, ‘I plan to cry a lot.’ Well, I cried a lot—and I prayed.” Says coach MacPherson: “He’s paid his dues and now we’re collecting.”
Away from the field, the place to find the psychology major is in his two-bedroom duplex, decorated in early Spuds MacKenzie, listening to jazz. As for dating, the green-eyed field general claims he’s been way too busy, although he receives his share of mash notes and has been known to answer one or two of them. “I went to college to play football, not to have fun,” he says, somewhat wistfully.
Wait until next fall. It is hoped that he’ll have his games in the NFL. And maybe even some fun too.