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McElroy ducks only tacklers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Leeland McElroy doesn't have an end-zone dance.

He won't smoke, and he doesn't drink any carbonated beverages, much less alcohol. He goes to bed early. He's cordial and exceedingly polite. And he has an anti-Charles Barkley message.

"Am I a role model?" said McElroy, one of the top candidates for the Heisman Trophy as a running back for No. 22 Texas A&M.; "It makes no difference if I think I'm one or not. It comes with the territory, and I accept that. I have to watch the people I associate with, the things I do."

The eyes of Texas, as well as the country, are focused on McElroy. Watch him zig and watch him zag. Watch the elegant moves, the fluid motion and then poof, the acceleration, that possibly makes McElroy the best running back not to perform on Sundays. A 5-foot-11, 202-pound junior, McElroy has rushed for 477 yards on 108 carries this season.

"He's a slashing runner," said Colorado linebacker Allen Wilbon. "But what sets him apart is his ability to pick holes and accelerate. He has great vision."

"Marshall Faulk is a great back," said Craig James, a college football analyst for ESPN and former running back. "Leeland McElroy has that extra burst that even Faulk doesn't have. He's the best back in football today -- college or pro. This guy is special."

McElroy doesn't think so, but that's what makes the Beaumont, Texas, native so, well, special. In this era of the high-fivin', muggin' and dance-tauntin' college superstar, McElroy doesn't have a big ego.

During the team's preseason picture day, a line of McElroy autograph seekers formed from one end of the field to the other, and back to the 50-yard line. McElroy signed every paper.

When he went to Phoenix last year for the Playboy All-America team photo, the players were given a free night on the town. McElroy was back in his room on the phone with his brother by 10:15 p.m.

He'd prefer playing dominoes or watching a Morgan Freeman film to partying.

"In a nutshell, I'm a homebody," said McElroy in a low, soft voice. "I'm not saying it's wrong to party, smoke or drink; it's just not for me. God has given me the gift to play football, and my gift back to him is to be the best player that I can be.

"Peer pressure has never been a major obstacle for me to overcome," said McElroy, a born-again Christian. "I'm not going to do something because everyone else is doing it. If you're not going to enjoy it, then why do it? I've never been the flamboyant type."

Maybe that's because McElroy, 21, is the youngest of 12 children in a middle-class family. His father, Lee Sr., is a retired postal worker. His mother, Maud, is a tax consultant.

When Leeland McElroy needed guidance, he could go to one of his six brothers, including Carl (University of Oklahoma), Lee Jr. (UCLA) or Reggie (currently with the Denver Broncos), when there were questions about football.

But most of the time, Leeland McElroy was under the firm hand of Lee Sr.

"My dad is from the old school, before there were all these child abuse laws," said McElroy. "He wasn't mean, only spanked me once. But he had this voice and intimidating look. It wasn't important that you always understood what he meant, but you did what he said in a reasonable time.

"I thank him for the responsibilities he gave me," said McElroy. "My dad's big thing has always been: remain humble, no matter what you accomplish."

It was Leeland McElroy's concern for his father that led him to Texas A&M.; As a senior out of Central High in Beaumont, McElroy was recruited by almost every major college.

But his father was suffering from prostate and colon cancer, and Leeland McElroy wanted to stay close to home. His cancer is now in remission, and Lee Sr. makes the 2 1/2 -hour drive to every Aggies home game.

"Leeland is the epitome of what a college athlete is all about," said Aggies head coach R. C. Slocum. "Beyond the field, he has his priorities in order as well. They are a very close family, and Leeland has a way of seeing the big picture."

The scenario at Texas A&M; wasn't always clear for McElroy. He spent the 1993 season behind tailbacks Rodney Thomas and Greg Hill, and split time with Thomas last year.

McElroy had to make his name as a return specialist, and so he did, leading the nation with a 39.3-yard kickoff return average as a freshman, and 50.2 as a sophomore. He tied the NCAA record for kickoff returns for touchdowns in a season with three in 1993.

And now that Thomas and Hill have gone on to the NFL, the tailback position is all his.

McElroy rushed for 229 yards on 35 carries in the opener against LSU, and finished with 359 all-purpose yards. He had 116 yards rushing, 128 receiving and 41 in return yards vs. Tulsa. Only then-No. 4 Colorado, in a 29-21 win over the Aggies, slowed McElroy, holding him to 52 yards on 23 carries, but even the Buffaloes were impressed. McElroy had 80 in 27 carries against Texas Tech the next week, despite playing much of the second half with a sprained ankle.

He rested the ankle last week, sitting out Texas A&M;'s 20-17 victory over Southern Methodist, but is expected to start this Saturday at Baylor.

He's got everything. McElroy runs the 40-yard -- in 4.2 seconds. He has a vertical jump of 40 inches, and bench-presses 400 pounds. He power-cleans an incredible 319 pounds, and squats an even more impressive 510.

"His biggest asset may be his work ethic," said Slocum. "The younger guys see the superstar in the weight room or working hard after practice, and it makes them work harder. I've never been around a guy who works harder."

Slocum's time with McElroy may end soon. McElroy will decide after the season whether he will enter the NFL as a junior.

"Leeland is a very mature young man," said his father, Lee Sr. "I've always told my kids to go further than the ones before them. Leeland is not just going to take the money and run. He'll think this out."

McElroy remains unfazed through the Heisman hype, too. He almost seems embarrassed. Because probation kept the Aggies off TV last year, Texas A&M; put together a six-minute highlight film of "Lectric Leeland" and mailed out 300 copies to sports reporters and columnists across the country.

"If I win the Heisman, I'll be happy," said McElroy. "If I don't, I don't. I'll still be happy, because I'm the same person I've always been. A big family, discipline and football have given me a lot of different aspects on life."

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