2009 ACC Football Legends: Chris Weinke, Florida State
Oct. 6, 2009
Of all the calls Bobby Bowden has made during his 34 years as Florida State's head football coach, one may stand out as the wisest of all.
Bowden was willing to wait for Chris Weinke.
Weinke is one of the 2009 Dr Pepper Atlantic Coast Conference Football Championship Game Legends who will be honored during this year's ACC Football Championship Game weekend. The Legends will appear at the ACC Coaches and Awards Luncheon at noon on Friday, Dec. 4, and will be honored at the "ACC Night of Legends" held at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay on Friday evening. They will also be recognized during ceremonies at Raymond James Stadium for the 5th Annual Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship, which kicks off at 8 p.m., Dec. 5 on ESPN.
It has been nearly a decade since Weinke concluded his record-shattering career at FSU, but he remains one of the game's unique stories. How many college quarterbacks see their first game action at the age of 25? How many could imagine receiving a Heisman Trophy a few months after his 28th birthday?
"Never in my wildest dreams did I ever envision that was going to happen," Weinke said. "All I envisioned was coming to Florida State and having the chance to play for Coach Bowden."
A multi-sport prep star at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, Minn., Weinke signed with Florida State as high school senior and went through preseason practice in August of 1990. But the lure of professional baseball beckoned. Weinke, a second-round draft choice of the Toronto Blue Jays, opted to sign a minor-league contract rather than continue at FSU.
Weinke made his decision with mixed emotions, and Bowden made it clear the door remained open.
"The last thing Coach Bowden said to me was, `If you ever want to come back, we will have a scholarship waiting on you,' " Weinke recalled.
Weinke played mostly first base in the minor leagues, but also saw time at third and in the outfield. He hit 17 home runs with 98 RBI in 128 games for Class A Dunedin (Fla.) in 1993 and hit a combined 18 homers and drove in 73 runs while splitting time between Class AA Knoxville and Triple-A Syracuse in 1996.
But thoughts of Tallahassee lingered. After six seasons in the minors, Weinke decided to return to FSU and resume his quest to become a starting college quarterback.
"It boiled down to one thing: I still had that football blood running through me," Weinke said. "I felt like there was a window there, and if I didn't take that opportunity, I would regret it down the road.
"People say, `Why did you quit baseball? You were a young guy, you were in Triple-A, you were one step away from the big leagues.' But there were no guarantees I would make it to the big leagues. My mindset was that I would go back, get my degree and give football a try."
The only question, Weinke said, was whether Bowden and Florida State would have him back.
"They welcomed me with open arms," Weinke said. "Coach Bowden was true to his word, and I have a strong relationship with him to this day. I owe him a lot."
Weinke enrolled at FSU in January of 1997 and took part in spring practice. Though Weinke remembers struggling early and "taking small steps" toward returning to football form, Bowden saw the same physical and athletic potential at which he had marveled seven years earlier. And there was no question that he had a team leader on board in the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Weinke.
"He was very mature, as you can imagine," Bowden said. "He was tall, he was big. He had an excellent arm, excellent hands and excellent leadership skills. Our team really followed him."
Weinke had the luxury of watching mostly from the sidelines as a freshman in the fall of 1997. Then, prior to start of the 1998 season, Bowden announced that Weinke would be his starting quarterback. That was a first for the veteran coach, who had required previous FSU signal-callers to wait until at least their junior years.
"He saw how I went about things, how I prepared," Weinke said. "The one thing I asked the coaching staff prior to going back to school was, `If am the best player, am I going to play?' They said yes, and that's all I needed to hear. After that, it was really in my hands."
After defeating Texas A&M in the 1998 Kickoff Classic, Weinke and the Seminoles traveled to NC State for their Atlantic Coast Conference opener. In a showing that shocked even the Wolfpack faithful at Carter-Finley Stadium, Weinke threw a school-record six interceptions and second-ranked FSU suffered a 24-7 loss - only its second defeat in conference play since joining the ACC prior to the 1992 season.
But while many of his younger teammates sat in the visitors' locker room in stunned disbelief, the stand-up Weinke firmly and politely fielded reporters' questions for over a half an hour following the game.
"I had a decision to make at that point in time - either accept responsibility for what happened and go back to work, or just fold up my tent," Weinke said.
Weinke turned to Mark Richt, the current Georgia head coach and then-FSU offensive coordinator.
"Let me explain something to you," Richt told Weinke. "Every good quarterback has had to go through something like this. Stay focused, keep doing what you're doing, and things will work out."
Weinke did not throw another interception the remainder of his sophomore year and led FSU to a 9-1 record before a neck injury ended his season.
"When I look back, it was really kind of the turning point for me in taking the next step," Weinke said.
Weinke hit full stride in his final two seasons, leading the Seminoles to an unbeaten record and national title as a junior in 1999, and an 11-2 record and national runner-up finish in 2000. Weinke threw for an eye-opening 4,167 yards his senior year and finished his career with a then-ACC record 9,839 passing yards.
In addition to leading teams that participated in an unprecedented three straight BCS Championship Games, Weinke compiled a 32-3 record as a starter at FSU. He still holds 26 school records, as well as five ACC marks.
Weinke's 2000 Heisman Trophy came to the surprise of almost no one, but he downplays the individual aspect of the award to this day.
"I've said it a thousand times: I share that Heisman with the guys I played with," Weinke said. "I was very fortunate to be part of a team that was filled with leaders and determination and tough guys."
A fourth-round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers, Weinke spent seven years in the NFL. He threw for 2,931 yards as a rookie in 2001. Late in the 2006 season, he completed 34 of 61 passes against the New York Giants for 423 yards - a Panthers' single-game record.
"It was a great way to make a living, and I made some great friendships," Weinke said. "I miss Sunday afternoons and the excitement you get coming out of the tunnel. I've been an athlete my whole life, and when you are done there is kind of a void there."
Weinke and his family now call Austin, Texas, home. Weinke works as a vice-president in marketing and event-planning for Triton Financial, a company that assists former and current professional athletes with wealth management.
And as always, Weinke enjoys the atmosphere surrounding college football game days.
"I am a huge college football fan, so it's fun to be in a city where there is a big-time program that is at its peak," Weinke said. "Saturday afternoons around here are pretty exciting."
But Weinke set one limit as he adapted to his new surroundings.
"I don't wear any burnt orange," he said. "I still only wear the garnet and gold."