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A&M quarterback ready for quiet time after rocky season

11/20/2007

By CHRIS DUNCAN  / Associated Press

Texas A&M quarterback Stephen McGee can hardly wait for this weekend, when he and Texas receiver Jordan Shipley will go prowling through the woods, hunting for deer and chatting about life.

The close friends and former high school teammates from Burnet will play each other first, when the 13th-ranked Longhorns (9-2, 5-2 Big 12) meet the Aggies (6-5, 3-4) at Kyle Field on Friday.

Then, they'll retreat to the peace and solitude of the Hill Country, far from the pressures of playing for two top college programs in a state where their annual game means everything.

"We've got a lot of aggression built up," McGee said with a smile.

For McGee, the trip will also be a welcome escape from a season's worth of struggles on the field and nagging questions about the future of coach Dennis Franchione off the field.

Through it all, McGee became the voice of the Aggies, patiently answering inquiries from the media and his teammates about what was going on. For a while, the junior couldn't go to class or the grocery store without someone trying to pry out some bit of inside information about the team or the coach.

McGee shrugs, understanding that it's all part of playing quarterback for a program that's constantly scrutinized by a proud, passionate fan base.

"It's something you learn to take whenever you get the responsibility of the position I'm in," McGee said. "Certainly, at times, it seems very difficult and challenging."

Before news broke that Franchione was sending out secretive e-mails to paying boosters, McGee was the one taking most of the flak on message boards and radio call-in shows.

Early in the season the usually calm McGee lashed out at reporters after a victory for asking why A&M wasn't passing more effectively. After a 34-17 loss at Miami, McGee found a nasty note from a fan on his car windshield. The criticism stung and made McGee question whether being A&M's quarterback was really worth all the grief.

"I just go out there and I can barely walk (after games) and I give everything I have for this school and sometimes, it's like, they just want to beat you up more about it," he said. "That's certainly the thing that hurts most. But I understand it's just a part of what I do."

McGee's loyalty to his team never wavered.

Shortly after Franchione's personal assistant got caught e-mailing information to boosters who paid $1,200 to get it, McGee and the other leaders of the team organized a show of support for their coach.

Franchione's weekly media gathering was moved to an auditorium, and the team filled the room and applauded when he walked in. They talked about standing behind Franchione afterward, McGee the most impassioned of all.

"Coach is a part of us and we're all parts of each other," McGee said. "We'd do that for any individual on this team. It's my job as a leader to lead the other guys and to encourage them, and most importantly, to stand up for what is right, even when it seems difficult at the time."

On the field, McGee's character was never more evident than in last year's 12-7 win over Texas in Austin. McGee rushed 18 times for 95 yards and was pounded by the UT defense all day, only to spring up for more. He clinched the victory on a bruising 8-yard run with 2:32 remaining.

"He's definitely a tough player," said Shipley, also a junior. "He's always been a tough guy as long as I've known him. He's just going to fight because that's the way he is."

But McGee emerged as A&M's leader a year earlier, against Vince Young and Texas at Kyle Field. Making his first start in place of injured senior Reggie McNeal, McGee ran for 108 yards and two touchdowns as the second-ranked Longhorns struggled to a 40-29 victory.

"He just about put the team on his back and just about got an upset of the eventual national champion," Franchione said. "That probably in my feeling of things, was the bigger game."

Last year's win over Texas put the Aggies at 9-3, their best record since 1998, when they last won the Big 12. Not much has gone A&M's way a year later.

McGee, who passed for more than 8,200 yards in high school, leads the Aggies in rushing but ranks second-to-last in the Big 12 in passing yards. A&M has lost four of its last five games, and questions have swirled about Franchione for weeks.

McGee knows the tumultuous season has changed him — he hopes for the better.

"The ultimate measure of a man, I've always felt, is not where you stand in a time of comfort and convenience, but where you are at those times of controversy and challenge in your life," McGee said. "I hope that I can grow in those times and reveal strong and good character."

Franchione certainly sees it.

"I think he has grown and matured and understood that, if you are a quarterback at a BCS-level school, there are things that go with that," Franchione said. "They are not always enjoyable. It's one of my blessings has been to see him grow through this. And he has grown as a person."