Peter Warrick has a new appreciation for the phrase “down and out.”
In the span of three months, Florida State’s All-American flanker has seen his favorite pass pattern warped into the nation’s perception of his senior season. When he walked into Dillard’s department store Oct. 3 with fellow wideout Lavernues Coles and conspired with the clerk to pay less than $15 for $400 in clothing, the man who would be Heisman king became an instant moral pauper in the public eye.
“It’s been a living nightmare,” said Warrick, addressing his indiscretion at length for the first time during Florida State’s Sugar Bowl media day (Dec. 10). “Yeah, I made a young mistake, but people just won’t let it go. I wish people would just get to know me before they judge me.
“I was looking at ESPN the other day, and they compared me to O.J. Simpson. Now, c’mon. How can you do me like that? That really hurt my feelings… . It really hurts that this one thing is all anybody is going to remember about my college career. I’ve learned that the crime is always bigger than the man.”
As Warrick spoke to a small group of reporters huddled in the Seminoles’ film room, a tangle of conflicting emotions waged war on his face and in his words. He explained the tears in his eyes as equal parts contrition and pain. The tone of his voice vacillated between cowed congeniality and bitter incredulity.
“I came back for my senior year to try and accomplish some lifelong goals I wanted to win the Biletnikoff, the national championship and maybe the Heisman,” said Warrick, constantly rubbing the moisture from his reddened eyes. “Instead, I messed up, and then the issue blew up.”
Coach Bobby Bowden suspended Warrick for two games (Miami and Wake Forest) before the felony charge was reduced and resolved out of court. But the court of public perception already had passed its sentence on the 6-foot, 195-pound receiver.
Warrick was not invited to attend college football’s award show in Orlando (Dec. 9) at which Stanford’s Troy Walters won the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver. He was not one of the five finalists invited to the Heisman Trophy award ceremony (Dec. 11), though he had been the preseason favorite and led every informal poll before his arrest.
“I’ve been here five years,” the senior from Bradenton, Fla., said. “I’ve played my heart out every play and every game. The last two years, I was invited to the Biletnikoff. This year, I thought I’d at least get invited to New York for the Heisman. But I didn’t get invited to nothing.
“I was watching that ceremony in Orlando last night, and my mind just went numb… . People always say, ‘Peter Warrick is the most exciting player, the best receiver.’ And those same people decided I didn’t deserve any awards. I made a mistake, sure enough, but you tell me they didn’t make a mistake?
“Everybody knows what it’s all about, man. If you’re an athlete in this country, you better keep your nose totally clean. Because if you make a mistake, the same kinds of mistakes a lot of kids make growing up, the [media and fans] are out there just waiting to crucify you.”
Though the scarred star sees no way to regain his dignity, he does see Tuesday night’s Sugar Bowl showdown between No. 1 Florida State (11-0) and No. 2 Virginia Tech (11-0) as a chance to at least recoup some respect.
“Yeah, I’m going to go out there, man, and just … well, I ain’t going to say nothing, but it’s going to be serious business,” said Warrick, who had 71 receptions for 934 yards and eight touchdowns in just nine games for the pass-happy Seminoles. “I respect those guys from Tech, so I ain’t saying nothing crazy, but they know I’m going to try and have me an unforgettable game.”
Bowden says he plans to have an extensive “Peter Warrick plan” in Florida State’s Sugar Bowl arsenal, just as he did against Florida.
“We’re going to have ways that we think we can get him the ball,” said Bowden, who used his primary offensive weapon as a flanker, back, split end and even under center as a sprint-out option quarterback in the Seminoles’ 30-23 victory over the Gators on Nov. 20. “Last season Tennessee had a good plan [to defend him in the Fiesta Bowl], but I do think there were seven or nine times that we threw the ball to Pete and we couldn’t hit him. Maybe if we had been a little more accurate, we could have done a little better no matter what they did.”
Warrick had just one catch for seven yards against the Vols in the national championship game last season perhaps the key reason Tennessee was able to win 23-16.
But Florida State’s starting quarterback, Chris Weinke, missed that game with a neck injury, giving way to inexperienced, run-first backup Marcus Outzen. With Weinke healthy and Warrick salivating over the chance for redemption, Tech’s suspect secondary will be hard-pressed to match Tennessee’s stifling performance especially considering Warrick will play a handful of snaps at quarterback.
“I don’t want to play quarterback too much,” said Warrick, smiling for the first time during his 15-minute news conference. “I’m best when I’m isolated in space with one or two guys. Playing quarterback means facing the front seven and getting hit. Uh-uh, we got the Weinke-dawg over there for that. He’s the quarterback, man. He’s our leader.”
But Warrick is Florida State’s game-breaker and the No. 1 NFL prospect in college, according to a ranking released this month after the offseason combine meeting. For Warrick, NFL millions are definitely in the offing. But he looks at the Sugar Bowl as a priceless opportunity to overwhelm his sullied image with one explosive final college performance.
“I’m just living for the future now,” Warrick said. “But before I go to the next level, I’ve got one piece of unfinished business. It’s all riding on this one game now. If we don’t win, this whole season will have been a waste for me.”