Penn State's Bill shows leadership as sub QB

November 08, 1990|By Don Markus

In the past, Tom Bill might have reacted differently to this budding Penn State quarterback controversy. He might have said something -- or done something -- to inflame the situation.

But yesterday, Bill did everything he could to defuse the growing speculation that he, not junior Tony Sacca, would start Saturday's game against Maryland at Beaver Stadium.

"Coach [Joe Paterno] and I feel the same way," Bill said by phone from University Park, Pa. "I hope that Tony goes out and plays a great game. I think Tony's had a good year, and I've been able to help out a little bit."

What Bill has done recently is save Penn State's season. In victories the past two weeks over Alabama and West Virginia, the fifth-year senior has relieved Sacca early enough to arouse a dormant Nittany Lions offense.

Even if his performance against the Mountaineers -- seven-of-12 passing for 99 yards and one touchdown, along with a 5-yard score -- doesn't merit a start this week, it certainly marked the end of a long road back for Bill.

"He's a great example to the others because he's overcome a lot of problems," said Paterno. "He's never let those problems affect the team. He's always been a team player. He gives us a great lift."

A high school All-American in football and lacrosse in Flemington, N.J., as well as the most highly recruited Penn State quarterback since Todd Blackledge, Bill had watched his college career nose dive because of a serious injury and personal problems.

The injury -- a dislocated kneecap in the third game of the 1988 season -- came shortly after Bill had claimed the No. 1 quarterback job as a sophomore. Three incidents involving local police, all drinking-related, led Bill to admit himself last winter to an alcohol rehabilitation center.

"I just wanted to get control of my life again," Bill said shortly before entering a program at an undisclosed location in Pennsylvania last Jan. 26. At the time, Bill said the measure was "precautionary" and that he was not coerced into doing it.

Bill had been suspended by Paterno for two game Sept. 18 after being arrested for public drunkeness. At the time he was again the team's starting quarterback, having beaten out Sacca in the preseason and leading the Nittany Lions to victories over Temple and Virginia.

Yesterday, Bill said that he had one goal in mind, other than the obvious objective, when he entered the program. He just wanted to get back to Penn State, and to the Nittany Lions team, for his final season.

"Through everything, there was one thing that kept me going: I didn't want to leave Penn State and my friends on the football team the way I had," said Bill, who re-enrolled in school last May and regained his eligibility last summer. "That had left a bad taste in my mouth and in theirs.

"I wanted to be back on the team enjoying a season where maybe I wouldn't be in the papers for playing, but I wouldn't be mentioned in the papers for doing something stupid and embarrassing my family."

The problems Bill had off the field had helped him gain a new perspective about the role he would play this season for the Nittany Lions. Though he had been used primarily in relief of Sacca -- including a 2 1/2 -quarter stint in last year's 13-13 tie with the Terrapins -- this was the first time he accepted it graciously.

And, perhaps, gratefully. Bill understands that he has been given another chance, and realizes the fact that Sacca has one more year of eligibility gives him the edge with Paterno. But he is going to make the best of the opportunity.

"I've learned not to put everything in one basket," he said. "Before, football was all I thought about. I used to let it tear me up if I had a bad day. It just consumed me. I had to put some priorities in the right place, and just concentrate on other things."

What Bill and his Penn State teammates are focusing on right now is Maryland (5-4). The Terrapins celebrated last year's tie, which broke a 24-game losing streak. The Nittany Lions took a long bus ride home from Memorial Stadium.

"One thing that a lot of us remember is that Maryland ruined our season," Bill said of a team that finished 8-3-1. "That 13-13 tie might as well been a 13-10 loss. It prevented us from going on to bigger and better things. We're on a roll right now and Maryland stands in our way."

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