March 23, 2001
The Book on Chris Weinke
I titled this piece the Book on Chris Weinke because it is quite a story. Some would agree that it is a great story. While none of us know the final chapter on him at Florida State, we certainly know enough to want to turn the pages just as quickly as possible.
Let’s turn the clock back a little, say 10 years and start the story that has brought Chris Weinke to the brink of a possible chance at a second national championship, a place as the greatest passer in Florida State history, and perhaps a visit to the hallowed halls of New York’s Downtown Athletic Club.
Chapter 1 – The Decision
In 1989, Chris Weinke had just been named a Parade and USA Today All-American after finishing an incredibly successful high school in Minnesota. He threw for 3,956 yards over 21 games during his career and had scholarship offers from over 70 schools. At the same time, he was being touted as one of the finest baseball prospects in the country. He settled on Florida State and sent a recruiting class that included William Floyd, Clifton Abraham, Marvin Jones, and Kez McCorvey through the roof. However, he was always very candid with FSU coaches about the possibility that professional baseball could be his choice. The forthright nature of the conversations between a young Chris Weinke and FSU coaches probably set the stage for what would eventually happen with his career.
The spring following his senior year, he was drafted in the second round by the Toronto Blue Jays and the summer was a cat and mouse game between the Weinke and baseball with a big contract hanging in the balance. He actually came to FSU with his freshman class and worked out for four days in Seminole uniform. FSU fans who saw one of those workouts, and there were plenty, nearly shed tears when he found the lure of baseball too great and left Tallahassee for what seemed would be life as a baseball star.
Chapter 2 – The Diamond Life
The next six years saw the bonus baby kick around towns including Duneiden, Syracuse and Knoxville. He played first base working his way through the minor league system and coming tantalizingly close to the dream of the big leagues. As an aside, most of America saw Chris Weinke at least once during his pro baseball career. When Michael Jordan tried his hand at baseball his first base hit came against the Blue Jays. The first baseman who came over to congratulate the superstar, nearly looking him in the eye I might add, was Weinke.
Something kept tugging at Weinke however. “I didn’t really think about football my first two years in baseball,” said Weinke. “I missed it some in that third year, but not to the point that I wanted to quit baseball for it.” One day right after batting practice that all changed. He looked down as he kicked dirt off his spikes and decided he wanted to go to college and see if he could have played at Florida State.
Bobby Bowden had promised Weinke that if he ever changed his mind there would be a scholarship waiting. In Bowden’s mind that meant a couple of years down the road, but Weinke reached out with a six-year-old IOU.
“The coaches really tried to talk me out of it in a sense,” said Weinke. “They wanted me to be sure it was what I wanted. They had just signed Dan Kendra who was the national player of the year. But anyone who knows me knows that I’m looking for someone to be honest with me, which they were, and for a challenge. When Coach Richt acted like I might come and never play that just made me want to do it even more.”
Chapter 3 – A Fresh Start
So, a 25-year-old Chris Weinke checks into the freshman dorm and takes the practice field behind Thad Busby in his green (no contact) No. 12, and Dan Kendra with his green No. 10. Weinke actually saw some action as a true freshman. In fact, he was the equivalent of Stephen De La Motte who came in for the Seminoles earlier this year. Not exactly a bed of roses for the former superstar.
“I really didn’t know what to expect when I came here,” admitted Weinke. “I wasn’t sure I would ever play, because I had Dan in front of me. I really didn’t know what the future held, but I wanted to get my degree and I knew I could play.”
As happens all too often in athletics, an injury sent one potential superstar to the bench and opened the path for another to emerge. Dan Kendra was running first team in a hotly contested battle for the vacatant quarterback spot in the spring of 1998 until a knee injury benched him for the entire season.
Weinke would enter his sophomore season as the starting quarterback for the Florida State Seminoles almost eight years to the day after he left the practice fields for baseball. FSU’s would have a first-year starter at quarterback for the Texas A&M game, however, and not an eight-year starter. He played well in his first game against a very difficult Aggie defense, but a seemingly innocent trip to Raleigh would turn out to be a nightmare.
Chapter 4 – The Wake Up Call
FSU took on NC State and scored on an effortless 74-yard pass from Weinke to Peter Warrick on the very first play of the game and then would not score again the rest of the night. In the frantic effort to come back, Weinke would throw a school record six interceptions. It was after that game that I realized how special a leader Weinke would become. As I approached his locker in the uneasy quiet of the locker room, he looked up and just said, “okay, where are we going to do this.” He was ready to take on the media and their piercing questions just as boldly as he was the charging defensive linemen. I knew at that moment we would be okay with him at the helm. I had no idea just how good.
The “story” moved along breezily after that with steady improvement by the inexperienced quarterback. Seven straight FSU wins, including big ones over Miami and Southern Cal, seemed to be paving the way for a storybook finish.
Chapter 5 – The Darkest Moment
November 7th in Doak Campbell Stadium was the scene for the Florida State/Virginia game. Weinke’s check-off at the line to a deep pass play resulted in a touchdown, and euphoria in the FSU coach’s booth late in the first quarter. “Guys, he’s got it,” proclaimed offensive coordinator Mark Richt who watched his pupil perfectly execute what he learned in the film room earlier in the week. The mood would turn so quickly. The hit that sent Weinke into the locker room listing like a great ship taking on water really did not look that serious. It would be.
In a gut wrenching press conference, Weinke gingerly walked into a room at the Moore Center packed with reporters – a brace supporting his crippled neck. His disappointment somewhat shielded by a cap pulled tight around his eyes. Weinke broke down when he talked of missing the rest of the season. Veteran reporters choked back their own emotion as the very symbol of strength became a young man facing uncertainity.
Six months of grueling rehabilitation followed the injury. The whole process started with Weinke listening to his mother ask that her son never put his neck in jeopardy again. Don’t play she asked, but that was not an option for Weinke. He moved from lifting a tennis ball, to throwing the tennis ball, to finally passing the football again, just before preseason practice started last year.
Chapter 6 – A Perfect Return
When Chris Weinke trotted onto the field in late August to play Louisiana Tech (instead of Auburn I’ll be quick to point out) it marked the end of a very long road. But that was in the past and he was right where he wanted to be – at the controls of FSU’s offense. The 1999 season is perhaps the finest in college football history. Weinke and a number of great seniors, led the Seminoles to a 12-0 record and the nation’s first-ever wire-to-wire run as the Associated Press No. 1 ranked team.
Along the way to the perfect season, Weinke put up a statistic that I still think is one of the best you could find. He was 42-of-54 (77.8%) for 461 yards and led FSU to seven touchdowns and two field goals in drives following opponents scores that tied the game or put FSU behind. In other words, he brought us back every time including the national title game against Virginia Tech.
Weinke had led the Tribe to the coveted national title and then faced another big decision.
Chapter 7 – The Decision Part II
In a moment dripping with irony, the media gathered in the same Moore Athletic Center room that they had gathered in just over a year before for a Chris Weinke press conference. The mood was almostly equally tense, but without the sorrow which surrounded the previous one. Chris had decided to announce whether he would stay at FSU or declare himself eligible for the NFL draft. With a well polished technique of playing with the media, Weinke went on a 15-minute discussion of his thought process before asking Coach Richt if it would be alright if he came back to try and win another national championship. FSU had been blessed. Peter Warrick made the same call the year before, Andre Wadsworth before him, Warrick Dunn before him, and so on (thank goodness).
Chapter 8 — The Final Chapter
No one knows how the final chapter of Chris Weinke’s career at Florida State will be written. We do know this. Already this season he has battled through a very painful foot injury that allowed him to participate in a full practice for the first time in five weeks against Clemson. We know that he has completely re-written the FSU record books and has become the first three-year starting quarterback ever for Coach Bowden at FSU. We know that he has positioned his team to have a chance at playing for a third national title. And we know that he has already secured the college degree that he set in his sights in the on deck circle of a minor league baseball park.
His story reads like a good novel and most FSU fans believe that he is intent on putting a happing ending to it. But I sometimes wonder if any of us appreciate just what he has gone through to give us a good read.