Kim Brooks has known and admired Erik Meyer since the Eastern Washington quarterback was a child. "He's not the kind of quarterback who wore a dress, if you know what I mean," Brooks says.
Yes, Kim, we know exactly what you mean. After all, that's a grass skirt -- not a dress -- that Meyer wears when he dances and plays the drums with his mother's Polynesian dance troupe.
"I've done it since I was 3," Meyer says with only slightly less enthusiasm than he displays when talking football. "I try to do it every time I go back home. I love it!"
Not your typical college football player, this Meyer kid. Here's a guy who plays under the college radar of many football fans at NCAA Division I-AA Eastern Washington. Still, he might well be the best college quarterback in a state with two Division I-A football schools. And of the three, he's still the only one playing, in Eastern's game against Southern Illinois on Saturday (see story, page 32).
Oh, and Meyer also might be the best college pitcher in the state, too. Just one problem: Eastern Washington doesn't offer baseball.
Back home in Orange County, snuggled midway between Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, Meyer drew more recruiting interest in baseball than football. He was a gangly kid who played only two seasons of varsity football and baseball at powerful La Mirada High School. He was 17-3 as a varsity pitcher, and 12-l in his only year as the starting quarterback.
"I always through Erik was a better pitcher [than quarterback]," says Brooks, La Mirada's head coach in baseball and defensive coordinator in football.
Meyer told NCAA Division I baseball powers like USC and Long Beach State and major league organizations like the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants that he was bound and determined to make it as a college football player. Eastern was the only four-year school that offered him a scholarship (perennial weakling Texas-El Paso, now on the rebound under ex-Washington State coach Mike Price, was the only I-A football school that showed much interest in him). Still, the Cubs made him a six-figures bonus offer to play pro baseball.
"They said they wanted to draft me in the seventh round," Meyer recalls.
The Giants went ahead and picked Meyer in the 37th round, just in case he had a change of heart. He didn't, but when a former Giants scout (now with the Cincinnati Reds) phoned him last spring and asked him to attend a tryout, Meyer played catch a few times in Cheney -- the first time he'd picked up a baseball in nearly four years -- flew home, and promptly uncorked a 96-mile-an-hour fastball at the tryout.
As soon as the Reds scouts stopped salivating and returned their jaws to an upright position, they offered him cash -- right then -- to turn pro. Even when Meyer said no, Cincinnati drafted him in the 37th round (there's that round again) last summer, unable to come to grips with the fact that Meyer loves football even more than baseball ... and he loves both so much, he fully intends to give pro baseball a try if he doesn't make it in pro football.
"I have a love for both of them, but there's something about football," Meyer says. "The hitting and the competitiveness; it's so much of a team game. The sweat, the blood, the tears; it's just so awesome.
"After that game at Montana State, I cried, like, three times. You're just so drained of emotion. It was the best win I've ever been a part of. Just the way our team never gave up."
Indeed, the Eagles rallied from 21 points down to beat Montana State 51-44 in overtime two weeks ago in Bozeman. Meyer threw his career-high fifth touchdown pass on the second play of overtime to give Eastern a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and, ultimately, a berth in the I-AA national playoffs for the first time since reaching the semifinals in 1997.
"It was a phenomenal effort on Erik's part," Eastern coach Paul Wulff says.
Wulff was referring specifically to the Montana State game, but he could just as easily been talking about Meyer's entire junior season. A prime candidate for Big Sky Most Valuable Player and the Walter Payton Award as the I-AA player of the year, Meyer has completed a mind-numbing 67 percent of his passes for 3,037 yards and 28 touchdowns. Those numbers rank at or near the top of I-AA this season and in Eastern history, and he owns or is approaching a slough of EWU career records.
Asked if he's surprised at Meyer's success in college, La Mirada football coach John Mele quickly blurted, "No, he was a good quarterback here. A lot of schools overlooked him. They thought he was maybe too skinny, I guess."
Meyer now packs a sturdy 205 pounds -- 22 more than at the end of last season -- on a 6-foot-2 frame. There's always plenty of grub at the Cheney house that Meyer's father (who coached Erik in football through his freshman year of high school) and mother purchased last summer. Mom and Dad have made it in from La Mirada for every one of Erik's college games, even though he saw limited action as a redshirt freshman in 2002 when backing up I-A Tulsa senior transfer Josh Blankenship.
Wulff says Meyer, an outgoing sort who loves to snowboard and wakeboard, is one of an unusual number of quality individuals on this year's Eagles. Mele and Brooks say Meyer's character has always been even more impressive than his considerable athletic skill.
"I couldn't be more proud of him," Brooks says. "When you coach and teach, it makes it worthwhile when you work with a kid like Erik."
A Shot at the Top
NCAA Division I-AA football may be Division I Lite, but the Eastern Washington Eagles have drawn a heavyweight in the first round of the I-AA national playoffs: Southern Illinois.
The Salukis are 10-1, seeded No. 1 in the I-AA playoffs and ranked in the top 10 in points scored, points allowed, yards gained, yards allowed, rushing yards for, rushing yards against ... Detect a pattern here? Oh, and we did mention the Salukis are 13-0 at home the past two years? And that Saturday's first-round game (11:30 am PST, KEWU-FM 89.5) will be played at SIU in Carbondale, Ill.?
"I like our chances," says Eastern coach Paul Wulff, who, admittedly, is the sort of perpetual optimist who wears a T-shirt in a blizzard.
The 14th-ranked Eagles (8-3), co-champions of the Big Sky Conference with Montana, are 8-1 since an 0-2 start. SIU won the Gateway Conference.
Eastern's defensive stats don't compare favorably to those of Southern Illinois, but EWU's solid running game backs up the sensational passing of Erik Meyer on the fifth-ranked offense (469 yards per game). Eastern is sixth in scoring with 38 points per game.
Meyer and SIU quarterback Joel Sambursky rank 1-2 in passing efficiency. The Salukis (named after an ancient Egyptian hunting dog known for its speed and hunting skills) average 506 total yards, 282 rushing yards and 44 points
"We've just got to be ourselves and execute," Wulff says. "We're not going to get too caught up in our opponent."