Winning the Arms Race

UPDATED 12/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

Off the field, Vinny Testaverde has all the earmarks of Smallville's Clark Kent. The big quarterback from the University of Miami Hurricanes opens doors for one and all, freely dispenses autographs, doesn't smoke or drink, loves his mom and pop, and even visits sick fans in the hospital. But put the game on the line, and this son of Krypton gets right to work. Last month in a game against Florida State, Miami was down 20-14 at halftime, and Testaverde had seen enough. "The madder I get, the better I play and the less fear I have," explains the muscular 6'5" senior. "You can be seven feet tall and weigh 500 pounds, and I wouldn't be scared. It's something that'sinner. I lose my temper, but I lose it inside." Seething within and smoking without, Testaverde came back in the second half to throw for three touchdowns and only one incompletion. Say goodnight, Florida State.

Inner game aside, it is his size, his strength and his javelin thrower's arm that have given Testaverde, 23, a lock on this year's Heisman Trophy, awarded annually to college football's outstanding player. Last season, his first as a starter, he finished fifth in the balloting, passing for 3,238 yards and 21 touchdowns. This year, going into Miami's final regular season game, against East Carolina, he had thrown for 2,557 yards and 26 touchdowns while leading the Hurricanes to a No. 1 ranking. And he hadn't done it playing tea party either. "Most quarterbacks are prima donnas who want finesse instead of strength," says Miami conditioning coach Bill Foran. "Not Vinny. He doesn't run out of bounds like they do. He can take it if a 260-pound guy falls on him."

To keep up to strength, Testaverde works the weights four times a week for an hour and a half. He squats 500 pounds, bench presses 325, leg lifts 150, and has a vertical jump of more than 30 inches—respectable even by a high jumper's standards. All this sweat, he says, helps him play an aggressive, in-your-face game. "I idolized Joe Namath and Terry Bradshaw," he recalls of his days playing pee-wee ball near his hometown of Elmont, Long Island. "But I also watched linebackers like Jack Lambert. I wanted to be the quarterback, getting all the glory, but I wanted to be the macho type too. I'm not scared to take a hit, and I'll go and hit someone myself. It's like a personal battle between me and the other team. I don't want anybody to win a game over me."

This season nobody has, which is nice for both Vinny and his father, Al, a construction worker who threw a football with his son whenever he could and dreamed the kid might turn into Johnny Unitas. It wasn't long before Vinny was dreaming along the same lines. "His love for the game is unreal," says Al. "Like any other kid he had his hand in the cookie jar, but he was never any trouble, never disrespectful or nothing. He was all boy, always dirty and playing outside. He was so good it's scary. That's why I don't worry about this money and fame that's gonna come his way. But he better finish school. Otherwise, he faces me."

A physical education major, Testaverde would like to graduate on time, if only to avoid that familial showdown. He knows the distractions that go with the Heisman, which will be awarded this week, pose a formidable obstacle. Yet obviously he isn't complaining. So shy by nature that he once flunked a speech course because he couldn't bring himself to give a talk to the class, he admits nevertheless that he always looked forward to fame. He reflects on a time just two seasons ago when Bernie Kosar was the Hurricanes' quarterback and Testaverde was building up a quiet head of steam on the bench. "I never screamed or yelled or complained or anything," he says. "I was thinking those things, but I never came out and said it. I just went out and practiced." Now Testaverde is enjoying the payoff. "I've worked very hard at what I do," he says. "I got here the right way and the hard way, so why not enjoy it?"

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