The conversations started with a whisper. A customer in the sports bar would ask his waiter if the employee across the room — the guy who looked eerily like the Arizona Wildcats' all-time leading passer — really was Willie Tuitama.
Inevitably, the waiter would nod. The customer would approach Tuitama, once the UA's star quarterback and now Tucson's most famous waiter.
"It was actually kinda fun," he said. "It's nice to be able to talk to fans, to give them the time.
"I'm sitting there with the time to listen."
If it was anything Tuitama, 22, had, it was time.
After all, Saturday marked the first time since 2004 he had been apart from the Arizona Wildcats on game day.
After being named MVP of the Las Vegas Bowl, the Wildcats' first bowl game in a decade, Tuitama didn't get within a Hail Mary pass of the NFL.
He went undrafted, weeks after being arrested on suspicion of extreme DUI — he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DUI in June — and didn't go to an NFL camp.
It was stunning for someone who, at 18, was touted by quarterback guru Roger Theder as being able to "throw with anybody in the NFL right now."
Tuitama went home to Stockton, Calif., for the summer. He returned to Tucson to take four fall semester classes and even got a job at Buffalo Wild Wings on Irvington Road near I-19.
"It's weird," Tuitama said of the transition from BMOC to an employee at BW3. "You have so much time on your hands when you're used to having such a strict schedule. When you go to not having to do that, at first you get lazy — because it's so easy to."
It was ironic, he remembers. For years, football practice felt as if it would never end.
"When it finally does," he said, "you don't know what to do."
He spent his free time throwing to friend Xavier Smith, a former UA player, at the park or even in a parking lot. Sometimes, Tuitama would throw into a net.
He spent the UA's first two games on the sideline, running the plays in his head while quarterback Matt Scott did the real thing.
"It's definitely a different experience, when you're so used to being out on the field, being a part of it," he said.
He watched Saturday's game at Buffalo Wild Wings with Smith — even though he wasn't working.
Tuitama certainly isn't the first college quarterback with gaudy numbers to be all but ignored by the NFL.
Just ask Corby Jones. The star quarterback, who was a contemporary of mine at Missouri, hosted trivia night at the local Chevy's between stints in the Canadian Football League and enrolling in law school.
Unlike 20 years ago, when NFL quarterbacks came from a select few schools, they come from all over these days. This year, only four schools have more than one alumnus starting in the NFL.
USC has three — Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel and Mark Sanchez — though Cassel, famously, never started for the Trojans.
The other three schools? Purdue, Boston College and Marshall.
Which is to say that college success — even 9,211 passing yards and 67 touchdowns — doesn't guarantee an NFL contract, much less a starting gig.
Tuitama learned that in the spring, but might not be done yet.
He thinks he will hear about a pro opportunity this week, though doesn't want to jinx it by elaborating.
Arizona's best passer ever is willing to leave school, his job and his all-too-normal life for another shot at playing.
Even if it's on a wing and a prayer, it beats Buffalo-style.
FINLEY FIVE: THINGS WE'LL TALK ABOUT THIS WEEK
Will Gronk play here again?
1Mike Stoops said his tight end Rob Gronkowski will return next year after being shut down with back problems, but a looming NFL lockout in 2011 and a likely smaller rookie financial pool in 2012 makes you wonder if he might change his mind.
Can 2-1 USC still win the national title?
2Five of six BCS national title game participants over the past three years had lost at least once — but only one, Ohio State in 2007, did it without the benefit of a conference title game to boost its ranking.
3With a magic number of seven, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Orange County by the Freeway will clinch their fifth playoff berth in six full years under the Tucson native's aegis. Next step — trying to win a division series.
4Actually, probably not. (Have you met anyone with California Redwoods fever?) But you can go to Casa Grande on Thursday night at 7 and watch former Arizona Wildcats, J.P. Losman and some obscure players scrimmage.
5During commercial breaks Saturday, we read writer Steve Rushin's Twitter posts ("Mario Manningham, whose middle name is Cashmere, has become Giants goat-to receiver"), watched the otherwise-unavailable USC game on www.justin.tv, and then a video of Pete Carroll playing "Rockin' Robin" on the piano. Check out the video at www.tinyurl.com/rockinpete