Ron Powlus – The Perfectionist

The Observer

Ron Powlus

The pressure is enough to destroy him if he lets it. He has to feel itevery now and then — has to at least allow for its momentary presence.He denies it of course, and you want to believe him, but deep down youknow no one can escape a thing like this. It is too pervasive, tooconstant. Whether Ron Powlus hears it in muffled conversations in thehallways or classrooms, whether he sees it in the quick sharp glances oraverted gazes, whether he smells it in the air, as thick as the smell ofethanol–the pressure is always there.

He’s too injury prone, the voices say. He makes too many bad decisions,the glances suggest. He’s not as good as advertised. Truth is, it’snot possible for Ron Powlus to be as good as advertised. Truth is, it’snot possible for anyone to be that good. Touchown Jesus himself mighthave problems being that good. “I am a perfectionist,” Powlus says afteran intense practice. “I want to do everything perfect, I want to beundefeated, I want to be as good as I can, and I don’t think anyone canexpect anymore than I expect of myself. So I don’t think I’ve felt anyburden or any pressure because of the expectations of other people.”

You want to believe him, but somehow you can’t. Nobody can be that hardon themselves, can they?

Everyone knows the Powlus legend by now — knows about the origins ofthis burden of greatness. Everyone knows about the “Golden Boy,” the”Messiah” who was to lead the Irish back into the land of NationalChampionships. Everyone remembers ESPN football guru Beano Cook’sproclamation that he would win “at least two Heisman trophies” duringhis collegiate career. What everyone forgets is what is obvious toanyone who has had any contact with Ron Powlus. Ron Powlus is a man. Heis a human being, with feelings and emotions, strengths andweaknesses. And he can only do so much. Amazing, the things that getforgotten when you are the Notre Dame quarterback. “I think the mostvaluable lesson he’s learned here — and we’ve talked about it — is thatyou can’t please everybody,” says offensive coordinator Dave Roberts.”No matter what you do, you can’t please everyone here.” Powlus hasn’tpleased everyone here, hasn’t even come close by some accounts. It’shard to please everyone when you are responsible for all that goeswrong.

“No matter what he does — if he doesn’t throw a touchdown pass everytime, he’s not living up to the expectations of some of the fans,” saysfullback and fellow senior Marc Edwards. “Some of the receivers run badroutes a lot of the time, and if he doesn’t get the ball to them, it’shis fault. A lot of people don’t see all of the stuff that goes onbehind the scenes that Ron is so good at. I mean, he knows everydefense, and what to run against every defense, and he knows how to readthe coverages. It’s amazing. Little things he does, people don’t see.”Edwards says all of this and more, and you get the feeling that it hasleft its mark on him too, this intense pressure that surrounds NotreDame football. What gets lost in the shuffle, what gets overshadowedamidst the blinding light of hype and hysteria, are theaccomplishments. Ron Powlus has accomplished a great deal in just twofull seasons at Notre Dame — as much if not more than previous “great”Irish quarterbacks. But still, the criticism remains.

“People have said to me, Well, he’s unduly criticized,” says Robertsabout his quarterback. “Well, by who? By people who wouldn’t know what22 zone would be? How are they going to criticize something they don’tknow anything about? What’s interesting is — it’s so interesting — Ilook up and Ron Powlus is ten touchdowns away from the most touchdownsever thrown by a Notre Dame quarterback. I look up and he’s fourth outof all the Notre Dame quarterbacks in completion percentage, and eighthin total passes — he’s sitting right in there after two seasons.”

Roberts says all of this and much more, sounding much like a defenseattorney for someone who has been accused of a heinous crime. Hisnumbers are right on, his defense entirely accurate. It’s enough tomake you wonder: Perhaps this man has been unjustly accused. In just twofull seasons, Powlus has set four passing records at Notre Dame,including most touchdown passes in a game and a season. He hascompleted over 55 percent of his career pass attempts, and his 31 careertouchdown passes have him tied with Joe Theisman for second most TDtosses ever by a Notre Dame quarterback, second only to Rick Mirer.Eighth on that list is another guy named Joe. You may have heard of him– he used to play for the 49ers.

“I think he’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do,” continuesRoberts, the offensive mind whom the pressure has caused to suddenlythink defense. “He’s a phenomenal leader, he’s got a great deal ofcourage, tremendous attitude, and his work ethic is phenomenal. I don’tknow what else there is to say about a quarterback. He’s got a quickrelease and he does everything you ask him to do. I mean, what else isthere?” There must be something, some reason for doubt. Perhaps it isthe most tangible manifestation of pressure. Maybe it is the injuries.The injuries have been infrequent, yet severe. Powlus was leveled by JimFlanigan and Bryant Young during the last day of practice his freshmanyear, cracking his collarbone and sidelining him for the season. Gettingflattened by current NFLers Flanigan and Young must have beencomparable to getting run over by a cruise ship. A turbo–charged cruiseship. Last season, he was blindsided by a blitzing Navy linebacker latein the season’s final home game, shattering both the bone in his upperleft arm and his hopes of leading the Irish to a bowl victory. Firstthe cruise ship, then the sailor.

Powlus has come back strong from both injuries, but has somehow emergedfrom the hardships with a rather undesirable tag. “I can’t help thelabel ‘injury prone,'” muses Powlus. “I’ve been injured twice in threeyears.”

“He’s come back from both injuries,” says backfield mate Edwards. “Thosewere freak things. It’s not like he’s injury prone, like he has littlenagging injuries that keep bothering him all year. Those wereunfortunate breaks, and he came back from them like it never happened.He still goes in there, throws his head down, and tries to run oversomebody if need be. He’s not scared of getting hurt, he’s not injuryprone, and I feel good with him back there.”

Powlus himself feels good about being back there, but it hasn’t been aneasy road to recovery.

“The way I’ve dealt with it (the injuries) is I’ve tried to be asrealistic as I could,” says the battle–tested senior. “I broke my arm, Ibroke my collarbone — there’s nothing I can do about it. The support Igot from my family, teammates, friends, and all the students helped out.I made it through. I mean, I was a miserable guy for a couple of weeks,no doubt about it, but then I realized it was a fact, and there wasnothing I could do about it.”

Nothing except wait. And watch.

Powlus is quick to admit the agony he felt in watching helpless on thesideline as the Irish’s final drive stalled in the Miami humidity lastJanuary, and the team he was supposed to be leading fell to FloridaState for the second time in three years. He is something else as well,however. He is, in a sense, thankful. Not for himself, but for hisbackup and friend Thomas Krug, who has since had to give up football dueto an injury. “It was difficult to watch the game like that,” saysPowlus. “It was a totally helpless feeling. The one good thing that cameout of it was Thomas Krug, and I’m unbelievably happy for him. I’m gladhe got that shot, I’m glad he got to play, especially now, with allthat’s happened to him.” Powlus pauses for a moment, and you know thatsomehow he is not completely happy. “But it was very tough,” he says,”to watch the game and know there was nothing I could do about it.” Youget the feeling he likes to play. You get the feeling it’s practicallyin his blood. The game of football must be in his blood. It has to be.If it wasn’t, could he possibly have withstood the pressure for thislong?

Powlus insists that he is happy here, that if he could do it allover again, he would still have chosen to come to Notre Dame,sacrificing the potential for gaudy numbers and personal glory for thechance to continue a great tradition. And the chance to win achampionship. “I’m glad I’m here,” says Powlus. “Without question. Icould not imagine myself anywhere else. We’ve had ups and downs, we’vehad bad breaks, but I wouldn’t change anything, except maybe theinjuries. I don’t care what kind of offense we run, as long as we wingames. When you go to Notre Dame, you go to have a chance to win aNational Championship. And that’s why I came here.”

You realize then how much winning means to this man, and you wonder ifmaybe he does in fact expect as much from himself as the others. Yourealize that nothing but a perfect season will really please eitherPowlus or his critics, and you remember where you are, thispressure–cooker of college athletics. But most of all, you remember hisown words. “I am a perfectionist.”

Then you start to think Ron Powlus is right where he belongs.