Commentary

Do You Believe?

Updated: July 10, 2012, 1:24 PM ET
By Bruce Feldman

When a legend comes back to life, word travels fast. But late this spring, a story spun its way through the Louisiana Bayou-from the fried catfish joints down in Lafayette to the Baptist churches up in Natchitoches-in record time. The great Josh Booty was at it again, or so the story goes: Freed at last from a six-year commitment to the Florida Marlins, the home-grown passing phenom uncorked a football so far it cleared the rim of Tiger Stadium and landed in the parking lot. Not bad for a guy just trying to knock the rust off his arm.

Too bad no one-not even the Bayou Bunyan himself-knows where the story started. By now, though, Booty is used to the hype. You learn to expect it when Bill Walsh calls you the greatest high school QB he's ever seen, when you're talented enough to play third base for the defending World Series champs. "Some throw, eh?" Booty asks, pulling a baseball cap over his hazel eyes. He pauses to think about it, then leans his thick 6'3", 225-pound frame forward as if he's got a secret to share. "People around here want to believe," he says, a sheepish grin crossing his round face. "And ya gotta love that."

At 24, Booty knows all about the power of belief. As the prodigal son of Shreveport, a gritty old oil town where they worship Jesus, casino gambling and the deep out, he's seen his share of converts. In the early '90s, they flocked to tiny Evangel Christian Academy to watch him throw. He was equal parts Finn and Favre, a gregarious sling-from-the-hip QB who fought the good fight for a school with only 400 students, many of whom sang in the choir and spread the Gospel at nursing homes and prisons. The night he broke the prep record for passing yards, Booty celebrated by organizing a touch football game for a bunch of 10-year-olds-and quarterbacked both teams. "Josh personified the dream," says his father and prep QB coach, the Rev. Johnny Booty.

A wheelchair-bound woman from Baltimore who is a devout-and very wealthy-Christian heard about Evangel and its hero quarterback from a friend in Shreveport and flew in to see him play. She was so enthralled by his charisma, his seven touchdown passes and the love the locals flung his way, she decided to do something special. So she wrote out six million dollars' worth of checks to pay for a 64-acre campus for the school. A south Louisiana man once wrote Josh to request an autographed picture and note for his dying son. A Baton Rouge boy wrote to tell him about his father's suicide and ask for advice. Booty accommodated all-and, in the process, threw for a record 11,700 yards and 126 touchdowns. He led Evangel to the 1993 state title, the first by a Shreveport school since 1976. A few months later, in front of the congregation of The First Assembly of God, he announced he would play football and baseball for his beloved LSU. The state rejoiced.

But that June, the Marlins made Booty their first-round pick in the draft and offered him a record deal-six years and a monster $1.6 million signing bonus-with one stipulation: no football. Bill Walsh, who recruited Booty for Stanford, told him he could make Star Wars money in the NFL. Booty, one month removed from his senior prom and nine months removed from his last football game, chose baseball instead. "Looking back, we should've taken more time to make that decision," says Johnny Booty. "Baseball was just too close."

Now Josh expects LSU coach Gerry DiNardo to hand over the controls to his offense as easily as he himself flipped the keys to his daddy's sleek silver SUV to a reporter he'd never met before. The faithful in Louisiana want the coach to get in line too. They've seen how ex-baseball pros Akili Smith, Quincy Carter and Chris Weinke thrived as college QBs. And this is one of their own, a guy they've been waiting for and wondering about since he beat out that Manning boy for prep player of the year honors in '93. K-State defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who coached the D at LSU back then, calls Booty the best recruit he's seen in 20 years of scouting. "LSU people talk about how amazing Pistol Pete was," he says. "That's the way Josh was gonna be for LSU football."

Of course, it's hard to continue the legend when you don't get the snaps.

The furniture in his Baton Rouge apartment is covered with tiger stripes. On the wall next to the front door is an aerial shot of Tiger Stadium at night. Somewhere in the crowd of 80,000 is Josh Booty. The photo looks generic, but the LSU quarterback cherishes it. He's taken it with him from Elmira, N.Y., to Kane County, Ill., to Portland, Maine, to Charlotte, N.C., all the stops on a troubled ride through the bush leagues, where the only things that got him juiced were the dares from teammates who wanted to see him hurl baseballs over the centerfield fences from home plate. (He was 21 for 24.) The grainy picture was the last thing Booty would look at before he went to sleep, especially on those nights when he wondered why he took all that money. It's the last thing he sees every morning when he walks out the door. He's been to dozens of Tigers games, but that Oct. 5, 1996 collision with Vanderbilt stands out. He went with younger brother Abram, then a senior at Evangel. Midway through, with LSU on its way to a 35-0 victory, Josh turned to his brother and said: "If you come, I'll come."

Abram, a swift 6'2", 185-pound receiver, was caught off guard. He'd been leaning toward Florida. "I'm serious," Josh said.

After three lackluster seasons in the minors, Johnny Booty's oldest son wanted to call an audible. But the Marlins-despite Booty's .198 batting average- weren't about to let him out of his contract unless he gave back that big bonus. And with $500,000 gone to taxes, a big chunk buried in Evangel's new baseball stadium and three years of living expenses down the drain, Booty couldn't. But the Josh is coming rumors kept thundering down on Louisiana. Tiger fans-who hadn't seen a New Year's Day bowl in a dozen years-began drooling over a Booty-to-Booty connection. Abram signed with LSU. Josh enrolled in classes. But the Marlins wouldn't budge. In '97, they summoned him to Double A, where he hit .210 with 20 HRs and got a late-season call up. His big league numbers: 5 ABs, 3 hits, 1 World Series ring.

He opened the '98 season as the Marlins' third baseman and hit a woeful .158 in seven games. When Bobby Bonilla came off the DL, Booty was sent back to Triple A-just in time for a series in Indianapolis, where he traded stories with his old pal Peyton Manning, the Colts' newly minted QB. Soon after, Booty got a break: Owner Wayne Huizenga sold the Marlins to John Henry, who had no investment in this prospect. In January '99, the kid was cut loose. In a state renowned for its celebrations, the announcement sent Louisianans into a frenzy. Booty's on-campus press conference was packed with reporters. "Even when Shaq went to the NBA, it wasn't this big a deal," said one. But Gerry DiNardo was nowhere in sight.

DiNardo came to LSU via Vanderbilt in '95 and led the upstart Tigers to bowl wins his first three seasons. But in the Bayou, the quick-witted Brooklyn boy and son of a cop stands out like a kosher deli. He couldn't be more alien to the evangelist son of a country preacher.

The coach knows Booty is special. How many college sophomores fly themselves out to NFL camps to talk strategy with Dan Marino and Steve McNair? How many have the cojones to excuse themselves from a meeting with the offensive coordinator to court the "stunning blonde" spotted by a co-conspirator in the trainer's office? (For the record, Booty completed that pass: He has dated the track team's Rachael Reynolds for six months.) Still DiNardo is wary of his prized passer. "I'd say what people have said about Josh talent-wise is accurate," the coach said in the pre-season. "His arm is the strongest I've ever been around. But I've got two other quarterbacks in the program. I've got to tread lightly because I'm concerned with the morale of our team."

DiNardo's players were drawn to Booty because they view him as a big brother. But the 47-year-old coach wasn't sold, not early anyway, no matter how much pressure he got from fans, media or the folks up at Evangel. The ex-Notre Dame guard who spent two decades coaching option football downplayed any talk of an air show. "We'll only be as vertical as the secondary lets us," he said.

Booty had a different vision. Back in August, he stood in an empty Tiger Stadium and painted this picture: Wax a couple of I-A lightweights and be ready for showtime against Auburn when ESPN comes to Tigertown. "All we gotta do is get it moving," he said, glancing around the stands. "When it starts building, whew, baby, everybody wants to get on board."

But Booty's revival was slow to begin. Fresh off a 4-7 season, DiNardo named sophomore Craig Nall the starter for the opener, a 29-21 win over San Jose State. Booty rode the bench, No. 3 on the depth chart. Even more humiliating, Abram's starting receiver slot was handed to a true freshman. A week later, with Abram back on top, Josh saw limited action in a 52-0 rout against North Texas, completing 9 of 14 passes for 86 yards. But soph Rohan Davey was the starter for that one and No. 1 again when Auburn came to Baton Rouge on Sept. 18. Booty relieved him in the second quarter with the Tigers trailing 17-0, then set a school record with 58 attempts, completing 29 for 285 yards and a TD. Auburn was brutalized 41-7, but DiNardo named Booty the starter for the Oct. 2 game at Georgia immediately afterwards.

Booty was never going to accept being less than No. 1. Could it be because he had a small but powerful special interest group at Evangel backing him up? The freewheeling offense that first blossomed under Johnny Booty's oldest son has evolved into a prep phenomenon, with five state titles in six years. There's a new 18,000-seat stadium in the works a few Hail Marys from the Booty home in Shreveport. There's a 48-game winning streak. In the past two years, Evangel has destroyed three Texas powerhouses. Last spring, Hal Mumme, the brains behind Kentucky's passing attack, dropped in to study the offense. With 10 legitimate I-A prospects, it might as well be LSU's farm team.

Johnny Booty, who followed Terry Bradshaw and Joe Ferguson as QB at Shreveport's Woodlawn High, began tutoring his future signal-callers when they were toddlers. His youngest son, Jake, could pilot Evangel's spread attack right now. Lil' Snake is only 10, so he might have trouble seeing over the line, but that hasn't stopped LSU from sending him a recruiting letter. John David Booty, the third of the four boys, is a 6'3", 175-pound eighth-grader with an 87 mph fastball. He pitched three straight no-hitters this summer. For now, though, Evangel's QB is Brock Berlin, who grew up playing in Josh's touch football games. By year's end, the 6'1", 195-pound senior should obliterate every national passing mark imaginable.

DiNardo wants him badly. So does Steve Spurrier. Berlin's relationship with Josh could be the deciding factor. "If we throw the ball," Booty says, "then I believe he'll come here. If we don't, well then, he shouldn't." After watching lowly San Jose State pass for 188 yards and LSU settle for 157 (out of 347 total) in the opener, Berlin sounds like he's taking Booty's advice to heart. "They told me they were going to throw it, but they ran it 58% of the time," he says. "If they want me to come, they've got to show me more."

In public, Booty is often conciliatory, but in private he's always preaching his vision. "We should want to be the hunted," he says. "That's the way Evangel is. They don't know how to lose. It's a swagger. Florida's got it. LSU can too, if the coaches let us gamble on some plays. We have to show DiNardo that, on third and three, we can throw it downfield. Forget that pitch play. We need to uptempo everything. We need to find an identity. People are excited about LSU football again. I wanna be their charge-up guy, because I've got a big sense of urgency."

LSu is picked to finish fifth in the SEC West, the weaker of the conference's two divisions. No leadership and too many holes, say the experts. But K-State's Bennett, who saw Booty work out in the summer, says they're in for a shock. "Josh has an amazing presence," he says. "He'll make believers out of 'em all."

The question is: has he made a believer of DiNardo?