Six weeks ago, as his 1984 college football season hid in the shadows like a vague promise, Frank Reich sat in a College Park eatery and indulged himself with a heaping scoop of irony. "The last time Maryland beat Penn State was back in 1961, and the quarterback who beat them -- Dick Shiner -- was from Lebanon, Pa.," Reich said, grinning because he, too, was from Lebanon.
In novels they call the deliberate planting of such seeds "foreshadowing."
Unfortunately for Reich, this isn't a novel.
If Maryland wins at Penn State today, the winning quarterback will again be from Pennsylvania. But from Carlisle, not Lebanon. The separated right shoulder Reich suffered against Wake Forest last Saturday will keep him on the sidelines as one of his roommates, Stan Gelbaugh, will be at quarterback for the Terrapins in his place. As the song goes, "One man's ceiling is another man's floor," and to say Reich is extremely disappointed with the situation is to buff it too lightly.
"If they said before the season, 'Frank, you can only play in one game this year -- Which do you want it to be?' I'd have said, 'Penn State,' " Reich confessed the other day as he sat on a bench near the practice field, his arm in a sling, watching enviously as his teammates filed by, their cleats clacking dissonantly against the pavement. "All I want to do is run out there, take a snap and throw the ball downfield. And I know I can't do it." He turned away, his face covered by resignation. "It's especially frustrating because I've been waiting for this chance for so long."
A graduate student and fifth-year eligible, Reich had only this year become Maryland's starting quarterback. After an admittedly "shaky" performance in the season opener against Syracuse, he had rebounded with three straight impressive outings, against Vanderbilt, West Virginia and Wake Forest, completing 50 of 75 passes for 648 yards and three touchdowns, to become the top-ranked passer in the ACC. Had receivers not dropped 15 of his passes, Reich's overall completion average would be a scary, smoking-gun 68.7 percent.
But that's not why he so badly wanted to play Penn State.
There's more to it than stats. There's history. Lots of it.
Reich's father, mother and sister graduated from Penn State. The elder Frank Reich was the center and captain of the 1955 Penn State team. Not only that, but Penn State had all but snubbed the son in high school, delaying its recruiting effort until January of his senior year. When the contact came, young Reich saw it as too little, too late. One of Joe Paterno's assistants showed up at his school to tell him Penn State thought he was just a junior, that its apparent lack of interest in him was a misunderstanding, that Penn State "has a long tradition of family loyalty" and that he should visit the campus before committing himself elsewhere.
Young Reich declined, and went home that night and told his father what happened.
"That took guts," his father said.
"Are you angry with me?"
"Of course not. I want you to do what's best for you."
A week later, young Reich signed with Maryland.
"To tell you the truth," he said, "if Penn State really wanted me, Coach Paterno could have come."
Since then, Reich's fondest wish has been to beat Penn State. For all those small, ironic reasons: the family ties; the late recruitment; that preposterous 1-26 record Maryland has with Penn State; the Lebanon, Pa. connection. They are all of a piece. "Little stories like that are kind of neat," Reich said. "If we beat them with me quarterbacking, they'd make it a little more memorable, don't you think?"
Reich even dreamed about the game and how it would end. The way he pictured it, "With 14 seconds left, I'd throw a touchdown pass, then throw the two-point conversion pass we need to go ahead, and we'd win, 36-35."
The dream is over now, forever. After understudying Boomer Esiason for what must have felt like ages, today was to be Reich's first, last and only shot at Penn State. Last Saturday night, after talking to Boomer about injuries and how quickly they heal, Reich still hoped he might be able to play. But Sunday he felt that hope fading. And Monday it was gone. Ironically, on the weekend of Boomer's professional starting debut as his Cincinnati Bengals are host to the Houston Oilers, Reich finds himself standing on the sideline.? ("Do you believe that?" Reich asked, bursting into laughter at the coincidence. "Boomer'll go wild when I tell him.") In all likelihood, Reich won't be ready to play until Oct. 27, against Duke.
"I'm trying to look down the road and not be too disappointed," he said. "But it's hard." Recent conversations with his parents have centered on the shoulder, not on Penn State. "I think they don't want to bring it up," he said, "because they know how much it hurts emotionally."
Still, Reich's parents will be there today, and, notwithstanding their ties to alma mater, they'll root for Maryland. Reich's father would not have it any other way. "How could I do anything else?" he asked. "That's my son's school." And the son will be there, too, clipboard in hand, offering advice and comfort to Gelbaugh, trying hard to get so absorbed in the flow of the game that he blocks out any bittersweet ramblings about what might have been.
"There's nothing that could keep me away from this game," Frank Reich said, resolutely facing his dream even as it lay in pieces at his feet. "I want to be part of this, one way or another."