Fulfillment is more than starting for Penn State's Bill

November 08, 1990|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Evening Sun Staff

This is not what Tom Bill envisioned when he showed up at Penn State five years ago.

Not his second-team role as a senior quarterback. Not his suspension from the football team as a junior. And certainly not his ensuing 30-day stay in a rehabilitation center last January for alcohol abuse.

Bill, a high school All-American, had expected better.

"I definitely hoped for more," he said yesterday. "Two years ago when I got to start and I started so well against Virginia, I thought things might really go well for me. They didn't. I had a big part in that.

"[But] it's definitely fulfilling to have worked on the problems I have and be able to come back and be part of the team, to at least have helped them win a couple of games."

Bill's football career at Penn State crumbled in September 1989 when he was cited by campus police for public drunkenness. It was his third alcohol-related incident at University Park and carried with it a suspension from the team.

Reinstated for the final three games of the season, he left school in January for rehabilitation. This year he rejoined the team again, competed for the job and lost out to talented junior Tony Sacca.

When Penn State (6-2) hosts Maryland (5-4) at Beaver Stadium Saturday, Bill will assume his position along the sideline and wait for a call that may not come. He won't complain about it, either.

"I've always thought of myself as a team player," he said. "If I'm not the starting quarterback, I'll be just as supportive off the field as on it."

The irony for Bill is that his legacy at Penn State will not be the touchdown passes he's thrown or the games he's pulled out coming off the bench, but the perseverance and courage he's shown in facing up to his personal demons. There is plenty of inspiration to be gleaned from his star-crossed career.

Personal testimony came from his teammates last week after Bill relieved the struggling Sacca in the second quarter and led the 20th-ranked Nittany Lions past West Virginia, 31-19. Wide receiver Terry Smith said Bill's exuberance gave a lift to the offense. Coach Joe Paterno seconded the motion in his press briefing this week.

"Tom's an older boy, in his fifth year in college, so he's been around longer than Tony," Paterno said. "He's a great example to the squad because he's overcome a lot of personal problems. Through all his problems, he's never, ever been anything but a team player. Everybody's pulling for him, and when he comes into a game, there's no question his teammates are glad he's getting an opportunity."

Both Paterno and Bill moved quickly to douse a budding quarterback controversy in the wake of last week's victory. Paterno said Sacca will start against the Terps and Bill said he has no qualms about that.

"I think the coach has done a great job making clear that Tony's the quarterback, the starting quarterback," Bill said. "We're able to go into practice like that and we know what our roles are.

"He's had a couple of shaky outings, but I don't think there's any reason to pull him."

Bill replaced Sacca in the second quarter at West Virginia. He completed seven of 12 passes for 99 yards, throwing for one touchdown and running for another. The week before, he relieved Sacca in the third quarter of a 9-0 victory over Alabama.

Despite those performances, Bill won't posture for the starting job. He accepts the notion that Sacca, who returns next season, is the one who should be quarterbacking.

"Maybe if it was warranted, it'd be different," he said. "If I think I had a right to come out and say who should be starting . . . but I don't believe I'm in that position. Tony has done really well and he's earned the job. It'd be stupid of me to shoot my mouth off and disrupt the team. We need the team together and ready to go through the last part of the season."

A "fierce competitor" according to Paterno, Bill learned to put football in its rightful perspective with his problems of the last few years.

"In the past, football was all I thought about," he said. "I used to let it tear me apart if I wasn't doing as well as I thought I should. It consumed me totally. Now I'm able to put my priorities into other things, other than being a good football player. I concentrate on school, I'm going to graduate, and I enjoy myself. I'm able to loose up a little bit."

For Bill, this is not what he expected, but it's enough, after what he's been through.

"Through everything, one thing kept me going," he said. "I didn't want to leave Penn State, and leave my friends on the team, the way I had. That would have left a bad taste in my mouth and in their mouths. I always wanted to come back on the team. Whether I would have a chance to play, that would be icing on the cake. I wanted to get back on the team and be part of another year.

"Penn State football meant a lot to me. Maybe I wouldn't be in the papers for playing, but I wouldn't be in the papers for doing anything stupid that would embarrass my family, either."

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