When Norman Hostetler’s English 333B class convenes at 8:30 on Monday morning at the University of Nebraska, none of the 30 students pays particular attention to their classmate in the French jeans and loafers. They’re more interested in figuring out what Ernest Hemingway meant in Green Hills of Africa. But Professor Hostetler knows that this student is more than just another college kid plumbing the depths of Papa’s novels. Says Hostetler, “I’m not sure I’d like to teach a class to 76,000 people.”
In a manner of speaking that’s exactly what the student in question, Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill, has been doing this fall a quarter mile away in Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium. The course: Big Time Football 1983, an advanced seminar in gridiron supremacy. With an 11-0 record going into this week’s showdown with Oklahoma, the Cornhuskers are indisputably the best college football team in America this—or, some would argue, any—year.
Gill, a 21-year-old senior, directs this point-scoring machine with workmanlike efficiency. When he is not handing off to fellow Heisman Trophy candidate Mike Rozier, he is running the ball himself or hitting on 56.5 percent of his passes. The 6′, 190-pound quarterback’s quiet confidence has won him the respect of his teammates. “He never seems to lose his cool,” says offensive right guard Dean Steinkuhler. “That’s why we look up to him.” Nebraska athletic director Bob Devaney, who has seen his share of great quarterbacks, has only one mild criticism. “Gill judges himself very harshly. He will not pass the blame on to anyone else.”
If that is the case, it is because Gill, who grew up playing football and baseball in Fort Worth, Texas, expects a lot from himself. Turner was such a good high school shortstop that he was drafted at 18 by the Chicago White Sox. Nebraska beckoned, however, and Gill did not hesitate. “Somebody’s going to be the first black quarterback at Nebraska,” he said to himself. “Why not me?”
And so he became, until he incurred a serious nerve injury to his right leg during a game two years ago. That Saturday night, from his off-campus apartment, Turner called his “Lincoln parents,” Bill and Susie Wright. (Out-of-state players are matched up with local families by the school.) Wright, a lawyer and prominent businessman, drove Gill to the hospital. By midnight Gill couldn’t move his foot. An hour later he was under the surgeon’s knife.
The prognosis was bleak. Doctors told him he might not ever walk normally again. “It reminded me of my dad,” says Gill, recalling an accident 11 years earlier when his father, a janitor, fell through the roof of a Fort Worth bank where he was working. Doctors told Gill’s dad the same thing, but Turner Sr. is getting around these days, though not as nimbly as Junior.
After a rigorous rehabilitation period, Gill was back on the field last fall and went on to be named All Big Eight. This season Gill finds himself in the unfamiliar position of being something of a sex symbol. After one victory, Gill received a congratulatory locker-room kiss from Debra Winger, sometime companion of Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey. And as the next “Mr. September” in one of those discreet beefcake calendars so popular on college campuses these days, Gill will be visible in numerous coed dorm rooms next year.
Three dates of significance are checked on Gill’s own calendar next year. First is the United States Football League draft in January, then the NFL draft in April and finally the baseball draft in June. Gill leans toward football, but Bill Wright thinks that there is yet another option. “His real skills are not athletic,” he says. “They are dealing with other people.” Gill, a language arts major, gives 10 to 15 sports talks a year to various groups and, by all accounts, is a hit. “Maybe,” he muses, “I’ll go into public relations.” But first, Professor Gill has one last lecture to give, on New Year’s night. The Orange Bowl will be sold out for that valedictory address.