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Michigan Ends Up With Much More Than Just Another Elvis Impersonator

September 21, 1989|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — To answer the first question that just about everybody asks him , Elvis Grbac was not named after the king of rock 'n' roll.

Nor was his brother named after Engelbert Humperdinck.

Elvis and Engelbert are just common names in Yugoslavia, says a bemused Grbac, whose parents emigrated to the Midwest 20 years ago not from Las Vegas, but from the Alpine village of Istra near the Italian border.

As far back as he can remember, however, Grbac has been asked about his given name. And his last name, too, which is pronounced GER-back here but was GER-botch in the old country.

The questions began anew last Saturday, when the 6-foot-5, 220-pound freshman replaced injured starter Michael Taylor as Michigan's quarterback in a nationally televised game against No. 1-ranked Notre Dame.

On the third play of the second half, Taylor got stung, hit from behind by Notre Dame linebacker Ned Bolcar. Taylor's back was badly bruised.

On the sideline, Grbac admitted to being nervous, but he wasn't exactly all shook up.

He went into the game and almost rallied the Wolverines to a comeback victory, establishing a school percentage record by completing 17 of 21 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-19 loss.

"I got the jitters out early," said Grbac, who missed on his first two passes.

He hit his third pass to Greg McMurtry over the middle for 19 yards and "after that I just started rolling."

Elvis, who completed 16 of his last 17 passes, drew rave reviews, even from Notre Dame Coach Lou Holtz.

"He really got some things going, made some great throws," Holtz said. "He's got a great future."

The future starts this week.

Taylor is still hurting and Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler, impressed as much by Grbac's moxie and field presence as his powerful right arm, announced that Grbac would start Saturday night against UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

All this has happened a little sooner than Grbac expected.

Over dinner Monday night in the South Quad dormitory, Grbac explained to a group of reporters that he didn't play football at Cleveland's St. Joseph High School until after a coach saw him throw during a freshman gym class and suggested that he try out as a sophomore.

Grbac, 19, was a varsity starter for only one season at St. Joseph, throwing for about 900 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior in a run-oriented offense.

"The most I threw was 15 passes in a game," he said.

Grbac visited only two schools, Michigan and Michigan State.

Memphis State, located in the same town as Presley's Graceland estate, obviously missed a public relations coup.

A lot of other schools might have missed out on a rising star.

Gary Moeller, a Michigan assistant, liked the way Grbac threw and the way he moved on the basketball court, Schembechler said. A forward, Grbac was a two-year varsity starter in basketball and was recruited by Purdue.

Basketball, in fact, was his first love, but the constant pounding on his ankles left him unable to walk after games.

So, he turned to football.

The Michigan coaching staff met him and liked him, but it was mostly because of Grbac's size that they offered him a scholarship.

"We knew it would take a while, but we knew there was something there," Schembechler said. "So, we took a chance on him."

Schembechler liked what he saw in the Notre Dame game.

"He stands right in there and looks them in the face," Schembechler said. "You can't imagine the advantage, if you're going to pass, of being 6-feet-5. You can stay in there a lot longer and look over the defense."

Grbac looked over defenses all last summer, spending two and three hours a day in Moeller's office.

Then, in passing drills, "everything started clicking," he said. "I just started picking people apart."

He did the same to Notre Dame.

Several teammates marveled at the freshman's poise.

"I think they expected me to be really nervous," Grbac said. "But when I got out there, I wanted to be cool and calm and let things happen. Our offense is very good and we can do a lot of things. If something messed up, I went right to the next play and kept right on going."

A year ago, Grbac wouldn't have made it sound so simple.

He had no illusions when he left his home in Willoughby Hills, Ohio, and enrolled last fall at Michigan. At least four quarterbacks were ahead of him, including Demetrius Brown, the Wolverines' starter last January in their 22-14 victory over USC in the Rose Bowl.

"I didn't expect to do anything for three or four years except grow into a college quarterback and learn about defenses," Grbac said.

Ironically, this Elvis' most prominent role before last week was that of an impersonator. He duplicated the moves of USC's Rodney Peete in Michigan's preparations for the Rose Bowl.

Brown, however, flunked out of school last summer and, in fall practice, Grbac moved ahead of a more heralded pair of sophomores, former high school All-American Wilbur Odom of San Antonio and Ken Sollom, a former All-Southern Section selection from Canyon High in Canyon Country.

And then, of course, Taylor was injured last Saturday.

Schembechler said that he will simplify the offense this week, putting more of an emphasis on the Wolverines' running game, which was expected to be strong but produced only 94 yards against Notre Dame.

"I don't want to put that kind of pressure on Elvis and make him try to master all the offense," Schembechler said.

All indications, however, are that he probably could handle it.

His name alone has kept him in the spotlight all his life.

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