Chuck Fusina's consistently reasonable demeanor has served him well as quarterback of the surprising Baltimore Stars this puzzling season.
If the Stars become the U.S. Football League champions for the second straight year, a primary reason will be that Fusina quietly has talked them into it. A team that couldn't score for most of the season eventually revitalized its offense, won five of its last six games, snuck into the playoffs and somehow advanced into the championship game against the Oakland Invaders at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., Sunday at 8 p.m.
"The important thing is they believe him," Stars President Carl Peterson says. "He's not a flashy guy. He's one of the quietly confident types."
Fusina has had a reputation of being short on ability since he came out of Penn State in 1979. Yet, he keeps appearing in championship games, even as people continue to tell him he is no good.
Perhaps that doggedness keeps him in a game that continually has shuffled him around and occasionally has insulted him. He sat on the bench for four years with Tampa Bay of the NFL and spent one week with San Francisco before being cut.
"You just want to prove to yourself you can still do it, and you just want to make a living," he said. "That's what I knew best. It's what I felt I was most talented at. I still have fun on the field. No one can take that away from a player, no matter how much pressure is on you."
Fusina's patchwork career began at Penn State, where his coach, Joe Paterno, admitted that his arm was not the strongest. But he led the Nittany Lions to 19 straight victories before losing to Alabama in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, and finished second to Billy Sims in voting for the 1978 Heisman Trophy. He left with 10 school passing and total-offense records. And in 32 games he started, the Nittany Lions won 29. Still, he wasn't drafted by Tampa Bay until the fifth round.
Quarterback Doug Williams was selected in the first round, and Fusina sat on the bench. He did not throw a pass in the 1979 season. He threw six in 1980, and only one in 1981. He was traded to the 49ers in 1982, then was cut almost immediately.
That perhaps was the low point. He considered retirement or returning to school full time for his master's degree in business. When the USFL was founded, however, it seemed to be a better alternative than job hunting. It provided Fusina the opportunity he never got in the NFL.
"I didn't do enough in that league to get nostalgic about it," he said. "The USFL was a great thing for all players. There's nothing bad about it."
In three years with the Stars, he has led the team to three championship games, and his longtime critics are faced with the notion that he just might be an undeniable winner. In his first two years with the Stars, he won 36 of 41 starts.
"He's not untalented, or he wouldn't have that success," Stars Coach Jim Mora said. "He's won whenever he's started. That's fact."
Peterson was skeptical enough, however, to meet with Paterno before signing Fusina. Paterno told him he wouldn't be impressed with Fusina's arm, his foot speed or his demeanor, but that he would like his record.
"Even Chuck says it," Peterson said. "He says, 'The best thing I can say about myself is that I'm boring.' "
The Stars have followed Fusina's example of consistency. The defending league champions were 6-6-1 after 13 weeks of the season. But they finished 10-7-1 to become the only team in the league to make three straight postseason appearances, then beat New Jersey and Birmingham in the playoffs.
"I won't argue that we had some trouble," Fusina says. "But the payoff has been at the end of the season all three years -- and we deserved to go. It's not luck."
Longevity seems to be suiting Fusina almost as much as resilience. He is in the first year of a four-year contract that he intends to see to the end, depending on the uncertain fate of the USFL. The prospect of becoming a respected veteran is pleasing, if somewhat surprising.
"I never thought I would play until 30," said Fusina, who is 28. "I always felt I would get just a few years and that would be it. Maybe it was because I wasn't a first-round pick, I wasn't the player that was going to be all-pro for 17 years. Maybe because of my start, I didn't get a lot of opportunities. But it's hard to get out when you enjoy it. Times change. I'll just wait and see."