He'd never seen such a room -- trophies and game balls and jerseys and photos and videotapes, all at his disposal. He'd heard about a place called heaven, a magical place they raved about in Bible school, and he decided this had to be it. It had to be. Because his father was here. One of those trophies his daddy won. One of those game balls his daddy earned. One of those jerseys his daddy wore.
One of those photos his daddy's face. Stacks of those videos his daddy coming to life. The 7-year-old would revel down there for hours, watching game film that made his eyes bulge, gripping a football that felt like love, deciding right then and there how he was going to spend the rest of his life: The kind of recruit who can turn an entire program around A dozen years earlier, in a coaching dungeon at the University of Colorado, Bill McCartney studied the same sort of game film -- not knowing it would change his family's life forever.
It was , and McCartney was coming off a season, ready to throw his playbook in the gutter. He had decided to imitate Nebraska and switch full time to an option offense, but he'd need a rugged quarterback to orchestrate it, a quarterback who could run, pass and take a forearm shiver to the jaw.
McCartney had a preacher's way about him, and after watching Aunese bull his way to about 10 high school touchdowns, he called in his top recruiter for a chat, a recruiter by the name of Les Miles.
McCartney had coached Miles in the mids at Michigan, so they'd known each other for a decade and could say anything.
And that's why McCartney had no problem putting his arm around the young assistant and telling him: You're going to California. Miles left, and didn't return for a month. He wasn't married and didn't have a dog to walk; his only obligation was to come home with the quarterback. Nebraska was on Aunese's heels, too, so it was all-out war. But there was something kind and genuine about Miles, something parental that struck Sal, his parents, and his six brothers and sisters.
I assure you the holes will be there. The entire Vista High School team flocked to the kid; he was a rock star. Sal played with a smirk, which every superb quarterback needs, but he somehow stayed humble, somehow wasn't a prima donna. We got a shot. As Sal stepped off the plane, he took one look at the landscape, breathed the crisp air and fell hard for Colorado.
McCartney then used his charm. He told Sal the wishbone offense would make him a star, and Barnett drew up some plays on the spot that seconded the notion: Most of the offensive coaches had people skills and head-coaching jobs in their futures -- Miles, Barnett, offensive coordinator Gerry DiNardo.
So, Sal didn't see the point of Nebraska anymore, and committed to the Buffaloes, causing an emotional earthquake in McCartney's office. Sal's parents still spoke Samoan in their household, and Sal had always played catch-up in school.
When he arrived in Boulder in the fall of '86, Barnett was assigned to watch over him, to make sure he kept his grades up, essentially to hold his hand. There were no guarantees the kid would survive the curriculum or ever play in a game, and, worse, he wasn't allowed to practice or sit in on meetings.
He was frustrated, often left bored in his room, his football career going nowhere fast. On the plus side, he got a chance to meet the girl down the hall. Surprising success and a shocking secret Her name was Kristy McCartney -- yes, daughter of that McCartney -- and, whereas most football players were intimidated by her or afraid she'd rat on them to her dad if they were rude -- Sal found her intriguing.
She was funny, warm and extroverted, everything he was, and he would proudly introduce her around as "my coach's daughter. She wouldn't dare tell her father this, but she kind of had a crush. University of Colorado Sports Information Aunese's teammates adored him for his toughness.
Before long, his teammates were just as enamored. He joined them for the season, and if the CU players were wondering what all the fuss was about, they had to wait only until Week 3 to find out. McCartney finally played him that day against Washington State, and all Sal did was take one of his first option-keepers 60 yards downfield. He hadn't played a real game in two years and was absolutely out of breath, but DiNardo's next play call was still another quarterback option.
That's just the way he was. The team was on its way to a seven-win season, and Sal was at the epicenter of it all, the instant ringleader. In November, for instance, the weather had turned wicked cold one day, about 20 degrees, when all the Buffaloes players showed up for practice wearing sweatshirts, windbreakers, gloves, thermal underwear and knit caps.
He didn't go up to the rest of the guys and go, 'Hey, you guys are wusses. He had it, whatever 'it' is. He had this charm about him. He wasn't slick, he wasn't cool. And as a result, guys looked up to him. By season's end, he was named the Big Eight's Newcomer of the Year, and the stark truth is that he celebrated a little too heartily in the offseason. During a loud night out on campus with some teammates, Sal and his buddies were told by another CU student -- through a dorm window -- to shut up.
Sal's hasty reaction was to go shake down the kid in the dorm, push him around, and the end result, according to the police report, was a ransacked room courtesy of "a drunken football player. He was the Samoan quarterback who brought the white and black players together, and McCartney and Barnett appreciated Sal's basic intentions. But they also knew he wasn't a saint, and the head coach had warned him before about "fighting at the drop of a hat.
But he was my quarterback, so we had to corral him. We had to slow him down. We had to get him to understand that if you're going to be the quarterback of a major college team, your deportment on and off the field has to be above par.
They had remained friends and, by now, had an undeniable chemistry. And as the season was beginning, they also had a secret affair. Kristy was careful to keep this from her father, a deeply religious man who did not believe in premarital sex, and he was too focused on the coming season to monitor her day-to-day business.
What he did notice was that Sal seemed more mature after his arrest. The quarterback had always been able to think the game, but now his knowledge of the offense was beyond reproach. This particularly amazed McCartney's newest quarterback recruit, Darian Hagan, a brazen kid from the Watts area of Los Angeles who thought he'd waltz in and take Sal's job. Hagan actually told people he'd end up the starter, that Sal wasn't a threat -- until Coach Barnett posted some formations on the bulletin board and asked someone to explain them.
Sal swiftly rattled off everyone's assignment, and Hagan remembers realizing, "I don't have a chance. Aunese proved him wrong. On the field, no one had command of a team like Sal. His cadences -- his down, set, huts! Sal was also secure enough to take the kid under his wing, and Hagan then began to hope Sal never faltered or got injured in a game because he didn't want to have to follow that act.
When the '88 season began, Sal raised the bar even more. The team's second game was at nationally ranked Iowa, on a degree day laced with Midwest humidity. The temperature on the field reached triple figures, but Sal -- hot or cold -- always ignored the elements. His yard touchdown run put the Buffaloes ahead , although, in typical fashion, CU gave the lead back in the fourth quarter.
Under McCartney, the Buffs had had trouble closing out formidable teams on the road. Barnett felt their only signature win, against Nebraska in '86, had been "lucky," and now this Iowa game was looking like another meltdown.
Eighty-five yards seemed like a million. They weren't built to throw the ball, weren't built to play from behind. But, according to wide receiver Jeff Campbell, Sal's first words in the huddle were "All right, let's do this. We've done this a million times in practice. On a critical third-and-9 play, the quarterback found Campbell for a yard gain, the key play of the drive. Now Iowa had to start thinking pass, so the legs of Sal and tailback Eric Bieniemy became factors again.
McCartney was overcome, calling the win the turning point of his program. The Buffaloes had pushed a Big Ten bully around on the road, and much of the credit went to his dumpy, indefatigable quarterback.
It had all been worth it to Coach Mac -- the switch to the wishbone, the year spent recruiting Sal, the precious time away from his wife, Lyndi, his three sons and Kristy. His previous claim to fame had been that he was the first high school coach hired by Michigan's Bo Schembechler. But now he had a blossoming football power of his own. Sal followed up the Iowa game with a career-high passing yards against Oregon State, of which went to Soupy.
Then, the next week against Colorado State, Sal led another cardiac game-winning drive, converting a crucial fourth-and-2 with a brutish run, then throwing the winning touchdown pass with 13 seconds left. The drama of that game completely sapped McCartney, who came home just wanting to put his feet up.
His team was now, nationally ranked, and he and Lyndi sat together on the living room couch, watching a scoreboard show, cherishing the moment. Before long, Kristy walked in, and plopped herself between them. She put her right arm around her dad and her left arm around her mom, then she just spilled it: Kristy had been terrified to tell him, and those initial moments were horribly tense for her.
Lyndi -- always maternal -- had instantly grabbed and hugged her, and now Kristy was hoping her father would sit still and say something supportive. He soon hugged Kristy, and, with no anger in his voice, the coach said, "We're with you. The coach could already envision the headlines in the morning paper the awkward team meetings the whispers nationally the murmurs in church. But minutes later, he snapped out of it and saw only his trembling daughter.