NEW ORLEANS -- Not only will Florida State receiver Peter Warrick be the best player on the field when the Seminoles meet Virginia Tech for college football's national championship tomorrow night, but he'll also be, at least in his mind, the player with the most to prove.
Warrick is angry. Furious. At the world. At himself. At what he didn't do in the Seminoles' loss to Tennessee in last season's national championship game. At what he didn't accomplish this season because of one mistake.
"Those guys had better watch out," Florida State linebacker (and Dunbar High graduate) Tommy Polley said yesterday. "Peter would want to have a big game even if things had gone great for him all season. That's just his way, his personality. He wants to dominate everybody he plays. But now that he has things to prove, look out."
Warrick, a senior, has caught 132 passes and scored 24 touchdowns over the past two seasons, and many pro scouts expect him to be the first selection in the 2000 NFL draft.
"I'm sure he'll have the last laugh in April [on draft day]," Polley said. "You're talking about one of the best players in Florida State history, right up there with Deion Sanders and the rest. I'll be telling my kids in 20 years that I played with him."
Ordinarily, a player of his caliber would win not only the Heisman Trophy, but also the Fred Biletnikoff Award, annually given to the nation's best receiver. Warrick wasn't even invited to the Heisman selection show last month, and he was in the audience when Stanford's Troy Walters won the Biletnikoff -- named after an FSU receiver, for crying out loud.
What happened? Warrick was suspended for two games during the season after being arrested for theft at a department store in Tallahassee, Fla., having paid $21 for a pile of clothes valued at more than $400.
Goodbye, good name and reputation. Goodbye, awards and adulation.
"Everything that has happened has hurt him a lot," Ron Dugans, Warrick's roommate and fellow wide receiver, said yesterday. "He made a big mistake, no question, and he's got to live with that. But winning a national title and having a good game on this stage would help make up for it."
Warrick doesn't dispute that he deserved to be punished, although he told reporters last week he was "not a bad person" and "through apologizing." And though he didn't deserve to win major awards just months after such an incident -- citizenship might not matter in the NFL, but it should in college football -- he has taken the heat admirably, ducking no questions during months of scrutiny and criticism.
His teammates responded by naming him a team captain for the Sugar Bowl -- a show of support that was as bold as it was politically incorrect. Warrick was moved.
"Those kids wouldn't have voted a guy who is a jerk or a criminal to be their team captain for a game like this," Seminoles offensive coordinator Mark Richt said.
"I think he's going to have a huge game," senior linebacker Bobby Rhodes said. "He wants it so bad after everything that happened. We're the ones who know the kind of player he is, whether he won any awards or not. He's still the best college football player in the country. But people are judgmental, and the thing that happened was a bad incident. In the end, I feel bad for him."
Originally, Warrick turned down high-draft-pick money and came back for his senior season to right a wrong that occurred on the field against Tennessee last year in the Fiesta Bowl.
With a national title on the line, Tennessee focusing heavily on him and an injury forcing Florida State to use an inexperienced quarterback, Warrick touched the ball only twice on offense, gaining a total of 18 yards. The Seminoles lost, 23-16.
A year later, Warrick obviously wants to put on a better show in the big game and also wants to let the nation know that, though Wisconsin's Ron Dayne might have won the Heisman, there's no doubt who deserved it.
"We'll have our Peter Warrick plan," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "We're going to find ways to get him the ball."
That's a scary thought if you're Virginia Tech. Florida State already has found new ways to get the ball to Warrick this season in the wake of the Tennessee debacle, utilizing handoffs, direct snaps, screens and reverses. He has played halfback and quarterback as well as receiver, and also returned punts.
With capable veteran quarterback Chris Weinke running the offense tomorrow night, look for Warrick to have plenty of chances to show his stuff.
"I have no doubt the coaches will get the ball in his hands," Polley said.
Warrick himself has refrained from talking big before kickoff, sticking with an accessible, humble approach. But he obviously knows this is his moment, his chance to shine in the spotlight instead of suffer in it.
His stage for the taking.
In that sense, Virginia Tech might be in the wrong place at the wrong time.