Stuck on an isolated military base in Germany with few Americans around and even fewer children, Sharon Zeier doubled as mother and best friend for her little Eric. Perhaps she was guilty of spoiling him a bit, but she couldn't help but let her tiny Tiger Bear win every game they played.
Eventually, however, Sharon decided it was time for Eric to learn life is not always perfect. At age 5, he was beaten at a board game called Candyland. The game flew across the room in one direction and Eric stormed off in the other.
"An hour later, he came back and said, "Mom can we play again?'
" Sharon Zeier said. "We sat there and played and played until he finally beat me."
Some things, it seems, never change.
Sharon and Rick Zeier's boy Eric is 22 now. He has a sturdy build beneath a balding top. He is a Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the most prolific quarterbacks ever to play college football. And Eric Zeier is still having a difficult time accepting losses.
For all the accolades coming his way, Zeier finds it hard to bask in this personal glory. He has thrown for thousands and thousands of yards over the past four seasons, yet his Georgia Bulldogs (5-3) have not excelled at the same pace.
Zeier posted a 15-4 record in his first 19 starts, yet went 10-9 in the next 19.
When Georgia lost 29-28 to Alabama last month _ despite Zeier completing 25 of 33 passes for four TDs _ ESPN cameras caught his ugly mood on the sideline. Later, he would pound a fist on a locker while trying to articulate his anger at coming up short.
"He went to Georgia to win football games. He went there hoping they'd win the SEC and the national championship and it's very disappointing that it doesn't appear those goals will come true," said Rick Zeier, a retired Army major.
"I know he's not real happy about that. I know he'd give up 1,000 yards to get a win over Alabama. He'd give another 1,000 yards to help the defense stop Vanderbilt. Let me put it this way: What is worse than your team losing? To Eric, that's what matters."
And you will never get Zeier to say otherwise. While football fans debate whether the Heisman Trophy should go to a player from a mediocre team, Zeier stands firmly on one side of the issue _ the wrong side if he hopes to win the bronze statue.
"Everybody has to vote based on their own criteria," Zeier said. "And to me, part of the criteria is winning. You should know that going into the season. I understand that completely."
If Alabama's Jay Barker is the most unappreciated quarterback on a winning team, Zeier is the most beloved quarterback of a so-so team.
Coming out of Marietta High near Atlanta _ following his first two years of high school in Germany _ Zeier was one of the nation's top recruits in 1991. On his first day of classes at Georgia, there were "Welcome, Eric" signs posted around Athens.
In the 1991 opener, Georgia fans booed until team captain and incumbent quarterback Greg Talley was replaced by Zeier. Minutes into his first game, he threw his first touchdown pass.
Gradually, Georgia has become more and more dependent on Zeier. A school known for producing some of the finest tailbacks in the nation relies almost exclusively on the passing game today. Georgia has been playing football for 103 seasons, yet 14 of its top 16 passing games belong to Zeier.
His 10,516 career passing yards stand sixth on the all-time NCAA Division I-A list. He likely will move to fourth after playing Florida on Saturday and could be No. 2 behind Brigham Young's Ty Detmer by the time he completes his career.
"I don't see another quarterback in college football near him," former Pitt coach and ESPN commentator Mike Gottfried said earlier this month. "His team depends on him more than any other team in the country depends on one player."
His gifts as a quarterback are easy to grasp. Nothing as oblique as arm strength or foot speed, Zeier's greatest talent is throwing a football precisely where it belongs.
While pro scouts will talk about a quarterback having enough zip on the ball, receivers often talk of passers who throw a "catchable" ball. A ball thrown with appropriate arc, velocity and accuracy. Zeier's passes are nothing if not catchable.
Even Florida coach Steve Spurrier, who generally avoids praising the opposition, has been moved by Zeier's performances.
"He is one of the best passers to ever play the game," Spurrier said simply.
For NFL purposes, Zeier was once considered a bit too short, a bit too slow and perhaps not strong enough. When he inquired in January about forgoing his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft, Zeier was told he was a third- to fifth-round selection.
The news may have stunned Zeier, but it hardly deterred him. They told him he wasn't quick enough, so he worked on his foot speed and on getting rid of the ball quicker. They told him to work on arm strength, so he concentrated on that, too.
Recently, the expansion Carolina Panthers reportedly identified Zeier as one of four quarterbacks they would consider taking with the first pick in the 1995 NFL draft.
"People ask me how hard did he agonize over the decision to go to the NFL and I tell them there wasn't any agony. I gave him the info I had compiled and he said, "Screw it; we'll stay,' " Rick Zeier said. "I think he might have been shocked at first, but he got over it.
"It's funny, the people who were finding fault with him last year are now salivating at the chance to get him."
Name: Eric Royce Zeier.
Born: Sept. 6, 1972.
Ht./Wt.: 6-2, 205.
Personal: Played first two years of high school in Heidelberg, Germany, before moving to Marietta, Ga. Entered the University of Georgia in January 1991 under the joint enrollment program for outstanding high school students. Listed as No.
2 quarterback at conclusion of 1991 spring drills. Split time with Greg Talley before starting last six games. Established school records for pass completions (159), attempts (286) and pass yardage (1,984). In 1992, re-established school record for passing yardage in season (2,248) and added career completion percentage mark for more than 300 completions (56.99). Led SEC and ranked sixth nationally in passing efficiency (137.8). Missed most of spring 1993 after minor arthroscopic knee surgery. Set several SEC records, including passing yards in a game (544), passing yards in a season (3,525) and total offense in season (3,482). After three seasons held 61 Georgia passing marks.
Att Cmp Yds TD
333 201 2759 20
How Zeier compares
Player Team Yrs Att Cmp INT TD Yds
Ty Detmer BYU 1988-91 1,530 958 65 121 15,031
Todd Santos San Diego St. 1984-87 1,484 910 57 70 11,425
Alex Van Pelt Pitt 1989-92 1,463 845 59 64 10,913
Kevin Sweeney Fresno State 1982-86 1,336 731 48 66 10,623
Doug Flutie Boston College 1981-84 1,270 677 54 67 10,579
Eric Zeier Georgia 1991-94 1,297 780 32 63 10,516
Brian McClure Bowling Green 1982-85 1,427 900 58 67 10,280
Troy Kopp Pacific 1989-92 1,374 798 47 87 10,258
Glenn Foley Boston College 1990-93 1,275 703 60 72 10,042
Ben Bennett Duke 1980-83 1,375 820 57 55 9,614