Worcester, Mass. — Tired of college football's annual derby for the national championship? Had enough of the pre-professional credentials of most Heisman trophy candidates? Then you'll find welcome relief in the season just completed by Holy Cross and its all-purpose star Gordie Lockbaum. The Crusaders completed a perfect 11-0 season and secured the top ranking in the NCAA's Division I-AA by defeating Villanova, 39-6, on national television last Thursday night. Holy Cross thus became king of those major colleges that have opted to play in smaller stadiums, offer fewer athletic scholarships, and settle for lower-powered results than division I-A counterparts like Oklahoma, Miami, and Nebraska.
And Lockbaum has proved for the second year running that he is a bona fide Heisman Trophy contender even if he doesn't play for a big-time team.
Last season, Gordie became the first player in decades to gain All-American recognition on both offense (as a tailback) and defense (at cornerback). He also caught passes, returned kicks, and punted.
``He's almost a superman,'' exclaims Holy Cross coach Mark Duffner. ``I sometimes say to him, `Open your shirt and show me the `S.'''
In one already legendary game against Army last year, Lockbaum made 22 tackles, ran for 40 yards, and added 73 yards receiving. This particular contest required icing on the cake, and Lockbaum saved a narrow 17-14 victory by knocking down a last-second Army pass. By day's end, he had been involved in 143 plays and had turned himself into a Heisman contender.
He totaled 2,178 offensive yards on the season, led the nation in scoring with 132 points, and finished fifth as a junior in the Heisman election.
This year, Gordie continued to give the impression that he changes his uniform in a nearby phone booth. He racked up 22 touchdowns and 2,041 all-purpose yards, and has become one of the nation's premier pass receivers. He even threw for a touchdown in a recent game.
Besides having a statistical heyday, though, Lockbaum has captured the imagination of college football fans. After all, his feats recall a time when college players wore leather helmets without faceguards and posed in letter sweaters. His blond hair, square jaw, and chiseled features, along with a 3.15 academic average as an economics major make him seem all the more like someone who has escaped from a storybook.
The story of Lockbaum and his team may sound so unusual because they seem to have recaptured the long-lost ideal of what college football should be. This year's team had an average margin of victory of 36 points and in the tradition of Holy Cross teams, virtually every member of the current squad is expected to get his diploma.
``We have legimitate students graduating on time and playing championship-caliber football without any scandals,'' Duffner points out, ``and Lockbaum epitomizes individually what we're trying to be. Who else is doing what he's doing?''
Despite their on-field exploits, Lockbaum and the Crusaders received national TV exposure only in the season finale. Gordie made the most of his opportunity, scoring three touchdowns and adding a host of school career records, while quarterback Jeff Wiley showed that this was a lot more than a one-man team, passing for 381 yards and a pair of scores.
The only way the Crusaders will see postseason action, though, is by turning on the television. ``Eleven games is plenty. We're as big-time as you can be in I-AA, and that's probably where we should be,'' Duffner asserts, although the teams Holy Cross has shellacked by scores as high as 63-6 might disagree.
There is an additional dimension to the 21-1 won-lost record the Crusaders have amassed over the past two seasons. Their success and Lockbaum's brilliant career arrived when Holy Cross needed them most, right after Duffner's predecessor, Rick Carter, had committed suicide in February 1986.
``We're a small enough school so that it was like a member of the family had died,'' says Duffner. ``It would have been easy for people to scatter and fall apart, but we turned the tragedy into a positive.''
``Pulling together, talking, leaning on each other's shoulders made us a unit outside of football,'' Lockbaum explains, ``and playing good football followed.''
Lockbaum insists that his own all-around accomplishments are simply what his college life has called for. As for his high academic standing, which has garnered him a Hall of Fame scholar-athlete award, he says, ``If I don't get to class here, I'm different. If I didn't study at night, I'd be unusual.''
His multi-talented football career has developed according to the team's needs, Lockbaum adds. Originally a starter at cornerback, he was asked to fill a hole at the tailback position his junior year. ``The defense didn't want to give me up, and there was kind of a tug of war,'' he remembers. He's been filling holes ever since.
When the Crusaders unveiled additional offensive weapons this season, Lockbaum slid over to the flanker position, making way for running back Tom Kelleher to post a banner year. In fact, Lockbaum quietly yielded his statistical leadership to quarterback Wiley, who passed for a whopping 3,677 yards and 34 touchdowns.
Still, Lockbaum prefers to take the field whenever he can. ``He's like a caged lion when he's not in the game,'' reports Duffner.
``I think that playing all ways enhances me. It makes me concentrate more,'' Gordie admits.
Where Lockbaum's approach ranks him in the eyes of the voters will be decided when the Heisman votes are counted on Dec. 5. Stars at big-time schools, who appear frequently on TV and receive reams of nationwide coverage, clearly have the edge in the balloting. And Gordie's detractors argue that the level of competition in division I-AA, which includes the Ivy League colleges and mid-sized schools like William and Mary, has made him look more phenomenal than he is.
Indeed, Lockbaum will most likely have to change his style and concentrate on one aspect of the game when he tries pro football next year. ``When you get to the pros, it becomes a game of specialization. They're trying to get the best 11 players on the field at one time,'' says senior teammate Kelleher, who aspires to the same route.
Gordie hopes, though, that his versatility will provide an edge against rivals from better-known football colleges. Few players come to the NFL, he notes, fully trained to play several positions, and he figures he can fit in somewhere.
And then there are those who wonder if Lockbaum can pick up where he has left off. ``They hadn't played anyone two ways in college,'' says coach Duffner with a twinkle. ``Maybe it can work in the pros.''