Christian Varner wanted to go to Clemson. He watched the Tigers play on television whenever he could and pictured himself in their uniform. He loved their gaudy colors -- burnt orange and Northwestern purple. The parents of teammates would tell his mother, "That's a Clemson child."
So when the Maryland safety had the best performance of his career at Clemson last season, the coincidence wasn't lost on him. Not only was Varner starring for the wrong team, he was starring in the wrong sport.
The Baltimore native was supposed to be a baseball player. Baseball was his first love, the sport he still considers his favorite, the sport he always dreamed of playing at Clemson.
"It is kind of ironic," said Varner, who had six tackles in that game. "I was in awe, but I got over it quick."
And yet with another game against Clemson on tap tomorrow, Varner still hasn't gotten over his infatuation with that other sport. Varner was one of two Maryland freshmen to play in every game last season. He landed on an ACC all-freshman team, earned the starting free safety role this fall and, during his first career start against Navy last Saturday, made his first career interception.
But he still has a baseball bat in his bedroom, which he sometimes uses when he takes younger brother Marcus to the batting cages on Sundays. He still has a baseball glove in that room, although he doesn't sleep with it under his pillow as he did throughout his childhood. He went to watch the Maryland baseball team play six or seven times last spring, and he still thinks about trying to play for those other Terps at some point in his career.
"I don't think I made the wrong decision, but I miss it a lot. I tell my teammates that all the time," Varner said. "I was talking to my mother about that before the [Navy] game. She was like, 'I never saw you playing football, this came out of nowhere, I can't believe you're doing this.' I was like, 'Yeah, me neither.' I never saw this coming."
Football had always been an afterthought. In his first recreation league football game, Varner was hit while carrying the ball and had the wind knocked out of him. He made it off the field, told his mother he didn't want to play any more and handed his shoulder pads to the coach.
"All right, baby, c'mon, let's go home," said his relieved mother, Dona Rawlings-Varner, who thought football was too violent for her son.
Instead he concentrated on baseball, his mother's favorite sport and the game his father played at Woodlawn High School. Baseball trophies and certificates filled the younger Varner's home; baseballs broke car windows and house windows in his neighborhood. He advanced from rec leagues to travel teams to the Baltimore Metro Baseball league, the area's premiere summer outlet for high-school aged players. And at every level, his coaches thought he had found the right sport.
Just ask Paul Revelle, who coached Varner for two years when he played center field with the Howard Braves of the Metro league.
Varner missed about half of that team's practices because he didn't have transportation to Howard County -- Rawlings-Varner was raising three children as a single mother while working full-time as a MTA bus driver. Sometimes a crestfallen Varner would call his coach from his front stoop, telling him a ride had fallen through and he would again miss practice.
"It was heartbreaking," Revelle said.
Still, Varner excelled. Revelle said he could have left Varner by himself in the outfield, such was his range. He said Varner was likely the fastest high school baseball player he'd ever seen, that Varner once got in a rundown between third and home, juked out four or five fielders and managed to score.
"He was amazing," said Revelle, whose son Matt was a second-team All-Met at Atholton High and now pitches for Lafayette College. "He had serious potential, like people-would-pay-to-see-him potential. I've got no question about whether he could play in college, and had he done well and continued to progress, he might have been able to make a living at it."
Or ask Michael Williams, Varner's baseball coach at Randallstown High. Like Revelle, Williams said that when Varner reached first he was a virtual lock to take second and often third. Like Revelle, Williams was bombarded with questions from opposing coaches: "At least every game there was a play he made where the other coach would come up to me and go, 'Coach, you've got a hell of a center fielder there,' " Williams said.
Varner was still raw -- he struggled to hit curveballs, for example -- but was helped by what Williams called "overwhelming coachability." Williams, in fact, said he would have delayed his planned move to Pennsylvania for the opportunity to coach Varner in his final season at Randallstown.
But that chance never came, because by his junior year Varner decided his best opportunity was in football. He had been befriended by Randallstown assistant football coach Evan Murray, who told Varner how far he could go in that sport and how much it could do for his life.
"I guess I was being biased," said Murray, who calls Varner "the most mature athlete" he has ever seen at the high school level. "I just looked at his physical attributes, the possibilities, the opportunities. I just thought football would do a lot for his future."
And once Varner threw himself into football, deciding it was his surest path toward becoming his family's first college graduate, the scholarship offers started rolling in.
One Saturday during the spring of his junior year, Varner and his mother traveled to Harrisburg, Pa., for a Montreal Expos tryout, a final flirtation with his favorite game. The next day, he said, the scouts called him back to say they liked what they had seen. That Monday, Varner called Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen and said he would play for the Terps.
Varner injured his elbow against Navy and could face a limited role tomorrow, possibly only playing in nickel and dime packages. He said he won't be thinking about baseball when he takes the field, only about winning, although defensive coordinator Gary Blackney continues to call Varner the center fielder of his defense. And his mother?
"I still don't understand how it turned out to be football," she said. "Baseball is in the back of my mind, but if he doesn't mention it, then there's no reason for me to mention it. Because he's doing what he wants to do."
Terrapins Notes: With Derrick Fenner still sidelined after suffering a concussion against Navy, Friedgen said junior wide receiver Drew Weatherly will start tomorrow, although Fenner could still play. Weatherly caught the winning touchdown -- the first of his career -- against Navy. Friedgen also said freshman wide receivers Isaiah Williams, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Danny Oquendo will likely see their first offensive action, as will freshman offensive linemen Jared Gaither and Edwin Williams. . . . Maryland's players voted to donate their $10 game-day allowances to the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts for the next two weeks. Friedgen said coaches would also chip in and the total contribution would be roughly $2,500.