Once upon a time — last year, I believe — when Rodney Peete got the measles, the whole country got the measles. He would flick on the hospital TV and see updates on his condition. The nurse would deliver a newspaper, and he would see his face on the front page. “PEETE TO MISS BIG GAME?” So intense was the media crush, that the hospital switchboard had to use three phony names to ward off reporters.

“I was registered under ‘Willie Jackson’ one night, and some guy still got through,” Peete recalls. “He said, ‘Is Rodney Peete there?’ I said, ‘Sorry, you have the wrong room.’ “

What do you want? He was the quarterback for the big school the week of the big game. He was front page, bold type, all across the country, they mobbed the bus when he arrived at the stadium. Network broadcasters trumpeted his courage. What a guy! Straight from the hospital! With the measles! He led his team, Southern Cal, to a victory over UCLA that warm Saturday afternoon, then immediately fell victim to laryngitis. Couldn’t talk. And the Notre Dame game was coming up! Not to worry. He attended a press conference with a yellow pad, and answered questions by scribbling notes, then handing them over.

“Could you ask Rodney to write how he feels?”

“Yes . . . let me see . . . he says, ‘I feel good, other than my voice.’ “

It was a star’s life in the California sunshine. Rodney was a media hit. And everyone wanted a piece.

And then came the NFL draft.

Suddenly, the lights turned red. Projected as a first-round pick, Peete sat for hours and hours, past the second, third, fourth and fifth rounds. He spent a sleepless night in an LA hotel room, waiting for the next day to commence — the second day, when guys from Peekaboo State get drafted. Him? Rodney Peete? Still available? For some reason, don’t ask him why, Peete had become bad fruit; everyone kept throwing him back. By the time the Lions finally picked him, it was sixth round, Monday morning. No champagne was popped.

Incredible. Peete had finished one vote ahead of UCLA’s Troy Aikman in the Heisman voting — and 140 spots behind him in the draft. Money-wise, that meant a difference of nearly $1.8 million a year. Peete collected his pride and his new helmet, and announced, in typically optimistic tones, that he was
“proud to be a Lion,” even though he had never set foot in Detroit before.

After three weeks here, he has so excited fans that a radio poll decidedly chose him as the desired starting quarterback for the Lions.

And Saturday night, Peete starts at quarterback in the exhibition opener.

There, now.

That wasn’t such a bad career slump, was it?

What’s the biggest failure you’ve ever had?” I ask.

Rodney Peete bites his lip. He looks up at the ceiling, then, finding no answers there, looks down at his feet. “Gee, that’s . . . I don’t know . . . I mean, I can’t really think of anything.”

We should all have such problems. Life, for the most part, has been friendly to Peete. Good childhood. Loving parents. Grew up in the sunny plains of Arizona, rode his mini-bike out amongst the cactus. Popularity seemed to find Peete the way Lassie found Timmy. In high school, he was not only the starting quarterback, the shortstop on the baseball team and the point guard on the basketball team, he was even elected Homecoming King. They put a crown on his head. “Aw, it was nothing special,” he says, almost embarrassed. “You just sort of stand there. . . .”

Such is his aura. People seem to like Peete without even meeting him. Walk the streets here and ask folks about the Lions’ quarterback situation. “Well, this Peete kid seems pretty good. . . .” And they’ve never seen him throw! Maybe it’s his boyish good looks (sort of a thick-necked Denzel Washington) or his made-for-TV voice. Maybe it’s the bright light of Los Angeles, where he was a star for four years as the Trojans’ starting quarterback.

Whatever. The kid has it. Charisma. Charm. After you talk with him for a few hours, you sense the confidence, the poise, the certainty that he is meant to be a starting quarterback in the NFL.

And then you remember that three years ago, Chuck Long made you feel the same way. The fact is, most quarterbacks drafted into the NFL are college success stories of some kind. They are all winners when they arrive. “I’ve never played with losing teams. I’ve been successful wherever I go. I don’t plan for that to stop now.”

Chuck Long told me that in 1986.

Rodney Peete said it Wednesday.

So what’s the difference? Well, for one thing, Peete, unlike Long, has a reputation as a runner as well as a passer. This, after all, is the guy who once threw an interception against UCLA, just before halftime, then chased the defensive back 89 yards before tackling him from behind. “I was just making sure the clock ran out before grabbing him,” he later explained, dead serious.

Score one for Rodney.

Then there’s the question of health. Right now, Peete has it; Long does not. Elbow problems have plagued the blond- haired, one-time savior of the Lions, and recently, Long has blamed Darryl Rogers for some of his current arm woes, claiming the former coach “overworked” him last year. Fortunately, Peete never had to deal with old Darryl.

Score another one for Rodney.

Beyond that, there are more similarities than differences. Long, 26, was a winner at Iowa. Peete, 23, was victorious at Southern Cal. Both men were hailed as “smart” quarterbacks, both graded high on the short passes. Both finished second in Heisman Trophy voting.

You want to know the one thing Peete has going for him that Long never did? His draft number. Long was a first- rounder, hailed and toasted and chained to great expectations. Peete, meanwhile, is the million-dollar baby in the five-and- ten-cent store. He wasn’t carried across the threshold of the NFL, he had to pick the lock. And because so many teams ignored him, he is seen as a bargain, a steal, he can only make his coaches look smart.

Not that he’d do it over again.

“For me, it was just a challenge to prove them all wrong,”‘ he says of his low selection. “Oh, I can’t say I wasn’t hurt. I was. The worst part of draft day was sitting there, watching TV, listening to them come up with reasons why I was suddenly no good. They said my arm wasn’t strong. Then they said I was too small (6-foot, 195). Then they said I didn’t have good touch on my passes. It was like they had to keep coming up with bad things about me to explain what was happening.”

And then there was the money. You quarterback Southern Cal to the Rose Bowl a couple times, you can usually pick out what color Porsche you’ll be driving. But the NFL pie is thin by the sixth round; Peete will be working for
$70,000 base pay this season. Can you believe that? Barry Sanders, who finished one spot ahead of him for the Heisman, and Aikman, who finished one spot behind, will be able to buy and sell Peete’s contract 20 times over.

This is Rodney’s response: “Sure, I would have liked the money. But compared to how we lived at college, my contract is still a lot of money. I mean, you live on a scholarship check at school, just making ends meet. So I feel like I got a big boost in income.”

Oh, boy.

The working class is gonna love this guy.

And they do. Let’s face it. If Peete does well Saturday night against the Browns, and continues like that during this pre-season, Lions fans will lambaste Wayne Fontes if he opts for anybody else. Maybe Detroit is just tired of watching Eric Hipple getting murdered or Rusty Hilger overthrowing or Chuck Long misfiring. There is nothing like a new quarterback — and a new stretch offense, which needs a scrambler like Peete — to get the juices flowing. Besides, Peete is not a complete stranger to Michiganders. His Southern Cal teams lost in the Rose Bowl to Michigan State (1988) and Michigan (1989).

“Yeah,” he now jokes, “I knew I was gonna end up in Detroit, so I figured I’d just make friends with the people early.

You laugh, and you want him to do well. Sure, he is no more than This Year’s Model, the latest flash, the man of the hour. Yet you pull for him just the same. Why? Is it the fact that he has so well handled the black quarterback issue (“They told me as a kid to learn to play wide receiver or defensive back, that I’d never get the chance at quarterback, but I was stubborn.”) Is it his father, Willie, an assistant coach with Green Bay, or his second cousin, Calvin, the famous golfer? Is it the fact that he looks so natural with a Tootsie Pop in his mouth and a baseball hat on his head? Or is it simply that old adage about nothing like a new quarterback?

You know what I think? I think it’s the draft number. I think in this long, hot summer of big-mouth rookies holding out for CEO salaries, here we have a star nobody wanted — and he’s ready to go. He is like Dustin Hoffman doing the school play, or Pavarotti coming to sing with the church group. A bargain. Everybody loves a bargain.

“Hey, there are a lot of guys who would love to be drafted sixth,” Peete says now, clearly over the pain. “In camp here, they don’t care if I was sixth round, first round or last round. They just want to play football. And so do I. I think I have as good a chance as any of the guys here to be the starter. That’s all I’m thinking about now.”

He is no longer the Rodney who gets the measles and watches the whole country get in bed with him. He no longer needs three names at the front desk. He is no longer front page, national headline, white-hot spotlight.

But he could be.

“When I take that first snap Saturday, I think this will all hit me. Everything. I’m in the NFL. I’m playing quarterback. . . .”

And being drafted late may be the best thing that ever happened to him.

How about that?

CUTLINE Rodney Peete’s mobility may be a key to running the stretch offense.

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