NEW ORLEANS, DEC. 30 -- Several months late and one Heisman Trophy short, Don McPherson is a celebrity.
An elusive senior quarterback, he led No. 4 Syracuse to an 11-0 record and a berth in Friday's Sugar Bowl against sixth-ranked Auburn. He had a stellar season, leading the nation in passing efficiency, and he collected a slew of awards, including first-team all-America honors and the Maxwell Award. Many thought he should have won the Heisman that went to Tim Brown. So in the last several weeks, while fans waited for the bowl games, McPherson became one of the most talked-about nonwinners since Hubert Humphrey.
"It's almost as if I died," McPherson said. "The things I did while I was 'alive' are now so much more valuable now that I'm 'dead.' But I know that anything I'm getting is because we're 11-0."
During the season, he was quoted as saying he should win college football's top award. Now that he hasn't, he is too diplomatic to say he deserved it, if only because it might come off as sour grapes.
"I think 'deserved' is a touchy word," said McPherson, who threw for 2,341 yards and 22 touchdowns. "Do guys deserve a million dollars a year to play the game of football? What's the justification for that?"
It's somewhat surprising that he plays football at all, given his start in the sport. For all the poise he shows in the pocket and in front of a microphone, he was terrified of the game as a youngster.
"We went to practice and I was lined up and supposed to run out and catch a pass," he said. Instead, he ran crying to his father's car. "I was very intimidated as a kid and didn't have a lot of confidence. I was scared."
He got over it quickly. Growing up on Long Island, he decided that playing at West Hempstead High School, with its strong program, would help him land a scholarship. He didn't live in that school district, but his aunt did, so he told school officials he was living with her. However, some officials didn't buy the story and staked out her home.
"It wasn't really a matter of beating a stakeout," McPherson said. "It was just a matter of getting up early enough so the guy didn't see me going into my aunt's house."
And what time was that?
"About 5 a.m.," he said.
Was it worth it?
"I'm here, aren't I?"
He hardly seems intimidated by anything now, although his quiet confidence doesn't come off as brash arrogance. Yet, he prefers the solace of his apartment and jazz collection to the big crowds. He is a psychology major because "I enjoy watching people and trying to understand them." But part of him would like to do that as part of the woodwork. A "shady room and a little Nat King Cole," are the ingredients for proper relaxation.
Asked about his ideal night out, he said, "A night in."
The rest of the Orangemen have learned to accept him and his uncollegiate ways. Part of the reason he looked relaxed in a rented tux at the recent Pigskin Club dinner in Washington, D.C., was that coat and tie are his normal attire.
"They joke with me and kid me about it, but they know when it's time to play football that I'll be ready to go," he said. "When it's time to relax, everybody has their own way of doing it. We have a guy who gets up at 5 o'clock Sunday mornings to go salmon fishing in Pulaski. Some guys are just rolling in then and some guys are just rolling over. Everyone has their way."
Syracuse Coach Dick MacPherson doesn't necessarily buy the loner label for McPherson.
"What happens is that all of a sudden he gets into a situation where he has people saying he has to go here, go there, go here, go there," MacPherson said. "All he wanted was a little space. After too many 'Hi, Donnie, you're great! Hi, Donnie, you're great! Hi, Donnie, you're great!,' you can see why he wants to go to his room and listen to music. He interprets that as being a loner. But you might not think that when you see his personality, how he shines around people. When the lights go, he starts to dance."
McPherson and MacPherson have been mistaken as father and son enough that they joke about it. Actually, Don said he considers Dick something of a father for giving him a chance orginally. When McPherson was being recruited, several schools wanted to switch him to a different position. He asked the recruiter from Penn State if the Nittany Lions were ready for a black quarterback and, for whatever reason, the recruiter never called back.
"Four years ago," McPherson told the predominantly-black Pigskin crowds, "he made a commitment to give a young man an opportunity that a lot of other people didn't want to give -- an opportunity to play quarterback at a Division I school. On and off the field, he has become like a father to me in his encouragement."
This past summer, McPherson spent more time than ever watching film, studing tendencies and learning how better to operate in Syracuse's passing game, which is option-oriented. But over time, he has evolved into an NFL prospect.
"In their eyes," he said of the scouts. And in his? "I've always been one."