SAN DIEGO — Tommy Booker could always run.
To him, football at Vista High School was pretty basic stuff. He did the tricks and worked the magic; his opponents played out the part of the buffoons. He could always run away from opposing tacklers. Give him the smallest opening, and boom, there he went. Through the line, into the secondary and toward a terrific future.
College recruiters visited by day and telephoned by night. Parade magazine picked him first-team All-American. He was rated as the top recruit in the nation by the Dallas Morning News and ranked the fifth-best high school senior in the country by the National High School Recruiting Service.
His classmates all knew him--or of him. Those he didn't know whispered in the halls as he walked by. That's him. Some day, he's going to play in the NFL.
That's what everyone thought, and why not? He was big and strong, quick and fast. Durable.
But somewhere along the line, something happened, something nobody can understand unless they've been the talk of the school, the target of the recruiters, the subject of the spotlight.
You see, when a football game began to speed up during crunch-time, Tommy Booker would take the ball, hug it against his body and take off toward another touchdown. But when his life began to speed up, it wasn't so easy. There were no timeouts or two-minute drills. He couldn't ask the quarterback to throw the ball out of bounds and stop the clock.
Life started going faster and faster, and he couldn't slow it down, and there were so many choices to make, and suddenly . . .
It was about the time he arrived at San Diego State, in the fall of 1987, that his life began turning into one big broken play. A gap opened up the middle, but Booker cut left. A wedge formed around left end, but Booker slashed right.
Some of it was his fault. Some just happened. Injuries. Personal problems. A pregnancy. A marriage. Fatherhood. Confusion. A decision to redshirt last season. A nagging feeling in the back of his mind causing him to wonder if he ever wanted to carry a football again.
Then, one night last fall, while he watched the Aztecs play Brigham Young, his desire returned. He talked with SDSU Coach Al Luginbill. He was back with the program in time for practice last spring.
He pulled a hamstring.
That wasn't all. In the middle of spring practice and during finals week, his wife of two years told him she wanted a divorce.
And now, another season has arrived.
Tommy Booker is back at it, practicing under the hot sun, running, blocking, working. He has not been unlike Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure who was sentenced to roll a boulder uphill for the rest of his life; just when he neared the top, the boulder rolled back downhill, and he started all over again.
What's done is done. Booker practices, in the familiar No. 29 jersey, and he talks, in the familiar voice that is not much more than a whisper. He is entering his junior year of eligibility, and there is no guarantee how much playing time he will get.
The Aztecs have four running backs in the picture--Booker, community college transfer T.C. Wright, Curtis Butts and redshirt freshman Kipp Jeffries. Coming out of the spring, Wright was No. 1 on the depth chart. Luginbill says Booker, 6-feet, 200 pounds, is in the hunt, but still. . . . Much of the glitter is gone. You get the impression that this is a man whose future is slipping away.
"I thought about that," Booker said. "Some people do stuff in high school, as far as playing ability, and some people do stuff in college. I don't know when mine is supposed to stop. Maybe here. Maybe in the next level. We'll see."
During his senior year at Vista in 1986, he rushed for 2,124 yards, then a San Diego County record. USC, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Auburn were among those who called. His decision came down to three schools. He liked SDSU and Washington. His father pushed for Arizona.
"A lot of things happened too fast," said Thomas Booker, Tommy's father. "He didn't have time to sort them out. It was overwhelming for us. We had a very difficult time during that time. I can imagine the stress he was going through.
"If we ever have another son (in that situation), it will never happen like that. It was too much."
Finally, Tommy Booker held a press conference and announced his decision: SDSU.
When you're a schoolboy legend, and you elect to play your football at home, the only thing left to do is step into the starting lineup and rumble for several hundred more yards.
That's not what happened.
He sprained an ankle in 1987, his freshman year. While he sat, junior Paul Hewitt established himself as SDSU's leading rusher. So, come Booker's sophomore year, he sat again. Both years, though, he was the Aztecs' second-leading rusher. In 1987, he gained 246 yards, and he rushed for 214 more in 1988.
His biggest moment of glory came during his freshman season in 1987 when he ran 65 yards for an apparent touchdown during a 47-14 loss at UCLA. Glory? It was nullified by a penalty. Figures.