MIAMI -- Eric Bieniemy was born and spent most of his early years in a New Orleans slum. His family moved to West Covina, outside Los Angeles, when he was a teen-ager. The social climate wasn't much better. So when Bieniemy moved to the more affluent community of Boulder to play halfback for Colorado, he had problems.
"In New Orleans, there were drugs and prostitution all over the streets," said Bieniemy. "Then, we moved to West Covina, a rough neighborhood with a lot of blacks and Latins.
"The next stop was Boulder, which is predominantly white, and there was a lot of discrimination. Basically, it was a culture shock. There just weren't too many activities for blacks on the campus. And everybody kept saying, 'Hey, what's the matter with Eric?' It was nothing maturity hasn't worked out."
Bieniemy, 21, still doesn't seem too overwhelmed with Boulder, but he has had a tremendous impact on Colorado's football team.
This season, he has rushed for 1,628 yards and 17 touchdowns on 288 carries. He was named Offensive Player of the Year by The Associated Press and United Press International and received the same honor in the Big Eight. He also finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Without hesitation, Colorado coach Bill McCartney says Bieniemy is the primary reason the Buffaloes (10-1-1) are ranked No. 1 and in position to win a national championship tomorrow night if they beat No. 5 Notre Dame (9-2) in the Federal Express Orange Bowl (8 p.m.).
"He carried us when we were still trying to get our passing game together early in the season," McCartney said of the 5-foot-7, 195-pound senior tailback. "He's got a fire burning in him. And he seems to fuel it and fan it and flame more than the next guy."
And, just think, Bieniemy almost left Colorado two years ago. Bieniemy experienced problems with the law, the result of what other black Colorado players said was a racist atmosphere in Boulder.
As a freshman, Bieniemy was arrested for fighting at a bar after a white student called him a name. Bieniemy also said he was so ostracized by many on campus during his first two years that he considered leaving.
Instead, he decided to stay after his parents moved to nearby Aurora, Colo. Bieniemy said they moved because they wanted to see him play. Some of his friends on the team say his parents wanted to keep an eye on their son.
"It's nothing to accidentally walk into a guy in Boulder and have them shout a racial slur," said Bieniemy. "At times, I felt intimidated just to walk into a classroom and have 300 white students, and I would be one of only two blacks.
"But I have learned my lesson," Bieniemy said. "Young black men in our society experience discrimination every day. That's life. I'm able to walk away from those types of incidents now, even though it still happens. I just have to remain focused. I came here because of the closeness of this team. I can't let other people stop me from achieving my goals."
The most immediate is a national championship. Bieniemy has unpleasant memories of last year's Orange Bowl against Notre Dame, when then-No. 1 Colorado lost, 21-6.
On the Buffaloes' second possession of the game, Bieniemy just had run 16 yards and looked to be going in for a touchdown when he shifted the ball to the other arm, only to fumble and have the Irish recover at the Notre Dame 18.
"I won't forget," said Bieniemy.
People won't let him. During the off-season he received a picture of his fumble with the caption: "You moron, you shouldn't have taken the scholarship."
The package was sent from San Diego and unsigned. Bieniemy has it nailed to his wall.
"I've gone by that picture a number of times," said Bieniemy. "That was a play that could have changed the pace of the game for us. Instead, it was one of many failed opportunities. We were never able to come back."
Maybe Colorado wasn't, but it seems Bieniemy has had more comebacks than Muhammad Ali. He missed the first half of the 1989 season with a broken leg and was suspended for the 1990 season opener against Tennessee after he interfered with firefighters who were attempting to put out a fire at his parents' home.
"Eric thought they were doing extensive damage to put out the blaze," said one teammate. "That's why he overreacted."
Bieniemy came to preseason camp weighing nearly 212 pounds, which earned him the nickname of "Rugged Little Pig" from quarterback Darian Hagan.
Bieniemy said: "The weight comes from that New Orleans background. I love to eat."
Enough to eat himself out of a position?
"Oh, no, not that much," said Bieniemy. "They say I have a offensive lineman's mentality. I guess I got their appetite, too."
His offensive linemen love the way Bieniemy runs. Colorado is an option team, and Bieniemy has good speed for the perimeter (4.39 in the 40). But he runs up the middle frequently, letting everyone know that his muscular upper body isn't just for show.
"We were playing Oklahoma," said Colorado offensive tackle Ariel Solomon. "I feel and then see Eric go through the hole, and then there's two linebackers. So I figure the Rugged Little Pig is going to outrun them to the corner. Not Eric. He put his head down, ran over both of them for a 69-yard touchdown. He really wants to be a lineman."
Actually, he'd prefer to be another Barry Sanders.
"Eric, because of his size, sneaked up on a few people last year," said Solomon. "But they know about him this year. NFL scouts talk about him being another Joe Morris, and Eric really likes Barry Sanders. But, soon, a lot of other backs are going to want to be Eric Bieniemy."
NOTE: Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said yesterday that special-teams players Ryan Mihalko (back spasms) and Rusty Setzer (possible pneumonia) probably won't play. Holtz also said there was a 75 percent chance that defensive lineman Chris Zorich, who has dislocated his right kneecap twice this season, would play.