Advertisement

Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Gunslingers are longshots

Out here in the west, in the shadows of the buttes, where the tumbleweeds blow past the cactus, they know a thing or two about final showdowns.

This is the way it works. High noon. Main Street. The last good guy standing against the last bad guy. The town folk peeking from behind the saloon doors.

All of which brings us to the final scene of the college football season, and this question: Whatever in the world are Marcus Outzen and Tee Martin doing in the key roles?

You have to be kidding, right? This is the Fiesta Bowl. This is the championship game. Shouldn't it feature the quarterbacks who dominated college football this season?

Cade McNown ... done.

Donovan McNabb ... finished.

Daunte Culpepper ... complete.

Tim Couch ... history.

Michael Bishop ... over.

These are the last two men standing. Marcus and Tee. The stunt double and the stand-in. They were born in the same town, Mobile, Ala., in the same year, 1978. FSU recruited each as athletes. And each has defied odds to be the pitcher of record for his team on Monday night.

When the season began, no one expected much out of Martin. No one expected anything out of Outzen. Martin was a fill-in between last season's legendary Tennessee quarterback and next season's. Outzen was a third-teamer whose biggest task was expected to be standing between Marvin Minnis and Mario Edwards in the team photo.

There is a lesson here. Perseverance. Patience. And the seizing of a moment with both hands.

Suppose Outzen never takes another snap. Sophomore Chris Weinke will be back next season. Jared Jones is the FSU quarterback of the future. Suppose this game is the final one that Outzen plays a significant role in?

It doesn't matter. This is what Outzen has accomplished in two starts. He has allowed the train to stay on the tracks. He didn't keep FSU from beating Wake Forest. He didn't keep FSU from beating Florida.

How many other programs could survive the loss of their top two quarterbacks and still have a heartbeat? On the way, Outzen has become a folk legend. He is Earl Morrall, leading the Dolphins to an unbeaten season after Bob Griese went down. He is Doug Williams, completing the journey for the Redskins after Jay Schroeder fizzled out.

Outzen sat at a table in a Tempe hotel Saturday, explaining his success one more time, saying he knew some coaches saw him as a safety. This does not seem to overwhelm him.

A few feet away, the man he replaced, Weinke, glanced at him. "Nothing much seems to make him nervous," Weinke said. "I don't know if it's a front or not."

Hard to tell what's going on inside Martin, too. If Outzen is lucky to be here as a quarterback, you should know it's lucky Martin is here at all. From the time he signed with Tennessee, he says, 12 friends have died.

There was Gary Simmons, for instance. Martin was a senior when Simmons was shot on the street. Martin had gone inside his house to refill water balloons. He ran outside after the gunshots and his friend was dead.

Martin used to lie in bed and tell Peyton Manning such stories, of life and death in the Birdsville area of Mobile. It took Martin two years before he opened up to Manning, and Manning was amazed by the stories, amazed Martin could keep them inside for so long.

Now, he also can be amazed that Martin has brought Tennessee to heights Manning never approached, within one game of an unbeaten season and a national title.

"When the year started, everyone expected that we would be 6-5," Martin said. "They figured we would lose every challenge, and that the guys who went to the NFL would have taken any life with them. I felt like I had a big question mark on myself. It's still there. I don't think it's been erased yet."

Martin grinned. He doesn't seem to mind. The questions come, about Manning, about Mobile, about the moment, and Tamaurice Nigel Martin lets them all bounce off him. He has grown into a quarterback worth remembering himself, slowly earning the right to allow an offense to be expanded around him until he grew into something dangerous.

Like Outzen, there always has been a little stubbornness to Martin. When he and Manning roomed together on the road, Manning always took the bed near the door. But he expected Martin to answer the door.

"One night, some guy knocked 10 minutes, and we just stared at each other," Martin said, laughing at the memory. "We never did answer the door."

Now, someone is knocking again. It's opportunity.

One of them, Outzen or Martin, is going to grab it. One of them, Martin or Outzen, is going to be the last man standing.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement