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Bucs long shot winner either way

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


TAMPA -- Jeff Popovich is a dreamer. Challenging an ample mind, pushing an undersized pro football body, searching for his own Survivor role. Not unlike Rudy. So easy to cheer. How sharp is this fellow? College major: biochemical engineering.

From among 21 rookies in Bucs camp, it figures that only three or four will have NFL jobs come September. Jeff isn't new to being a football long shot. We watch to see if 100-to-1 odds can be overcome by desire, work ethic, toughness and good speed.

"I try not to think that the chances are against me," said the undrafted strong safety from the University of Miami. "I've already lived out some of my big-time fantasies, now trying hard to experience more. I just love playing football."

He sounds a lot like John Lynch. Question is, can Popovich play anything like the battering 220-pound gent from Stanford, an eighth-year pro, Tampa Bay's incumbent All-Pro at strong safety?

"Coming out of high school, I wanted badly to play football in a high-level college program," said the 22-year-old gutbuster from Arizona. "My grades got me an appointment to the Air Force Academy, but I opted to be a walk-on at Miami, paying my own tuition at first."

Few beyond devout followers of the Hurricanes know much about Popovich. A sometimes starter as a 1998 junior, he lost out at strong safety last season to Al Blades, whose brothers Benny and Brian were All-Americans at Miami. Jeff's most memorable moment came as a kick holder, running for a touchdown against Pitt on a faked field goal.

Meanwhile, he was academically blitzing. With a fierce array of classes, far from stereotypical jock curriculum, Popovich amassed a 3.6 grade-point average. Academic All-American. Meanwhile, the football dreamer began sending videotapes to NFL franchises, begging an opportunity.

"I've never felt athletically overmatched," said the 5-foot-11, 190-pound football zealout. "Two of my UM coaches, Greg Schiano and Chuck Pagano, made calls to NFL people they know.

"So, here I am."

For three weeks, preparing for Bucs camp, Popovich crammed mind and strained body, "determined to give it every ounce of my energy," he said, brushing a headful of short, blond hair that would befit an Air Force cadet. "At the very least, I want to say I've tried."

Long before such Bucs summer sweat was mandatory, Popovich would work out 75 to 90 minutes every morning, then go inside for solo screenings of Bucs game videotapes, getting a feel for NFL expectations. After that, some grunting in the weight room, followed by more videotapes.

Rudy-like dedication.

Popovich's slim chances, if they're to broaden, must quickly flourish. Roster cuts are coming. Possibilities can be best enhanced by splendid special teams work. Chasing kickoffs and punts downfield. Crashing past blockers. Locating the football. Jeff doesn't just need big hits and tackles, a scooped-up fumble or two would help.

Popovich's father, trained as a systems engineer, owns a Tucson computer firm. His mother is a psychologist who works tough cases for Pima County courts. This is a family with prodigious smarts.

A younger sister is enrolled at Texas Christian University. A brother, Doug, played Division I-AA football at the University of San Diego before earning a masters at Yale. Now 26, he spent last season videotaping a documentary on college football, a behind-the-scenes look, done at UM, now in production.

"My parents would've preferred I go to the Air Force Academy, which is understandable," Jeff said. "But they've been nothing but supportive to my idea of chasing football dreams, first at Miami and now with the Bucs."

Popovich was a quarterback at Sabino High School but broke a leg that cost him eight games as a senior. His coach, Jeff Scurran, had contacts at UM and the 'Canes were on NCAA probation, desperate for depth. They could use a bloke with high ambitions and 4.5 speed in the 40-yard sprint.

"I turned that dream into reality, playing football at the highest collegiate level, going against the best opposition, like national champion Florida State," Popovich said.

"UM tried me at wide receiver for a season, then I became a safety. I eventually got a scholarship from (UM coach) Butch Davis and my college football memories are tremendous. I'm glad I didn't choose the Air Force Academy."

Now, the stakes rise. Far deeper competition. Money football. Popovich got work in two scrimmages in recent days against the Miami Dolphins. "I can't waste a single shot at impressing," he said. "I'm giving it everything I have."

Passions with a negative beat, they do not pound in Jeff's considerable heart. His own wheel of football fortune clacks with hope, gusto and a dreamer's biggest challenge yet.

"I have my education to fall back on," he said. "I'm just two classes shy of my degree. I'll get that real soon. My career possibilities would include being a chemical engineer with medical implications or working in an industry that develops surgical tools."

We're talking winner, no matter what.

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