Former Texas quarterback Marty Cherry didn't think anything could be more intimidating than walking down the tunnel of the Cotton Bowl for the Longhorns' annual clash with rival Oklahoma. Then he found himself in the company of supermodel Naomi Campbell as he was about to walk down the runway of the Versace fashion show in Milan, Italy, this summer.
"The runway is a lot more intimidating than the tunnel for Texas-OU," Cherry said. "In football, you have a helmet on and a bunch of players around you. On the runway, it's just you, and all the cameras and eyes are on you."
It may be one of the most bizarre audibles a college quarterback has made in recent history. But Cherry, a third-stringer for the Longhorns last year, managed to turn his lowest moment in sports into a very profitable modeling career and a possible venture into acting.
A square-jawed, aqua-eyed 22-year-old from Texarkana, Ark., Cherry bombed miserably when he entered what would become the Longhorns' worst-ever home loss, against UCLA in Week 2 of 1997.
Cherry threw incompletion after incompletion and had three turnovers - two interceptions and a fumble - that led to easy touchdowns for the Bruins.
Late in the game, which UCLA won, 66-3, an ABC camera honed in on Cherry as he watched dejectedly with his helmet off. The announcers joked that while he may not have been able to connect with his receivers, he would probably have no trouble finding a date with such an impressive mug.
Enter Bruce Weber, one of the world's top photographers of male models, who just happened to be catching the game on television.
Weber had an assistant track down Cherry about two weeks later and propose that he attend a four-day shoot for Abercrombie & Fitch in Los Angeles. Such a high-profile layout would all but guarantee the quarterback a chance to become a top model.
"I know I didn't play too well," Cherry recalled, his East Texas accent still detectable. "But just because I had one bad game, I wasn't going to give it up."
That sentiment changed, however, as the Longhorns collapsed, finishing the season 4-7.
"I just wasn't happy with the way things were going with the team," said Cherry, whose brother, Mike, is a backup quarterback for the NFL's New York Giants.
Given a second chance, Cherry attended another photo shoot by Weber for Abercrombie & Fitch in February in Miami.
That's all it took. For nearly nine months, Cherry has traded in black eye paint for blush, shoulder pads for Armani suits while traveling the world, staying in top hotels and making hundreds of dollars an hour.
He still studies film, only now it's soap operas caught between classes he's taking at Texas this semester for a business degree. He's still at least three semesters short of graduating.
Acting is the next step, he hopes.
"I watch the soaps to pick up a few pointers on acting," Cherry said. "A lot of the guys on soaps are former models."
Already, Cherry has become a frequent face for Chaps by Ralph Lauren, appearing in several ads of national publications.
It may not have been the way he wanted to get into Sports Illustrated, but his chiseled cheek bones have been in SI and Esquire, and on billboards all over the country. He is posed alone with a football on a Chaps marquee in Manhattan's Times Square.
"He's not quite a well-recognized face as of yet," said Cherry's agent, Rob Sadowsky. "But he's well on his way to higher standing."
Cherry carries a cell phone with him on campus and frequently gets only a day or two of warning from his agent before having to fly across the country for a shoot. He is investing most of the money he's made but splurged on a new Toyota Supra. The color? Cherry red, of course.
So what does Cherry's family think of all this back in Texarkana?
Younger sister Kelly has been hounded by her female classmates at the University of Central Arkansas. They want Marty to make a campus visit after seeing him on a Little Rock billboard.
Marty's brother is hoping the two can do a shoot together once the NFL season is over.
Their father, Mike Sr., says he'll support Marty in whatever he does, although he's a little worried about his son's shrinking weight and accent.
"Sometimes, it doesn't sound like him," said Mike Sr., who's 6-7 and a former high school basketball coach. "And I'm worried about him being anorexic. My grocery bills used to be sky high when he came home. Now, he nibbles on salad, baked chicken, shrimp, stuff like that."
Cherry, who at 6-2 has dropped nearly 25 pounds to get down to 175, might well have been starting at quarterback for Texas this season with Richard Walton having missed four games because of injury.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Major Applewhite said he misses Cherry.
"Marty's a fun guy," Applewhite said. "I'd probably tease him about giving up football. But on second thought, he's making the money and hanging out with all the pretty women.
"I need to ask him for a few models' autographs."
Source: Dallas Morning News, October 27, 1998