PALO ALTO — To look at their teams' respective media guides, Brad Muster and Todd Santos have something in common. They are Heisman Trophy candidates. It says so in small print, right under their color photos.
Their school sports information departments had big plans for Muster and Santos. Tonight was supposed to be the players' showcase.
Muster and the Stanford Cardinal versus Santos and the San Diego State Aztecs in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. The game was to feature teams in the thick of their conference races, led by two of college football's most prolific offensive players. Network television put out some preseason feelers. This was to be a perfect opportunity for added national attention.
It all sounded good back in August. Now it just looks kind of silly--another overhyped football game. The Aztecs are 1-5, their worst start since 1980. The Cardinal got its first victory last Saturday after its first 0-4 start in five seasons.
As for Santos and Muster, their Heisman hopes evaporated in five plays on opening day.
For Santos, the end came on the two interceptions he threw in his first series against UCLA. In weeks since, his teammates have noticed he is uncharacteristically nervous, and his coach, Denny Stolz, has questioned the wisdom of the university's publicity campaign centering on Santos' Heisman hopes.
For Muster, the end came on the three carries it took him to lose two yards against Washington and aggravate his sprained left ankle. Muster has played in only one game since. He did not even make the trip to San Diego.
The story doesn't end there. The real similarities between the two players are not found on media guide covers; they are found inside the people themselves--in their feelings, in their actions, in their words.
Muster and Santos are a lot alike. They don't say much.
"We know this is eating Brad up inside, but he won't open up," said Tom Beckett, Stanford assistant director of athletics for football operations. "He keeps so much to himself."
Another idyllic day on the West's idyllic college campus. The sun was shining. Students were purposefully crisscrossing campus on their way to class. Joggers, with portable cassette players secured around their waists, were making their way around the track. Stanford was a great place to be. Muster conceded as much.
"Nice flowers, huh?" he said, while taking an unauthorized shortcut through a campus garden. "Just don't step on any of the big ones."
The disappointment of the past two months had done little to dull Muster's sense of humor or that mischievous streak that allows him to number professional wrestling among his favorite sports.
"But it's not real! It's not real!" he said in mocking mimicry of the sport's critics. "How can you watch it?"
Every Sunday, would be his response.
Only these days, he has a little more time than he would prefer for his favorite diversion.
While the Cardinal is in San Diego to play the Aztecs, Muster is spending this weekend back on campus, just as he spent the last. He has played and practiced little in the two months since he sprained his ankle on the first day of preseason practice.
"I was running a perimeter drill the way I normally do," Muster recalled. "I followed my lead blocker, and he just stopped in front of the guy he was supposed to block because it was a no-contract drill. In order to avoid him, I moved out of the way. I kind of wobbled on my ankle, sort of an inside-outside move. I sprained about everything you could on both sides."
The prescription was rest. But Muster couldn't wait. Stanford is a young team, and Muster figured his experience could help make the difference. He is one of the best all-purpose running backs in college football. He is big (6-feet 3-inches, 226 pounds) and he is fast (4.56 seconds for 40 yards). Last season he was named the Pacific 10 Conference offensive player of the year and became only the fifth player in NCAA history to rush for more than 1,000 yards (1,053 yards) and and catch at least 50 passes (61 receptions). The year before, he set a Pac-10 record with 78 receptions.
He played against Washington on Sept. 5 in a 31-21 loss. He thought he was doing the right thing--until the pain became unbearable.
"At Washington, (the medical staff) told me that it was just a question of where I was in the healing process," Muster said. "They said I couldn't do any more damage to it. I interpreted that to mean go ahead and play through the pain.
"I couldn't even run without pain. I figured the pain wasn't going to get any worse. I went out there on the first couple of plays, and that was it."
Muster, who came to Stanford from San Marin High School in Marin County, did not try to play again until three weeks later against San Jose State. He gained 87 yards on 27 carries. But the Cardinal still lost, 24-17. Four days later in practice, he jammed his left heel in practice. He hasn't played since.