Ready for Takeoff

The "dull" Air Force Academy football team and its stoic coach zoom toward a bowl landing.

Their amazing quarterback stands 5' 11" and weighs 185 -- which makes him three inches taller and ten pounds heavier than their top running back. They call older men "sir," get straight A's in calculus and would no sooner cheap-shot an opponent than fly a Mig for Iraq.

In the hog-eat-hog, win-at-any-cost world of big-time college football, such stuff doesn't ordinarily add up to much. But the 18th-ranked Air Force Falcons are no ordinary bunch of ballplayers, and their performance this season -- a 6-0 start that includes wins over highly touted Utah, the Big 10's Northwestern and the Pac 10's University of California -- comes as only a mild surprise on the academy's dramatic campus at the north edge of Colorado Springs. Pre-season pundits picked Air Force to finish sixth (or worse) in the eight-team Mountain West Conference. But the pickers may have forgotten to factor in the resolve of players who, after graduation, could be fighting a war instead of looking for jobs, and the cleverness of a head coach who has had just two losing seasons in eighteen years -- despite facing bigger, stronger teams almost every Saturday.

"We have a very, very dull football program," coach Fisher DeBerry says, his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek. "We just operate from one game to the next and never really get excited about anything.... Not much changes on a week-to-week basis, I can assure you." That is vintage DeBerry -- the sound and sense of his home town, Spartanburg, South Carolina, transplanted to the Front Range of the Rockies. DeBerry's nineteen-year tenure at Air Force is longer than that of any other college coach except for Joe Paterno at Penn State (37 years) and Bobby Bowden at Florida State (27 years), and in that time, he's developed some unshakable principles: Play hard every moment; put no stock in national rankings or TV coverage and never discuss them with players; don't think about bowl games until the end of the year; stay focused on beating Army, beating Navy and winning conference championships. "Very dull," the 64-year-old winner of 148 Air Force games says.

Sure. Dull. Just like the supersonic jet flyovers that precede Falcon games. Air Force beat Northwestern 52-3 in their opener and destroyed Navy 48-7 last week, but in the three preceding weeks, the Falcons -- some intimates call 'em the Zoomies -- pulled successive games out of the fire with cardiac-arrest finishes. On September 7, they beat New Mexico 38-31 in overtime, then took out then 23rd-ranked Cal 23-21 with a 13-point rally in the fourth quarter. On September 28, they cooked up a 24-point second-half blitz to slip past Utah 30-26 with seconds remaining.

Still, DeBerry delights in dispensing his no-frills, anti-glitz party line, while smiling all the way to the next presentation of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. He recoils -- for the moment -- from the suggestion that his quarterback might be HeismanTrophy material. He dismisses any suggestion that the team might move up to a prestigious BCS bowl game this year. And before Saturday's pivotal night game against Brigham Young, broadcast nationally on ESPN2, the bluff coach was asked if Air Force might gain new, wider respect from the exposure: "If I lived on the East Coast," he said, "I'd be in bed at 10 o'clock, not watching a football game."

At the same time, he acknowledges, his players merit the coverage, and he admits that he's proud of being in the spotlight for a moment. Quoth the fox: "Over the years, we've done pretty well on TV."

The Falcons' 52-9 demolition of conference champ BYU was sweet payback for the team, especially because BYU's 63-33 win last year in Provo set the stage for AFA's late-season swoon.

"Last year's game was grit in the craw," DeBerry said earlier. "It was an embarrassment." Of Saturday's result, he said: "We'd been waiting 365 days for this game, I can assure you of that."

Win or lose, the name of the game at Air Force is always "wingbone," a complex, multiple-option running attack that a small, quick -- and very smart -- college team can set loose on defenses that rarely see it and have a bear of a time preparing for it. The Air Force way since 1980, the 'bone depends on ball control, quick keep-it-or-pitch-it decisions and constant discipline (another academy specialty), but it only rarely strikes through the air -- a nice little irony for a team whose mascot is a Falcon and many of whose members later find themselves in the cockpits of F-16 fighter jets. But things have changed some this year. Going into the BYU game, quarterback Chance Harridge was the team's leading rusher, with 511 yards (and added 104 yards to the tally, along with four TDs for the second straight week), but he'd also completed 23 of his 47 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns -- including a twenty-yard connection to Tom Clark with seventeen seconds left on the clock that capped Air Force's thriller win at Utah.

To be sure, Harridge and his compatriot in the backfield, speedster Leotis Palmer, are prototype Air Force players -- undersized, intelligent, devoted and devoid of illusions. They will never play in the NFL, and they know it. For his part, Harridge organized the team's seven-on-seven off-season passing drills himself, then gave up his summer vacation -- the Zoomies call it "leave" -- to remain at the academy preparing for the 2002 season. A backup last year, he prevailed over four other starting quarterback candidates and has proved such a leader that DeBerry, wholly unsurprised at the quality of the junior QB's play, calls him "an extended coach out there on the field."

Harridge says he was unable to sleep after losing to BYU last year. "Yeah, we owe them one," he said before the BYU contest. The quarterback kept a news photo from last season's debacle over his bed for a year.

Meanwhile, Palmer won the team's "Mr. Intensity" award for his work in the weight room. For a change, Air Force ball carriers have four jumbo-sized offensive linemen blocking for them this year who average 280 pounds apiece, but when the 175-pound Palmer started bench-pressing 380 pounds and squat-lifting 500, the big guys took notice. Just for grins, the 4.45 flash also returns punts and kickoffs.

For DeBerry and the Falcons, nothing will get easier this season on the road to -- dare we say it? -- their twelfth bowl game in nineteen years. On Saturday they host Tyrone Willingham's revitalized Notre Dame team, also 6-0 and ranked number seven. On October 26, it's off to Wyoming and, after just four days' rest, the Falcons face old nemesis Colorado State. And the week after that? The Zoomies have their always-important match-up with Army, at West Point.

Leave it to Fisher DeBerry, the master of Southern understatement and the nation's seventh-winningest coach, to put things in perspective. "We've got a pretty good self-concept on our football team right now...I said in the beginning of the year that we didn't have a lot of depth, so I'm proud of the way so many of the guys have stepped up. Potentially, we have a pretty good team."

Dull, maybe, but pretty good.

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