Chances are you haven't heard much about Nate Sassaman. Perhaps nothing about Nate Sassaman. But chances are you'll know all about him if you're tuned in Saturday to the 85th Army-Navy game, in Philadelphia.
A fullback named Doug Black, who has rushed this season for 993 yards, is the heart of the Army offense. But Sassaman, the senior quarterback in a wishbone attack, is the soul of the team.
"He's an inspirational figure among his teammates," said an Army spokesman. "He creates the feeling, 'If he can be out here doing a job, so can we.' "
A victim of three broken ribs Oct. 27 against Syracuse, the 5-foot-11, 177-pound Sassaman once again will don a flak jacket to protect the ribs.
The injury "makes calling signals tougher" because it's sometimes hard to breathe, he said. In addition, he takes extreme physical punishment operating the triple-option attack, often being tackled after he's pitched the ball to another back. Against Boston College, for example, he was hit 25 times.
"I'm going to play the last games to the best of my ability and hang it up," he said after a losing but courageous performance against B.C. earlier this month. "Football's a very physical game. I've taken my shots."
Primarily a runner, not a passer, Sassaman rushed for 136 yards as he led Army on five scoring drives against B.C., only to lose, 45-31. Stubbornly keeping Army in the game, Sassaman proved to have as much charisma as his B.C. counterpart, Doug Flutie. Though he can't throw like Flutie, Sassaman can turn an apparently disastrous play into a huge gain, improvising something out of nothing.
"I like to think I do what I do well, too," he says.
Indeed, after the game Flutie and Sassaman sought out each other. "He told me I played a good game," said Sassaman. "I got to shake the Heisman Trophy candidate's hand."
Army's 24-24 tie with three-touchdown favorite Tennessee in Knoxville prompted Vols Coach Johnny Majors to remark, "I thought this game would be good preparation for our game with Auburn. Auburn also runs a wishbone. But their quarterback won't do nearly the things Sassaman did against us. He's a magician."
Most recently, Sassaman ran for 155 yards and one touchdown in another 45-31 game, this time an Army victory over Montana in, of all places, Tokyo. Sassaman was MVP of that game, which clinched Army's first bowl bid, to the Dec. 22 Cherry Bowl in Pontiac, Mich., against Michigan State. It also gave Sassaman, the top rushing quarterback in Division I-A, 848 yards on the ground this season; he's completed only 24 passes.
Against Montana, the 205-pound Black gained 183 yards and the other two running backs, Clarence Jones and Jarvis Hollingsworth, added 130 and 124, respectively. It was the first time in NCAA history that a team's four starting backs each gained more than 100 yards. Until this year, Black played intramural football; as an unrecruited plebe, he had been rejected by the varsity after a tryout. This year, he went from sixth team to first in a hurry.
Army's new power has relieved some of the pressure from junior Craig Stopa, an excellent kicker who has led the Cadets in scoring since his arrival at West Point. But he remains valuable: against Air Force, Stopa kicked five field goals.
All season, Army has never deviated from its ground game. "People say you can't run the wishbone when you're behind," says Army's resourceful coach, Jim Young, who compiled a 69-32-1 record in nine years at Arizona and Purdue. "It's simply not true."
After a nightmarish 2-9 season in his first year at West Point -- he had dropped out of coaching in 1982, but became restless -- Young scrapped his pro-style offense this spring and shifted Sassaman from reserve safety to the helm of the ball-control wishbone. Also, the coach increased the muscle on the offensive line by 15 pounds a man with a strict weight-training program. Voila: a 6-3-1 record, Army's best since 1977, its last winning season and the last time it beat Navy.
Young's material dictated the wishbone. Next year, he'll probably keep the system. He reasons that it's hard to recruit a good pro-type passer who might have a pro football career in mind instead of a service obligation. And since the wishbone isn't seen that often it's difficult to prepare for; Young found that out getting ready for Air Force's wishbone last season.
"This season's a credit to the coach and a credit to the seniors," said Sassaman. "For four years the seniors have stuck out the program. Only nine wins in three years and they've taken a lot of static. Now there's a really good feeling at West Point."
Largely, it's a Young-Sassaman creation. Against Air Force, Sassaman was physically able to play in only two series, but he led two scoring drives that set up a 24-12 victory. At Aloha High School, in Beaverton, Ore., near Portland, Sassaman had been a successful option-type quarterback. In his senior year he ran for 23 touchdowns.
"He was recruited by small schools in the area, mostly as a defensive back because of his size," said his mother, Nancy. "Princeton was interested in him because he's a student-athlete. But he liked West Point. He's a conservative fellow. He believes in his country, patriotism."
Tough times followed. In his first year, Sassaman was third-string quarterback. In his second year, he got to play but shortly incurred a shoulder injury that limited him. Then Young took over as coach and switched Sassaman to reserve safety. "His heart was broken when he was put on defense," Nancy Sassaman said. "We never thought he'd see offense again."
But this year, when Young installed the wishbone, he moved Sassaman back to quarterback. Now Army, having beaten Air Force, has a rare chance to win the Commander in Chief's trophy with a victory over Navy. "That would be a dream come true," said Sassaman.