TALLAHASSEE — When he arrived at Florida State in January 2006, quarterback Christian Ponder, the somewhat unheralded and unassuming son of a former Seminole defensive lineman, seemed like just another face in the crowd.
"I thought I'd be lucky to even play," he said.
Well, Ponder is now the player whose face is synonymous with the team. But then the redshirt senior does it all — on and off the field — in a way you can't help but recognize.
Ponder not only has his bachelor's degree in finance, he has received an MBA and is working on a second master's degree in sports management. On the field last season, he was among the nation's most productive quarterbacks (2,717 yards on 69 percent passing) and is now on the watch list for numerous awards, including the Heisman Trophy.
"It's good for any organization to have a player that the other players and the administration and all the people who are involved in the organization truly respect," first-year FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "I think it is huge. It makes a statement about what we're about."
It's certainly not unusual for a successful team to have a player like that, but the Seminoles haven't had one since Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Chris Weinke left after the 2000 season.
"Christian, in my opinion, is the perfect guy and fits that (face of the program) role," said Weinke, director of the IMG Madden Football Academy. "He has all the tools and has his head on straight. It's been a while since I've been this excited about a guy in that position at Florida State."
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Were it not for a fluke season-ending injury in the waning moments at Clemson in November, Ponder might be in a far different position today. He was contemplating a jump to the NFL before he damaged his right (throwing) shoulder making a tackle on an interception. That cost him the final four games.
The surgery, performed by the renowned Dr. James Andrews, went well, and Ponder's rehabilitation was ahead of schedule as spring practice began.
By the end of the spring, his hard work had paid off and he was effortlessly and accurately hurling tight spirals downfield.
"He does not want to be average in anything he does," Fisher said, "and he's willing to put the sweat in to get the glory. And he doesn't really look at it as glory. He looks at it as that's who he is. That's his DNA."
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Even if it's not for a grade, Ponder, 22, doesn't pass on educational opportunities, either. He worked this summer's Manning Passing Academy, a camp run by the famous football-playing family, in part to learn from Archie, Peyton and Eli. He made quite an impression on the elder Manning.
"Christian, besides being very talented, has got great personality," Archie Manning said. "It doesn't take you long to spot good leadership ability. He's a wonderful young man, and I think he's going to have a great senior year."
Ponder is up for the Manning Award, by the way, but what he craves first and foremost is team success. FSU has gone 7-6 in three of the past four seasons and has been a nonfactor in the national championship race for much of this decade.
"It's tough to be left out of that conversation and left out of that whole scene," Ponder said. "It's something that's driven me and, obviously, I've been given a great opportunity to change that."
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said having someone like Ponder is critical given the "sensitive" time for a program that's making a transition from the legendary Bobby Bowden to Fisher.
"Just having a guy that's kind of like your rock, I think it makes it a lot easier to try to build and grow," Herbstreit said. "He (Ponder) seems to be bringing that calming influence to the entire team."
And, yes, a face.
"Is it added pressure? Only if you let it be," Weinke said. "I've always believed if you did what you were supposed to and you prepared yourself, you never went into the game with butterflies because you were nervous. You went into the game with butterflies because you were excited. … There's going to be big-time pressure on this kid, but if there's a guy who can handle it, it's this guy."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.