Plain blue and white wrapper doesn't hide talents of Penn State's McDuffie BLOCKBUSTER BOWL -- Penn State vs.Stanford -- Tomorrow, 1:30 p.m., Channel 11

December 31, 1992|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

MIAMI -- He wears the most generic of uniforms, rarely gets caught showboating, yet always is on center stage.

Even in Penn State's standard-issue uniform, O. J. McDuffie stands out as someone special.

It's not just that he's one of the nation's top receivers. It's not just that he's one of the nation's most dangerous kick returners. It's not just that he carries proudly his namesake initials.

The Nittany Lions' All-American is special for all those reasons and more, his coach says.

"I'm very fond of O. J., and I suppose that shows," Joe Paterno said as Penn State prepared for tomorrow's Blockbuster Bowl against Stanford in Joe Robbie Stadium.

"I've been firm with him because he is a kid who has tremendous potential. I'm not talking just as an athlete. He's got a wonderful personality. He's bright. He's got strong leadership qualities.

"At times, he would get carried away because he would get so emotional in games. I want him to be in a class by himself in a lot of ways. I just don't want him to be another one of those guys that every time they score a touchdown it's like they just went to heaven. I think he's responded to that."

That is what Paterno preached five years ago when he recruited McDuffie out of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, where he was one of the nation's most sought-after high school players. Do it in style. Don't showboat. Be above the crowd.

McDuffie went with Paterno's low-profile program when he easily could have starred in a more high-profile program such as, say, Miami's.

When the NFL draft rolls around next spring, he will reap the dividends of his Penn State career as a likely first-round pick.

It was almost as if McDuffie had been born to this purpose, ordained for this role. It was his maternal grandmother, Mary Emma McDuffie, who insisted on the initials O. J. when he was born in 1969 to Gloria, a single parent.

But instead of naming the baby Orenthal James, like Simpson, the McDuffies decided on Otis James.

"I haven't had anyone say I haven't lived up to the name," McDuffie said.

Indeed, at Hawken High, McDuffie set school career records for rushing yards, all-purpose yards and touchdowns. And he was all-state in basketball, track and baseball, as well.

His mother had a big hand in steering McDuffie to Penn State, where he broke 15 school records this season. He is the Lions' all-time leading receiver with 125 catches, and his 1,815 all-purpose yards is another career record.

This year, Paterno said McDuffie was the best player he had seen at Penn State since Lenny Moore left school in 1955, headed for the Baltimore Colts and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"O. J. could be a great tailback, a great defensive back, a great wide-out," Paterno said. "And he could be a quarterback. That's the way Lenny was. There wasn't anything Lenny couldn't do with the football, and he proved that in the pros.

"I wouldn't say O. J.'s better than Lenny, but I wouldn't say Lenny wasbetter than O. J. That's how good O. J. is."

At one time, Paterno had dreamed of putting McDuffie in the backfield to get him the ball more often. But injuries and disciplinary problems at wide receiver precluded the move.

Despite a revolving door at quarterback, where the Lions started three different players, McDuffie still set school records with 63 catches for 977 yards and nine touchdowns this season.

Guard John Gerak, one of McDuffie's best friends on the team, said that didn't come close to maximizing his unique talents, though.

"We didn't even tap it," Gerak said. "I'm proud to be part of the records he set. I'm just happy for him, the kind of person he is.

"O. J.'s the best athlete I've ever been around. It's a shame we aren't 11-0. Then he'd be getting the attention he deserves."

One NFL personnel man ranks McDuffie with Victor Bailey of Missouri and Qadry Ismail of Syracuse of the nation's top receivers in this year's draft.

"This guy has the capability to do what Haywood Jeffires, Sterling Sharpe and Cris Carter have done," the personnel man said. "He is every bit as good as Sterling Sharpe was in college."

Sharpe set the NFL's single season record for catches with 108 this year for the Green Bay Packers.

McDuffie's breakout game came a year ago in the Fiesta Bowl, when he scored one touchdown on a 37-yard catch and set up another with a 39-yard punt return. McDuffie's heroics helped Penn State rally from a 17-7 halftime deficit to beat Tennessee, 42-17.

After tomorrow's game against Stanford, he will move into the NFL. He says he's ready.

"I am getting tired of playing in white uniforms," McDuffie said.

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