What could be better than playing college quarterback? What could exceed walking around campus knowing that of all those students, in the lecture halls and in the library and playing Frisbee under the tree, of all those people, only you will be taking the snap on Saturday afternoon. Big-time football? Thousands cheering? National TV? It is enough, as Jack Nicholson once said, to put steam in a man’s stride.
The problem is, the walk doesn’t last forever. Many of us have trouble when we leave college because it is the end of what we’re supposed to do and the beginning of what we choose to do. Football players are no different. Only a handful make it to the pros. The rest are out there groping with the rest of us. For quarterbacks, accustomed to spotlight, the sudden darkness can be terrifying.
And then you get guys such as Dan Enos, who, for some reason, does not seem afraid of the dark. He has been quarterback since fifth grade, when they lined up the kids on the elementary school field and told them to throw and keep throwing, until, gradually, only one was left.
“You,” the coach said, pointing to Enos, “come here. Hold your hand this way. This is how you take a snap.”
That was the beginning. There were the peewee games and the high school games and the local headlines and the college recruiters and then, of course, those glorious Michigan State afternoons, when Dan Enos took the snap and dropped back and who knew what he was going to do — throw, fake, run? There was the touchdown bootleg against Miami, and those two touchdown passes against Notre Dame. There was the trip to Hawaii in his junior year and the victory over Michigan this year and the MVP award from his teammates Tuesday night at the football bust. “Heck of a quarterback,” they said. “Great little quarterback,” they said. Quarterback. He was the quarterback. It has been his calling card, the stripes on his shoulder. “You’re the quarterback, right?” they ask him.
And now it is about to end.
This weekend, they will give out the Heisman Trophy, and the talk will be of NFL potential, of big-money contracts, what lies ahead for the best in the land. But how about the next- best? How about the guys who were very good — but not good enough for the pros? In a restaurant in Southfield, an old woman comes to the table and smiles at Dan Enos.
“My son will be so thrilled when I tell him I met you,” she says. “You play football, right?”
“Right,” he says.
“And your name is Dan . . . “
“Enos,” he says.
She thanks him and walks away. He smiles.
“In a couple of years,” he says, “it’ll be: ‘Didn’t you used to play sports?’ And then, ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ And then, ‘Who are you?’
He’s right. Such is the march of time. You can mope. You can fool yourself. It won’t change anything. “A few years ago, we had a player on our team,” Enos says, picking at his scrambled eggs and bacon, “and all he would do was talk about where he’d be drafted. He’d say, ‘I heard I’ll be going in the fifth round or the sixth round. . . . I heard this team is interested in me.’ . . . Nobody really said anything to him, but we knew there was no way he’d be drafted. And he wasn’t.
“Afterwards, a lot of guys felt he deserved what he got. But you know? I felt kind of sorry for him.”
Maybe because Enos — who played his last regular-season game for MSU last week — has seen others’ dreams evaporate. His father was a semi-pro player who now works as a security guard. His idol at MSU was Dave Yarema, a fine quarterback who never made the pros. “That’s still a total shock to me,” Enos says. “To me, Dave was such an excellent, excellent quarterback.”
He sighs. “I guess to make it in the NFL you have to be excellent, excellent, excellent.”
So what do you do, Mr. College Quarterback? If you’re smart, you make the most of your time, you take the free education they’re giving, and when it’s over, you wrap up the memories, shake hands, and say good-bye. And that is pretty much the Enos plan.
A moment for those memories. . . .
There was that first game as a freshman, when he walked across the parking lot in his uniform and two little girls squealed and pointed. “Look,” one said, “I bet he’s the punter.”
There was the game against Purdue when an opponent slammed his helmet into Enos’ chin, the blood was gushing, and they had to stitch him up at halftime. And as he sat there, woozy from the Novocain needles, the coaches burst in and said, “Danny, here’s the changes for the second half!” And Danny said, “Hnnnnn hnnnnn,” and then he went out and threw two touchdown passes and ran for two more and won the game.
There were the carloads of friends who drove up from Dearborn — where the Enos family still lives — and all the gang would come, Whizzer and J.C. and Blender and Eddie Spaghetti. They would come even when Dan was a backup, just to watch him on the sidelines. And when he became a starter, they would be there after the games, they would go for a big meal and, if the game had been won, a big party. And the next morning, when Enos awoke, he’d see all his childhood friends sprawled across the floor of his campus apartment, sleeping.
There was the dream game this year, when the Spartans, with a losing record, defeated Michigan, which just happened to be ranked No. 1 in the nation that week. And the roar from his sidelines still rings in his ears. Enos had thrown for one touchdown and run for another. He had led them like a general. He was a hero.
There were the girls who wanted to meet him, and the strangers who wanted to slap his back, and there were the anonymous phone callers who rang “just to hear your voice.” There were the records he set or matched, his ranking as fourth best in history in all-time passing yardage at MSU.
And there was the moment, last month, when Enos felt the sting of all this celebrity, when, after leaving a bar with his brothers and friends, he was picked up by police and charged with urinating in public. They knew who he was; they pointed and said, ‘Get in the car, Danny,’ even though, he claims,
“They knew I didn’t do anything.” It was actually a friend, he says, who was guilty. Still, Enos had to call his mother and father and relatives because they would hear it on TV and radio and in newspapers. And now he must go to court to try to prove his innocence.
The good. The bad. The funny. The painful. It is a fat scrapbook. And he will miss every piece of it. He just won’t cry over it.
I know this will all be over soon. The last couple of weeks, whenever a kid comes up for an autograph, I take a long time to sign it. I want to remember what it’s like, because I know pretty soon, they won’t ask anymore. .
“I’ve mapped things out pretty well. I’ll graduate on time, with a business degree, and I’m going to work as a grad assistant on the team next year. I want to try and get into coaching. I think I would really enjoy that.
. . .
“Sure, I think about the pros. But I don’t really have the size they’re looking for. (He is 6-feet.) I guess the only thing I’d regret about not getting there will be the money, because with one of those contracts, I could set up my whole family. There’s nothing I’d like to say more than ‘Dad, stop working those 12-hour shifts.’ Or, ‘Mom, here’s that car you always wanted but never thought you could afford.’
“But that’s about all I regret.”
That is about all he should. Dan Enos will watch the Heisman Trophy ceremony this weekend. He will watch the draft next April. And, when the time comes, he says, he will watch the NFL games on Sundays. “I do it now,” he says. “I like to see guys I know and say, ‘I played against him. I played against him.’ “
And maybe that’s enough. Here is a story of a kid who played the glamour position at a big-time school, but never let the glamour take him over. He filled the role, like a soldier, and he sucked everything he could from the experience. Now, he hands over the uniform.
You think about all the college players out there who must say goodbye to football. You worry about them sometimes. How will they cope when the cheering stops? You wonder: will they be all right?
“Is there a job that will ever match the feeling of quarterback?” I ask Dan Enos.
“Head coach,” he says, grinning.
He’ll be all right.
Mitch Albom will sign copies of his book, “Live ALbom II,” at 6 tonight at Little Professor in Madison Heights and at 7:45 at Borders in Novi. Also Saturday at 1 p.m. at Little Professor in Farmington and at 3 p.m. at Little Professor in Plymouth.