The new sex symbol on the University of Miami campus is an ``aw-shucks'' kind of guy who has a 3.6 grade-point average in biomedical engineering, writes thank-you letters, holds doors open and wants to be an orthopedic surgeon, geneticist or emergency-room doctor.
And if he ever needs a fallback, there's always modeling. Jeff Popovich, a 5-11, 195-pound senior safety known as ``Pop'' to his football teammates, can be found on shopping bags around the nation. Huge images of his scantily clad, buff body grace the walls of Abercrombie & Fitch clothing stores - think young, hip and pricey - where teenage girls (and UM football players) have been gawking. And guess who's on the cover of Abercrombie's 314-page summer catalog?
That's right. Just call him ``Model Pop,'' the new nickname for UM's 1998 Special Teams Player of the Year. You didn't think the guys in the weight room would let him off easy on this one, did you?
``Sex symbol!'' said Popovich, 21, breaking into a laugh. ``I never envisioned myself as one of those. My brother told me, `There's probably some really nice girl who's perfect for you and has your poster on her wall. And it's a tragedy you'll never find her.' ''
Popovich has no problems finding friends. UM coach Butch Davis has constantly showered praise on Popovich, who came to UM as a walk-on but earned a scholarship last season. Because of the emerging talent of players such as strong safety Edward Reed, Popovich no longer starts, but he rotates into games often. He holds for kicks and extra points and plays on the punt-block and kickoff-coverage units. He also threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Bubba Franks off a fake field goal against Pittsburgh in '97, ran back a fumble for a touchdown during his freshman season, and returned a fake field goal for a TD last season.
``He's unselfish, unegotistical, very conscientious, the consummate overachiever,'' Davis has said.
All that and looks, too.
Just last weekend, Entertainment Tonight rebroadcast a 90-second segment (out of four hours taped) of brothers Doug and Jeff on a South Florida beach to promote the football player-turns-model story. Doug, 25, is the other model splashed on Abercrombie & Fitch walls, and atop Jeff's shoulders on the shopping bags and in the catalog, too. Doug, who got his master's degree in environmental science from Yale last year, was a Division I-AA All-American safety at the University of San Diego.
Even Ivan Mercer, a UM tight end transfer from Orange Coast Junior College in Costa Mesa, Calif., is in the catalog. The 6-7, 230-pound blue-eyed blond, who can be found on page 50 with a female draped over his back, had no idea Popovich would show up separately for the modeling shoot on Islamorada last February.
UM officials have approved Popovich's modeling and are looking into Mercer's. Last August, the NCAA passed legislation that allows full-scholarship student-athletes to apply for an exception to earn $2,000 beyond their athletic grants. Popovich said each of the more than 30 models earned $500 daily for the three-day shoot.
When he was 8 years old, Popovich, brother Doug and sister Michelle, now 20, modeled several times for Guess Kids and appeared in Vogue Bambini - an Italian magazine - establishing a history in modeling. That shows, according to the NCAA rules, Popovich didn't use his status as a football player to secure the modeling job.
Penni Key, UM's assistant athletic director for compliance, said NCAA rules do not address non-sports agent issues, meaning a modeling agent not involved in athletics can be associated with an athlete.
The Popovich brothers do not even consider themselves models. The evolution of this recent venture began at Doug's Yale graduation party in May of '98. Doug's former roommate's mother was a casting director for famous fashion photographer Bruce Weber. She asked if she could grab her camera and take a few casual shots to show Weber. The brothers obliged, then forgot about it.
Nine months later, Jeff and Doug were on Islamorada.
When Popovich got the call that he had made the cover of the summer catalog, he couldn't believe it. But nothing compared to the day in April he visited the Abercrombie & Fitch at Dadeland Mall. Baseball cap pulled down snugly to ensure anonymity, Popovich nearly fainted when he saw the floor-to-ceiling mural of himself and his brother. There he was, sitting on the rail of a boat. There he was again, hoisting big brother on his shoulders. At least three shots covering the walls and another nine in the catalog.
And all those shopping bags circulating the mall . . .
``I felt so stupid,'' he said, laughing again. ``No way I wanted anyone to know it was me.''
Popovich's parents had to calm themselves when they first saw the murals while visiting the Mall of America in Minneapolis.
``We nearly fell over the second-floor railing,'' said Michael Popovich, 50. ``It was literally billboard size. We sat there and watched young girls touching their muscles.''
Michael Popovich, a computer systems engineer, and wife Alexis, a court mediator, live in Tucson, Ariz. Alexis, 49, said she finds the whole thing amusing.
``A lot of my friends are drooling over those pictures,'' she said.
Jeff's grandparents, Jack and Dee Sterling of Pompano Beach, are boasting a lot these days. But Grandma did send Michael and Alexis a note saying she and her husband would have approved more had ``the boys pulled up their swim trunks a little.''
Said Jack Sterling, 79: ``I'm sure if they knew it was something that concerned their grandparents, they would have pulled up their shorts. They're wonderful kids.''
UM backup quarterback Zach Hart, one of Popovich's roommates, said Popovich hid a copy of the catalog in his room. ``I saw it on his bed and said, `What's this?' '' Hart said. ``He just laughed and said, `Yeah, I guess I'm on the cover.' We went nuts.''
All in good fun, said Alexis Popovich, as long as Jeff doesn't get any strange ideas about making modeling a career. Doug, who was out of town and couldn't be reached to be interviewed, is still looking for a job in environmental science.
``Looks fade,'' Alexis said. ``Two days after the ad campaign ends, no one knows who you are. It's not a good basis for all of life, being just an image. You have to be of heart and soul and mind.''
Jeff said his mother need not worry. He loves playing football more than modeling and would rather make a medical discovery than be a pin-up.
``I'm not into the modeling scene and attitude,'' he said. ``It's too stressful to worry 24 hours a day, seven days a week about how you look and what you eat.
``Besides, I don't agree with the image they convey to young girls - super-thin models who girls everywhere try to emulate.
``Was it fun? Yes. Would I do it again in the future if I needed money? Probably. But it won't be what I end up doing.''
Source: Miami Herald, July 16, 1999