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Although his college's football team is losing, self-assured quarterback Nick Bonelli remains confident during half time. Just as the team returns to the field, coach Clipper Colton learns that Nick's parents have been killed in a car accident on their way to the game, but delays telling Nick until the star player pulls off a last-minute touchdown victory. Nick, who has just been granted All-American status, is so repulsed by Colton's actions and guilt-stricken over his parents' deaths that he immediately quits the team. He moves back to his hometown of Chicago, and there re-applies for the architecture scholarship to Tony Sheridan University that his father had urged him to accept years earlier. On the referral of scholarship sponsor David Carter, Nick is soon accepted into the college. Although the undergraduates, including David's son Howard, admire Nick's athletic record, they jeer at his working-class clothing and hairstyle. Nick bristles at the university's devotion to tradition, such as allowing upperclassmen to paddle freshmen, and starts a fistfight. He is chastised by architecture professor Carl Banning, who warns Nick that he will need to conform in order to fit in, and suggests a haircut. Howard's best friend, Hunt Cameron, wants to invite Nick to join their fraternity, but when Howard insults Nick, the freshman stalks out of the club. Nick visits a nearby bar, where he meets sultry waitress Susie Ward, who admits she is trying to acquire a rich husband from Sheridan. Just then, Howard enters, and when he rebukes Susie for her relationship with fraternity brother Smitty, Nick punches him. Hearing the bartender call the police, Susie sneaks Nick out the back door, and as a result, only Howard is arrested and consequently placed on academic probation. Weeks later, Nick still has no friends on campus, where everyone is disappointed that he will not play football. One day, however, while he coaches a group of children, Banning's secretary, Sharon Wallace, stops to watch. When Nick sits with her and reveals that he will not play football because of his parents' death, she urges him to reveal his reasoning to the other students. She then sends Nick a ticket to the big football game, and he finally shows up to witness the team's discouraging performance. That night, Nick visits Susie at the bar again and discovers that Smitty has broken a date with her to attend a swanky party at the Carters'. Knowing David will welcome him to his home, Nick arrives at the party with Susie on his arm. After Nick waltzes Sharon away from Howard and into the garden, she advises him to play football and make some friends. Although he kisses her instead of responding, he joins the team soon after. At the first practice, Howard convinces the other players to sack Nick constantly, but the coach soon puts a stop to their tricks. During his first game, Nick sits on the bench until the kids he coaches chant, "We want Nick," a refrain that quickly spreads through the bleachers. Upon entering the game, he immediately scores a touchdown that results in Howard being benched and the team achieving their first victory of the season. Soon, they are winning every game, and Nick's growing acceptance on campus is highlighted by his new, traditional haircut. Howard remains bitter, however, and quits his fraternity when Hunt invites Nick to join. Days later, Nick finds a drunken Howard at Susie's bar, and hits him in order to drag him out of the bar so he can get sober for the next day's big game. Susie, however, who has tricked the drunken Howard into proposing to her, hits Nick over the head with a bottle and spirits Howard away before the police arrive. Nick is arrested and, with his scholarship then remanded, must leave Sheridan. Just before the big game, Nick asks the coach to allow Howard to play. Hours later, when Susie realizes that Nick has been thrown off the team, she rushes in secret to Banning to confess what really happened at the bar. While Nick listens to the game on the radio at the bar, Susie and Banning succeed in reinstating Nick on the team. Nick joins his team just before half time, and as he leads them back to victory, Howard thanks him for not disclosing his part in the bar fight, and the two former rivals shake hands. With one minute to go, Nick steals the ball from the other team and executes a spectacular touchdown play. During the victory dance that evening, Sharon, who is angry with Nick for leaving school, walks away from him, but when he pulls her to him, she melts into his arms.