McElroy weathers his perfect storm
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- There are guys who want to win. There are guys who want to win because it hurts too much to lose. And there are guys like Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy.
The redshirt junior believes in his heart that he can play an entire game, in his words, "and not let a ball hit the ground."
He has played an entire career and not lost a game as a starter. After sitting behind John Parker Wilson for his first three seasons, McElroy has taken over the Crimson Tide and led them to a 13-0 record. He is following the same path he took in high school, where he sat for three seasons before leading Southlake (Texas) Carroll High to a 16-0 record and the 2005 state 5A Division II championship.
The last game he lost came in 2001 at Carroll Middle School, which lost to Cross Timbers.
"Any game I've played in, we haven't lost one," McElroy said. "It's pretty neat. The feeling of losing -- I can't stand it. It drives me crazy."
McElroy's competitive streak is such that when he left the ESPN Zone game room to go out into Disneyland on Saturday night, his T-shirt was drenched in sweat. Not to mention the recent game of Words With Friends (a Scrabble-like iPhone app) with his 17-year-old sister, Blair.
"She was beating me by 100 points," McElroy said. "I was down 250-150. And I just deleted the game. It didn't count as a loss. I couldn't give her credit for a victory and I couldn't allow myself to lose."
If you're looking for embarrassment or remorse, it's there. But don't blink. You might miss it.
"That was on Christmas Day, believe it or not," McElroy said. "That's pretty bad. She still thinks it was a victory, but not in my book."
That drive to win comes in handy on a football team. McElroy threw for 2,450 yards this season, completing 61 percent of his passes, with 17 touchdowns and only four interceptions. That drive to win also illustrates how McElroy is a perfectionist. When he says he believes he can play a game without throwing an incompletion, what he means is he expects himself not to throw an incompletion.
There's a fine line between expecting a lot of yourself and demanding it. Expecting a lot of yourself is pushing to graduate in three years with an A in every class but one, which McElroy has done. Demanding a lot of yourself can become perfectionism run amok. That's what made McElroy such an ordinary quarterback in the middle of this season.
"I'm proud that I am that way because I think it's a good quality to have as a football player," McElroy said, "except when you start beating yourself up over things that are new experiences."
He began the season looking as if he had played for three years, not sat. In the fourth game, McElroy completed 17 of 24 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-7 defeat of Arkansas.
The fans talked Heisman. The radio shows talked nonstop.
Then came the next four games. McElroy ran into the teeth of the SEC and got chewed up. Four games, 507 passing yards. He couldn't find the open receiver, and when he found him, he didn't always hit him.
The fan support he had enjoyed in the first month of the season dried up. The radio shows skewered him. And the insight he gained off the field became as enlightening as what he learned on the field.
"People that have always loved and supported you long before you were the quarterback would say, 'What's the deal?'" McElroy said. "It was a little bit frustrating. In our generation, people are easily influenced. It's not that they looked differently at me. It's just that they thought something was wrong."
H-back Preston Dial, like McElroy, is a fourth-year junior who paid his dues before this season. Their families have grown close. They tailgate after games.
"Me and him would get away from everybody," Dial said of McElroy. "He would say, 'Man, I'm not happy with my performance right now.' That's how he would say it . You could tell he thought he was letting us down. That upset us. It was tough to watch him go through that."
"I felt like I was the weak link," McElroy said. "I felt like I was just a part of the team that could cost us games. That was just killing me. I felt like I was upsetting everybody and I felt like I wasn't doing enough to allow the team to be successful."
McElroy's father, Greg Sr., played on the offensive line for Dick Tomey at Hawaii, lettering in 1977-78. He has missed only one game in his son's football career -- the loss to Cross Timbers.
"On Sundays, we go to lunch with Greg and then we fly home," Greg Sr. said. "The day after the South Carolina game [Greg Jr. went 10-of-20 for 92 yards, with two interceptions], he was a little distant. He just wasn't being himself. I know he was being bothered by it. I told him, 'You're one game away from making everybody forget it.'"
In fact, it would take two games. After Alabama survived Tennessee 12-10, the Crimson Tide, then 8-0, had a week off. The respite allowed McElroy time to think. He thought about the first month of the season, before anyone had expectations of him, when he basked in the opportunity just to play.
The light bulb began to flicker.
"I think I was trying to please everybody from the media, to the fans, to my friends and family, more so than pleasing my fans and my teammates," McElroy said. "I just pushed away negative thoughts. I pushed away thoughts of, 'What if I don't do it?' more so than, 'This is what I'm going to do.' I was so worried about making a mistake and disappointing people that I couldn't really allow myself to play loose and be free."
In the first game after the bye, against LSU, McElroy threw the ball on the first seven plays from scrimmage. He finished with 276 passing yards and two touchdowns in the 24-15 victory.
During the rest of the season, he made history: the 15-play, 79-yard, game-winning drive at Auburn; the SEC championship game MVP performance (12-of-18 for 239 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions) against Florida; and now, the brink of a BCS championship.
"To see him come back and improve and finish the season strong," Alabama coach Nick Saban said, "that's probably my most -- maybe not best memory but most significant one, at least for our team and for Greg."
"I think that's just what it came down to," McElroy said, "realizing there's more to this team than just me. Some people are going to love me. Some people are going to not like you. There's nothing you can really do about it. Have faith in yourself and the people around you. You'll be successful."
McElroy has one game left this season. He is one game away from a perfect ending.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com.