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Arena league

McPherson bounces up off the deck

The former FSU quarterback sheds legal troubles to shine in the Arena Football League.

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published May 9, 2004

As he sprinted toward the right sideline, Indiana rookie quarterback Adrian McPherson seemingly had just two unappealing choices:

He could step out of bounds or heave the ball away. But he realized he had another option.

"Me and my receivers, we're on the same page," he said. "They know that if I roll out or scramble a little bit to just find the open space."

Veteran Andy McCullough did just that, spinning from his defender and heading to the right corner of the end zone.

An off-balance McPherson, not even bracing for the impact with the padded wall, perfectly lofted the ball to McCullough, who stretched out for a 29-yard touchdown during a recent loss to Arizona.

"That was one of the most unbelievable throws I've ever seen," said Arizona's Danny White, a longtime NFL star quarterback with Dallas and one of the most successful coaches in Arena Football League history.

McPherson, who turned 21 Saturday, has been making such plays often, capitalizing on an option few thought he would have when his Florida State career was derailed in 2002 by allegations and subsequent criminal charges.

"Just to get the chance to get back on the field, to have my parents and my sisters be able to come to games and support me again and to have the chance to prove myself again," he said, "it's great."

Not only has he led the Firebirds (7-7) into playoff contention after taking over as the starter in Week 4, he has put himself back on the football map, back on the road to a possible NFL career.

* * *

After four starts at FSU as a sophomore, McPherson, the former Bradenton Southeast star and the only person in state history to be Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball, was kicked off the team.

Within days came an arrest on suspicion of theft. Prosecutors later added more charges, including one of misdemeanor gambling on the Internet. A nationally televised trial on the gambling charge ended in a hung jury in June and, weeks later, he accepted a plea bargain on all charges that included community service, restitution and probation.

The NCAA, however, had not weighed in and if it determined he had gambled on FSU football and basketball games as police and witnesses alleged, McPherson would be banned for at least a year.

"Just reading the papers, you would think I wouldn't get that second chance," he said during a recent telephone interview. "I felt everybody was making me some person that I wasn't. If people didn't meet me, they wouldn't know the true Adrian McPherson.

"I saw my mom cry a couple times and that hurt me. So at that point, I decided I was going to work hard to improve myself."

He enrolled at Tennessee State for the fall semester, which was when Steve DeBerg, the former Bucs quarterback who was entering his first year as the Firebirds coach, took the time to know him. DeBerg convinced management to sign McPherson to a two-year deal.

"If a 20-year-old makes a mistake and can't get a second chance, then really, what are you saying?" Indiana general manager John Kolner said.

McPherson admits he made a mistake, though he offers no details, and insists he has grown up significantly as a result.

"The difference between me now and a year and a half ago is I kind of let anybody hang around me. I kind of knew people wanted stuff from me, but I didn't want to know that because I didn't want people to think I was better than them or anything like that. I know right from wrong and (now) I'm not going to let anybody who has some negative come around me. ... I know people are looking for me to mess up again."

* * *

A promising project DeBerg figured he could develop slowly, McPherson moved to the top of the depth chart when Kevin Daft was injured in the opener and Tony Zimmerman struggled the next two weeks.

Indiana lost McPherson's first two starts to fall to 0-5, which cost DeBerg his job. His replacement, defensive coordinator Mike Wilpolt, stuck with McPherson and the Firebirds won their next six.

"To be honest, he has surprised us," Wilpolt said.

Despite his inexperience and his unfamiliarity with the indoor game, McPherson is among the league passing leaders, completing 204 of 340 (60 percent) for 2,779 yards, 50 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

"When you have the love for the game, you're going to do whatever you have to do to adjust," McPherson said of the shorter field in the Arena game.

At FSU, he was a wispy 180 pounds and wasn't dedicated to weightlifting. Since then, he has become a Nautilus nut. He has gained nearly 30 pounds of muscle, retaining his 4.5 speed in the 40.

He has shown that speed, rushing for 225 yards and 18 touchdowns. That includes a dazzling performance Friday against Detroit in which he rushed six times for 64 yards and three scores to give him nine total touchdowns - a single-game high - in the wild 68-59 overtime win.

"When he decides to go, it's like he was shot out of a cannon," White said. "What he doesn't have that a lot of running quarterbacks have is he keeps his eyes downfield."

That also impressed him about the touchdown to McCullough in their recent game: McPherson gave his receiver a chance.

"I've played with some good quarterbacks," said McCullough, who was at Tennessee with Peyton Manning then in the NFL at Arizona with Jake Plummer and Green Bay with Brett Favre, "but this kid is unbelievable. I tell people about him every single day."

"He's an impressive-looking guy ... and flicks the ball out there effortlessly, similar to a Michael Vick-type," echoed Orlando coach Jay Gruden, who said brother Jon is well aware of McPherson.

The Bucs coach apparently has company. Some NFL teams have contacted McPherson's agent about a possible summer free-agent tryout, but there has been some misinformation about his eligibility. According to NFL rules, McPherson cannot sign with or try out for a team this summer because he did not petition to enter last month's draft as an underclassman. He could seek entry into a supplemental draft, but typically that isn't for players who bypass the April draft. All supplemental entrants, however, are determined on a case-by-case basis.

If he must wait until April to have a shot at the NFL, McPherson likely will work out extensively with DeBerg to prepare for the NFL combine.

"He's a rare talent playing the quarterback position," said DeBerg, now a Storm assistant.

The break also will give McPherson time to complete the final 45 of his 90 days of work camp. (He recently received an extension to finish that part of his plea deal.) His agent, Darrell Wills, said he also will negotiate for a new contract with Indiana.

"I've been fortunate to have the NFL talk about me, but I'm not thinking about that now because I feel I owe it to my teammates to keep working hard," McPherson said. "I can't forget who gave me my second opportunity."

[Last modified May 9, 2004, 01:41:11]


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