The eyes are always on him, so he looks down as he squeezes the crutches, trying to adjust to that sharp pain in the arm pits.
“I usually try to get to class early,” Elvis Grbac says, going awkwardly up the steps. “That way, I’m already sitting down when everyone else gets there. Otherwise, when I walk in, everything sort of stops.”
“Are you worried about the reaction after Saturday’s game?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he sighs, “and now they’ll see me and say ‘Oh, great. He’s on crutches, too.’ “
He reaches the door. Closed. Class has started. He slips the crutches into one hand, puts his notebook in the other.
“Here we go,” he says, forcing a smile.
You gotta be a football hero, the song says, but it doesn’t tell you that you gotta be a regular student, too, Monday morning and Tuesday afternoon and all the days between those autumn Saturdays on the big field.
And you gotta be recognized. This can be great if all is well. But what if it isn’t? What if your team blew its chance to beat an arch rival? What if, deep down, most people thought it was your fault?
What if you were the quarterback, a Heisman Trophy candidate, but you threw one bad pass, the killing interception against Notre Dame?
“You know, usually I wear a hat on Monday mornings,” Grbac says. “I should have worn it today. I just forgot.”
He opens the door. He limps into the room.
Everyone looks up.
Passing from hero to . . . It doesn’t seem fair. Professional athletes, who are older and richer, can escape from the public as much as they want. Things go bad? You miss the last-second shot? No problem. Stay in your house. Have the limo take you everywhere. Sit behind dark windows until it all blows over.
But college athletes, no matter what happened over the weekend, are right back on campus Monday morning, going to class, going to the cafeteria, going to practice. Highly visible.
Last week, on the first day of class, Grbac sat during roll call. The professor reached his name. Instead of saying “Grbac?” she said, “Elvis?” Everyone looked up. Then she said, “Aren’t you the famous athlete?” This was the professor talking.
Now he comes out of class, still working the crutches and the minicast that the team doctors have given him — “precautionary reasons” — for at least two days. Sprained ankle. Great. It is hard enough to be inconspicuous when you’re the starting quarterback. When you’re 6-foot-5 and swinging on crutches, well, you might as well wear a billboard.
“How was the reaction?” I ask.
“Oh, everyone wanted to know what happened with the leg. I told them it was no big deal . . .
“Then they wanted to know about the pass.”
The pass. The pass! People are still talking about that floater Grbac threw in the closing minutes of the Notre Dame game, a ball he was trying to throw away but instead landed harmlessly in the arms of an Irish defender, as if a stork had dropped it gently down his chimney. Michigan had been poised to score. To steal a win in South Bend. Then, suddenly, the Irish were leaping into a happy pile and Grbac was on his knees in the middle of the field, staring in disbelief.
“Right after I threw it I had this feeling like, ‘Oh, how could I have made such a stupid play?’ ” he says. “You sit there, you hear the crowd roaring. I tell you, it’s the emptiest feeling in the world.” Of course, ‘It could be worse’
Elvis Grbac didn’t speak English until he was in grade school. The son of Yugoslavian immigrants, he was a bit of an outcast, and his name didn’t make things any easier. He learned, early on, to ignore finger-pointing. He learned that if you want to lead — and he did — you have to accept all those doubting eyes upon you.
Still, some days are easier than others. With an hour to go before practice, Grbac wants lunch. He could go anywhere on campus; they’d be thrilled to serve him. Instead he hobbles home, to his small apartment that he shares with an offensive lineman. He makes a peanut butter sandwich.
“It’s just easier this way,” he says.
“You know, I’ve run that play over in my mind 100 times. Sitting on the bus coming back, that’s all I thought about. If I could go back and erase it, I would. But I can’t. We didn’t lose the game. We tied it. It could be worse.
“You have to go on. You have to take everything that comes, all the stuff they’ll write in your college newspaper, everything. A good player will do that. A bad player will say, ‘What if I keep making mistakes?’ Then he’ll really be screwed up.”
He grabs his play book and his keys. He grabs his crutches. Some guys live the life of a big-time college quarterback. They hit the parties, go for the girls, they milk their fame until the udders are dry. Others, like Grbac, play quarterback as a position, not a personality. For them, the games are never long enough, and the weeks in-between can seem like forever.
Fifteen minutes to practice. He heads for the door. The apartment is small,
the streets outside quiet.
“It’s a glamorous life, huh?” I say.
Elvis Grbac chuckles and says, “yeah,” then catches the door with one of his crutches, then lets it shut.