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Friday, September 17, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist
Late in the game against Tennessee State, the coach called his number, and in front of 75,000 fans inside the Georgia Dome, Florida A&M quarterback Ben Dougherty ran onto the field.
"I heard this loud 'ooooh' sound," Dougherty said yesterday by telephone from Florida A&M's Tallahassee campus. "I think it caught everybody off guard to see this white guy trotting onto the field.
"It was kind of embarrassing, really. I never have felt that before or since. It just kind of threw everybody for a loop, and I was on the field thinking, 'This is kind of weird.' "
Dougherty is the first white quarterback to start at FAMU, a traditionally black university, and his story is instructive to all of us.
He came from Elma, a small town in Gray's Harbor County. Dougherty recalls there was one black student in his high school. He wanted to play at Washington but wasn't offered a scholarship, so he accepted Iowa State's offer.
After his freshman year, he left for a two-year Mormon mission to Las Vegas. When he returned to Iowa State, Seneca Wallace, now the Seahawks' No. 3 quarterback, was the quarterback.
Dougherty transferred to Northern Iowa Area Community College in Mason City, and after a 9-1 season searched for a school he thought would fit his skills. A school that threw the ball often.
He heard about coach Billy Joe's Gulf Coast Offense at Florida A&M, then wrote to the coach. At first Joe wasn't interested, but after looking at subsequent tapes, he invited Dougherty to the FAMU campus.
The school seemed like the last place a kid from Elma would come to play quarterback.
"It's been so great for me," Dougherty, 24, said. "I've never been treated better in my life. It's been better than any other place I've been in my life. The growth I've experienced, learning about other people. The acceptance I've received. All that I've learned.
Dougherty (pronounced Dock-her-tee) is an Irish Catholic-turned-Mormon at a historically black school. FAMU calls him its "melting pot quarterback."
"The students have this chant: 'Throw that ball, funky white boy.' It's kind of fun," Dougherty said. "They call me 'The Great White Hope.'"
Last year in an early game against Delaware State, Dougherty knew he had been accepted.
FAMU was trailing 7-0 at halftime and starting quarterback Charles McCullum was struggling. When the Rattlers returned to the field, the crowd began yelling for Joe to put in Dougherty, who didn't start because of a separated shoulder.
"One thing I was concerned about is when I came here was whether I would be accepted," Dougherty said, "It was in the back of my mind. But they saw me out there trying to do my best. They wanted the best quarterback out on the field no matter what his skin color."
Dougherty completed 17 of 28 passes, threw for two touchdowns and led FAMU to a 15-14 win.
"That's one game I'll never forget," he said. "I really felt the love and support of the fans."
He has never regretted his decision.
Sometimes, after practice, the players will crank up the music in the locker room and form a circle around Dougherty and encourage him to dance. He twitches and gyrates and misses the beat by about a half a step. His teammate laugh and he laughs with them.
Friends enjoying their differences.
"I love those guys," Dougherty said. "And I wouldn't trade my experience here for anything."
He has played in front of 75,000 people at the Georgia Dome and at the Citrus Bowl. He has played inside the Superdome and the RCA Dome. This weekend he will play at Temple in the palatial Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, and he will end this season at the Orange Bowl.
His team is 0-2 with losses at Illinois and Tulane, but Dougherty has completed 69.6 percent of his passes and thrown two touchdowns.
Last Saturday he was battered by Tulane's blitzes. He strained a tendon in his knee in the first half, and after a blind-side hit in the second half he momentarily lay motionless on the field.
"I usually don't tell people they're tough," FAMU safety Ben Johnson told Dougherty after the game. "But to see all that you've taken, to see you get beaten up like that and stand up and get back in there, seeing my quarterback do that that fires me up."
They hugged. A sign of respect that transcends race.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company
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