LINCOLN, Neb. — Like a lot of college football lovers, I couldn't wait to get a good look at Gaston Green.
He had a lot of things going for him. He was a running back with a growing reputation. He played ball for a popular school with a national ranking--UCLA. He was a nice kid with a catchy name.
And the Gas man came into the season already distinguished as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He didn't have to earn the "candidate" part. The trophy Green would have to work for, but his nomination was never in doubt.
Some guys don't get discovered until their season is a few weeks old, and some guys don't get discovered until their university publicity departments start pumping out posters, press releases, 8-by-10 glossies and whatever other hype might help win a Heisman.
Green had no such problem. The UCLA sports information office didn't have to go to people pleading for publicity; people came to them. And Green, being a good fellow who understands this part of the game, accepted it gracefully.
If people wanted to push him for a Heisman, well, that was nice of them. The team, however, would have to come first. Ahead of all other considerations, the success of UCLA's program had to be put in front of any self-motivations.
We understand, people said. They nodded politely. And then they waited for UCLA's season to kick off, so they could watch Gaston Green carry the ball 30 or 35 times a game and make tacklers eat his cleats and do the sort of Heisman voodoo that Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker and all the others did so well.
Like everybody else, I was eager to see Green play. From previous seasons, I knew him to be quick and slick. But this was supposed to be his big season, his senior season, his showcase season, his staircase to the pros. This was supposed to be his year to bust loose.
Well, it might not be working out that way. UCLA Coach Terry Donahue insisted all along that the good of the team would not be sacrificed for the good of an individual, and he obviously meant it. UCLA's season is very much alive, even after Saturday's 42-33 setback at Nebraska. Gaston Green's Heisman chances, however, may already be gone.
From the UCLA camp, arguments will go like so: (1) It's much too soon to write someone off. (2) Green will have plenty of big games before this season is through. (3) Everybody has an off day.
But the Nebraska game was a ruinous day in the Heisman hopes of UCLA's hero. People like me who were waiting to see Green run are still waiting. He spent much of the day as a decoy. He ran for 46 total yards. He didn't catch a pass. Two of the three short touchdown runs he made came after Nebraska had a 42-17 lead. The defense had already rested.
Ordinarily, such a game might not be so harmful, but this was no ordinary game. This was a game against the most powerful opponent on UCLA's schedule, with a national focus and a nationwide cable television hookup. No Heisman voters are swayed by big-yardage days against San Diego State or Fresno State or Oregon. All they will remember is that the one time Green came up against a good team, he got shut down.
This is meant as no knock to Green, to his teammates, to their coaches or to anybody else. It is merely the blunt appraisal of an opportunity wasted. There will be no Heisman Trophy this year, I am willing to wager, for Gaston Green.
Already, people are humming about Tim Brown of Notre Dame, Lorenzo White of Michigan State and Jamelle Holieway of Oklahoma, thanks to their early success. Early-season games shouldn't mean so much, but keep in mind one thing: The whole college football season lasts only 11 weeks. And six or seven of those weeks, for those who watch dispassionately, are sort of dull.
The big game against the big opponent means a lot. When Brian Bosworth of Oklahoma was hyped for the Heisman last season, an early wipeout against Miami took care of that. When Kerwin Bell of Florida was billed as a quarterback to watch, last year and this year, one-sided losses to Miami made people stop talking about him. If Kerwin Bell is a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy this season, I'm a leading candidate for Miss America.
Now, thanks to Nebraska, the stock of Gaston Green also has dropped. Trust me on this. His team will get precious little national attention during the next seven weeks, and even if he starts tacking up 150-yard games routinely, Nebraska will not be forgotten.
Green professed not to be frustrated after Saturday's bad experience. "I don't know if this hurts my chances for the Heisman," he said. "I just have to come back and play well the rest of the season. We still have a lot of football to play."
Spoken like a true nice kid.