One look at Paul Shoemaker and it's clear he's having fun again. No more carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. No more biting his lip to avoid getting in trouble. The guy's as free as Willey the killer whale. He graduates this June. He's finished with BYU football, which in his case, has to be exhilarating. But most of all, he's enjoying a sport that had become drudgery.
If there's one thing most appealing about playing for the Utah Catzz of the Professional Indoor Football League, it's the freedom. This is a league Patrick Henry would have loved. Saturday night in the Catzz's 32-30 win over the Minnesota Monsters, there was freedom everywhere you turned. Long returns. Busted plays. A fake PAT. A field goal that nearly covered the length of the field. All in a day's work. It's BYU football minus the serious faces and thick playbooks."This is definitely different," said Shoemaker. "But fun."
When Shoemaker, a quarterback, announced this winter he was leaving the BYU football team, there were understanding sighs all around. The three-ring circus had theoretically been reduced to two. Shoemaker began last season as the starting quarterback but soon discovered he was part of the dreaded Quarterback Controversy. He thought he had earned the starting spot, but halfway through the first game, he found he hadn't. Kevin Feterik, who was also making a case, was now in the picture. Later, Drew Miller arrived and the Cougars had a bona fide controversy on their hands. The more they insisted it was no big deal, the more everyone figured otherwise. BYU was starting to sound like the Clinton administration.
Being quarterback at BYU, of course, takes a certain kind of guy. With the notable exception of Jim McMahon, its quarterbacks have been modest, tactful and non-controversial. You swallow your words, keep your head down and avoid complaining about the situation.
All the BYU quarterbacks did an admirable job of keeping a low profile last year - but that didn't mean they were happy. Thus, this winter, Shoemaker decided he'd had enough. He was graduating in June, which meant he would be taking courses he didn't need just so he could play his senior season. And for what? For the chance to get booed when he didn't pass for a half-dozen touchdowns, that's what.
Saturday, Shoemaker was back on the field, this time starting for the Catzz. The crowd, and the players, were there for the thrills. Nobody was wringing their hands over the possibility of losing to Utah. Nobody brought up a national championship or even a WAC title.
"Everybody knows last year wasn't the most fun year for me," said Shoemaker. "I wasn't planning to do this, so when I said I wasn't coming back to BYU for my senior year, I never really thought I'd play more. But (the Catzz) called and I said sure."
Unlike some in the PIFL, Shoemaker is neither looking to be discovered by the NFL nor extend his glory days. For someone who spent two years as a backup at BYU and one as a part-time starter, the PIFL is a loosey-goosey field trip. At BYU he devoted 40 hours a week to football; with the Catzz he puts in maybe seven. In the PIFL you get to pass on fourth down, take passes off the wall. Last week in an exhibition game in Louisiana, the Catzz tackled a guy through the wall, taking out a couple of panels of plywood along with the lucky receiver. All in a day's work. This week Shoemaker got the chance to have his head banged against the dasher boards several times.
"This is the first time that's happened to me," said Shoemaker. "I don't know. It's definitely crazy. Somebody's going to get hurt."
Then he paused. "But everybody knows the risks."
Aside from the chance to test your insurance coverage, there's the always-appealing opportunity to make up a play in the huddle. "Last week guys were going `You go here, you go there.' It was fun," said Shoemaker.
Nowadays, he doesn't have to explain himself to 65,000 know-it-all fans, nor does he have to memorize a playbook as thick as a laptop computer.
Saturday at the McKay Events Center at UVSC - yes, it's a basketball arena - Shoemaker was back, passing for three touchdowns and carrying for one. OK, so he nearly got his head knocked off. As he said, he knew the risks. It wasn't for the WAC title and it wasn't on national TV, but Shoemaker didn't mind in the least. All he knew was that he was having fun again, and that all he had to was go out, rear back and let it fly.