Bill Hass on the ACC: Seminoles' Ponder Takes Care of Business on Field, in Classroom
Sept. 18, 2008
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Sometimes Christian Ponder can’t quite believe it.
Not because, at age 20, he has already earned a degree in finance and is working toward his MBA. That was according to plan.
But finding himself as the starting quarterback for Florida State is a different feeling.
“When I was younger I always wanted to play football for Florida State but I never thought it would actually happen,” Ponder said. “It’s definitely a dream come true. I’ve been pinching myself; it really hasn’t sunk in completely yet after two games. It’s still different, something I’ve got to get used to.”
Ponder understands that he can’t be living in a dream world Saturday when he faces a tough, veteran Wake Forest defense, and he fully expects to be ready.
“They never really make a mistake and they’re a defense that bends and doesn’t break,” he said. “They’ll give you some stuff, but once you get close to the red zone they’re going to try to stop you and they really capitalize on mistakes. We’ve got to play close to perfect and execute well. It’s a team we’ve got to be prepared for and really over-prepared for because we can’t make mistakes.”
It’s the first big test of Ponder’s career. After winning an intense three-way battle for the starting spot, Ponder got his feet wet with easy Seminole wins over Western Carolina and Chattanooga in which he threw for six touchdowns with no interceptions. Those teams are no comparison to the Deacons.
And even though he was taking a red-shirt season two years ago, Ponder has a vivid recollection of Wake Forest marching into Doak Campbell Stadium and pinning a 30-0 loss on the Seminoles.
“That was a game that really hurt us and a lot of people look at it as close to the bottom for Florida State,” he said. “We’ve definitely talked about it and we have it in the back of our minds and don’t want it to happen again. That was the Wake Forest that no one really knew about yet. They were just starting to get good and we weren’t ready. We’ll be ready this year.”
In many ways, it was almost pre-ordained that Ponder would play football at Florida State. His father, David Ponder, played there for coach Bobby Bowden from 1980-83 as a defensive lineman. His mother and some aunts and uncles are FSU graduates.
The Ponder home in Colleyville, Texas, which is between Dallas and Fort Worth, was always full of Seminole memorabilia and stories about Bowden.
“I kind of grew up with the influence of Coach Bowden indirectly in my life because of things he taught my dad and my dad passed on to me,” Ponder said.
Ponder has never gone to Bowden’s office and asked the coach how good a player his dad was. But strength coach Todd Stroud was a teammate of David Ponder and linebackers coach Chuck Amato coached the defensive line in those days. They have filled Christian Ponder in.
And Bowden hasn’t forgotten.
“I remember his dad very well,” the coach said. “He was raised about 25 miles from us in Cairo, Ga. He was one of the top defensive linemen in Georgia and we were fortunate to get him down here and I think he started for three years for us. When he finished he was about 245 pounds, so he got bigger and stronger. He was a good student, a wonderful Seminole.”
Christian Ponder didn’t begin playing quarterback until the ninth grade and didn’t start on the varsity until his junior year. He drew considerable recruiting interest, but when the Seminoles offered him a scholarship it was essentially a done deal.
Ponder always excelled in the classroom and, with the help of his dad, formulated a plan for his career with the Seminoles. He graduated from high school midway through his senior year, enrolled at FSU and began taking a full load of classes. With the college credits he earned in high school, plus attending both sessions of summer school for two years, he was able to receive his degree in finance in two-and-a-half years.
“I really tried to get the brunt of my work done before I had the chance of starting,” he said, “because the focus would have been a little less on academics when I really started playing.
“I wanted to get that done as fast as I could and I also really wanted to get my MBA in graduate school before I left. We had the whole plan when I came in and executed it. So now I’m in my first semester of my MBA classes.”
Ponder said he got his interest in the financial world from his grandfather. He isn’t sure where it will eventually lead him.
“I think once football is done I have a dream of maybe going up to Wall Street and doing that for a year,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to do that very long with how hectic it is, but it would be really fun to do. Then I would just find some financial job out there, wherever it takes me. I always wanted to be a business guy.”
The rapid acceleration of classes is unusual, although not unprecedented. Seminole safety Myron Rolle also earned his undergraduate degree, in exercise science, in two-and-a-half years and is currently taking classes toward his master’s degree in public administration.
Rolle and Ponder entered FSU the same year. Rolle was an immediate starter on the football team and is a junior in eligibility. Ponder took a red-shirt season and is a third-year sophomore.
Ponder could see that, realistically, he wouldn’t compete for the starting job until his third year. He prepared for it, had an excellent spring and then won the competition over senior Drew Weatherford and third-year sophomore D’Vontrey Richardson in preseason camp.
“We had three guys that were capable of starting and I like to think any of us could have started anywhere else in the nation,” Ponder said. “It was tough at times and it was a pretty fiery competition.
“Throughout the summer and the off-season, my whole goal was starting and that’s what I challenged myself for and worked hard to get. The other guys worked hard as well. They’ve been very supportive and are great teammates.”
Ponder saw action only once last season, but it was important. When Weatherford was injured in the Virginia Tech game, offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher called on Ponder. Although the Seminoles ultimately lost, Ponder threw a touchdown pass that gave them a 21-20 lead in the third quarter. He believes that experience helped him gain the confidence of his teammates and coaches.
“The game last year helped me out a lot,” Ponder said. “It gave me confidence and I realized I had the ability to start this year. (Without that game) I don’t think that I would be in the position where I am now.”
Although he was relieved in the second half by Richardson in the first two games, that was because of the one-sidedness of the contests (69-0 and 46-7). Ponder is firmly established as No. 1 with Richardson as the backup.
“In this case I don’t think they’re in a two-quarterback mode,” said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe. “I think Ponder is the guy and (Richardson) is a change of pace for them.
“(Ponder) has been very impressive. His stats are out of sight, he’s got a good completion percentage, he’s distributing the ball to a lot of different receivers. He seems to be doing a great job running their offense, making good decisions and not throwing the ball in bad places.”
Although the decision was made by Fisher, Bowden’s sharp eyes haven’t missed Ponder’s attributes.
“Christian Ponder?” he mused for a moment. “More mobile than what we have had, a better runner than you think, a strong arm, and highly intelligent, has real good presence in the pocket.”
And does Ponder’s academic intelligence translate into football smarts?
“Yes, if you have ability, if you can throw the football,” Bowden said. “All great players are not great students. But a great student, if he’s a great player I think it magnifies him.”
Ponder talks with his dad every day, a quarterback getting some tips from an old defensive lineman.
“He always has suggestions, some ideas to throw in there,” Ponder said. “He knows the game, he loves football and I always listen to what he says and he has some good advice.”
In a way, what Ponder wants to achieve is similar to what his father accomplished. Florida State ranked among the nation’s elite programs for a long time and Ponder wants the Seminoles to return to that status.
“It’s really a turning point, an attitude change,” he said. “We’re still building on some things. This is only the second year in this offense and a lot of guys are getting more comfortable. It’s a turnaround right now and it’s only going to go up from here.
“When my dad played they laid the groundwork for where Florida State was in the 90s and how it’s looked at today. I’d like to be recognized as helping to turn this program around a little bit and I want to lay the groundwork for people looking at the return of Florida State.”
And that starts with taking care of business this weekend.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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