Dick Harmon: Penn State and Miami games catapulted Ty Detmer into the national spotlight
Related list: Top 10 performances of Ty Detmer's BYU football career
Editor's note: This is the last of three columns reflecting on the career of College Hall of Fame inductee Ty Detmer.
It's been 22 years since the Downtown Athletic Club gave Ty Detmer the Heisman Trophy. But Friday, after all that time, Detmer's name came up 1,292 miles from his home in Austin, Texas, inside a Chevy Tahoe in motion on I-15 near St. George — like it always does with Marc Modersitzki of Highland.
You see, on Sept. 8, 1990, Modersitzki was on an LDS mission and his future wife Marci was a junior at BYU, perched on the third row of end zone seats in what was then called Cougar Stadium in Provo to watch BYU host defending national champion Miami.
Like many that night in living rooms across the country and in the packed stadium, Bountiful's Marci Larson was interested in seeing how Detmer stacked up against Heisman Trophy favorite Craig Erickson of Miami.
Detmer led No. 16 BYU to a thrilling upset of No. 1-ranked Miami that night. When Elder Modersitzki got off his mission, Marci told him, "If Ty Detmer is available, you are out — it is over."
Back then, Marci was serious. "She told me in no uncertain terms that if Detmer was available, it would be her and Ty," said Modersitzki. "She said, 'I love you, but another has my heart.' "
Since that revelation, it's become kind of a family joke in the Modersitzki home and Marci regularly teases her husband and kids about it.
Detmer had that kind of influence on people back in the day. It was a form of Jimmermania witnessed last year around the country — especially in Utah.
"When the Heisman Trophy came on campus at the end of that year, we decided to take it on a tour around the state and let people see it, have their picture taken with it and kind of share it with fans," said Val Hale, current Utah Valley University vice president for university relations, who at the time was an associate athletic director at BYU in charge of media relations and marketing.
"We'd go to little towns all over Utah and publicize it and we'd draw a crowd. At almost every stop, there would be these little older women who'd line up and announce they were BYU's biggest fan and they'd come to see the Heisman and tell us how much they loved Ty Detmer," said Hale.
There must have been a mulligan for idol worship in Utah circa 1990-1991 — perhaps even today.
"Detmer was and is just that kind of guy — easy to like," said Hale. "I think people have always wanted to see good things come his way."
The announcement of Detmer's induction into the Hall of Fame surprised few. After 59 NCAA records and a boatload of awards, it reflected the momentum Detmer gleaned during his college career from football experts, pundits and coaches across the country.
Detmer is a man difficult to dislike — hard not to cheer for. Both now and then.
His Heisman campaign kicked off with real traction at the end of his sophomore year with a record-setting performance against Penn State in the 1989 Holiday Bowl. The late Joe Paterno had a very good defense, but Detmer amassed a bowl record 576 yards passing on 42-of-59 passes, a completion percentage of .712 with two touchdowns.
It was Paterno's liberal praise for Detmer that night in San Diego that propelled Hale with enough ammunition to create a Heisman Trophy campaign to get Detmer momentum and publicity.
Said Paterno at the time, "Dan Marino never had that kind of night against us. Detmer is a great one. He smells of confidence. He has a great feel for the field and was not confused at anything we threw at him. We threw a lot of things at Detmer that a lot of good quarterbacks have not handled well over the years and were confused with; he wasn't."
Paterno's All-American linebacker Andre Collins told reporters that night in San Diego, "He had me running around like a chicken with my head cut off. We didn't play that bad, Detmer was just that good. He knows all the options, all the outs. I used up everything I had but we did not stop him."
That performance, albeit in a losing effort to Penn State, coupled with the night Marci Larson can never forget against Miami, catapulted Detmer to the forefront of college football and the cover of Sports Illustrated — not to mention the Heisman race.
This past week, in a conversation with Detmer, I asked him if he ever wondered what he could have done with NFL caliber receivers around him, but he'd have none of that discussion. The game is played with what you have — not what you don't have.
Detmer's targets were primarily a scatback out of the backfield, Matt Bellini, and a big, fast tight end, All-American Chris Smith. "When they covered them, they had to leave somebody else open and we then went to them," said Detmer.
He praised and gave credit to those other guys — receivers like Andy Boyce, Eric Drage, Jeff Frandsen and Brent Nyberg, whom Detmer said "was pretty fast and could get downfield."
I asked Detmer, of all the things he accomplished in his career, what was he most proud of? He said the career records. But he also said "I never missed a start. That shows you are ready to play."
There was a time, however, he probably shouldn't have started — a 1990 game at Oregon (32-16 loss), according to Hale. "Ty hurt his hand, didn't practice that week, threw the ball around left-handed a little and his injury was top secret. We kept it from everyone in the media, including CBS sportscaster Brent Musburger, who came to town to do some preliminary work leading up to kickoff.
"Musburger came to practice one day and asked, 'Hey, where's Detmer? And why isn't he practicing?' I can't remember what we told him, but we kept the injury a secret," said Hale. Detmer did connnect with Micah Matsuzaki for a 69-yard TD in that game, but the Cougars ultimately lost to the Ducks.
In December, Detmer will officially be inducted to the Hall of Fame during a ceremony in New York City.
Marc ought to get Marci a ticket.
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