All Eyes on Terrelle
For one hour on a drizzly, unseasonably warm morning last week, Jeannette, Pa., a blue-collar burg of about 10,000 that lies 25 miles east of Pittsburgh, was the center of the college football world. That's where native son Terrelle Pryor, an 18-year-old uncommonly blessed by nature and toughened by both his Jeannette homeboys ("They're the reason I am where I am") and the rugged western Pennsylvania pigskin tradition, announced that, yes, he would be saving some school's football fortunes come August, but he still wasn't sure whose. That a teenager's not being able to make up his mind would generate national headlines (ESPNU and CSTV carried Pryor's no-news press conference live, and SI was among other national publications in attendance at the Jeannette High gym) says everything about the meat-market mania of college recruiting and national signing day. Though Pryor's indecision exasperated those close to him -- most of them had been sure 24 hours earlier that he had chosen Ohio State over Michigan, thought to be the last two schools standing in this most intense of recruiting battles -- it also speaks to the bewilderment that Pryor must be feeling after spending months as the nation's It Recruit.
It's easy to understand why so many are so invested in the young man's future. In Jeannette, where football is king, Pryor is the grandest of Friday Night Lights heroes, a 6' 5 1/2", 225-pound quarterback with a sprinter's speed and an arm that can throw a football more than 70 yards. Since he is also one of the state's top basketball players, slack-jawed fans have routinely proclaimed him "the best athlete I've ever seen."
A few days before Pryor announced his intention to equivocate, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Mike White, who collaborated with Pryor on a recruiting diary for the newspaper, was recognized as he paid a toll on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. "So, where's he going?" the collector asked. (The writer said, "I was just [with him], and I have no idea.") Says White, "Without a doubt, Terrelle is the most hyped, most talked-about, most watched athlete we've had in the history of western Pennsylvania." That is no doubt accurate since other western Pennsylvania worthies such as Tony Dorsett and LaVar Arrington and quarterbacks with names like Unitas, Namath, Marino and Kelly came along before the Internet age.
But even when you are considered that One in a Million, the Difference Maker, the Program Turner, it is hard to say no to persuasive adults schooled in the art of enticement.
So it is that Pryor will make an official visit to Penn State, long thought to be the Big Ten's Third Wheel in the Pryor sweepstakes. And while he's at it, Pryor has said that he might as well make a visit to Oregon, where coach Mike Bellotti runs an attractive spread offense, also the primary ammunition that new Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez pulls out in an effort to lure Pryor to Ann Arbor.
Linebacker U was the real surprise. No one but Pryor can say for sure that he is genuinely considering taking his high-def game to a school with an analog offense, but it's certain that he feels pressure to make an official visit. Over time, amid the sweet nothings whispered by all the college coaches, Pryor had gotten on well with Penn State recruiters Tom Bradley and Jay Paterno. Eighty-one-year-old Joe Paterno himself showed up one day near the end of the recruiting process.
Around town there are a lot of Penn State people. Dick Hoak, a Jeannette legend five decades before Pryor came along, played running back for the Nittany Lions and still attends most of Pryor's football and basketball games. Hoak doesn't say much to Pryor, but his friend, a 78-year-old restaurateur named Tony DeNunzio, a Penn State fan and unabashed admirer of JoePa, is somewhere in the corner of the Pryor picture. DeNunzio says that he doesn't impart his own opinions to Pryor ("I just love the kid and what he's done for Jeannette," says DeNunzio), but he has driven around Pryor and his friends when they need a lift and used to give them free meals at his restaurant.
On (non-)signing day, Pryor said that the major reason he will make an official Penn State visit is the affection that Craig Terrelle Pryor, his father, feels for ace recruiter Bradley, the Lions' defensive coordinator. "My dad is, like, in love with him," says Pryor of Bradley. That's, like, a lot of pressure. Many insiders still believe that Pryor will sign with Ohio State, but prognosticators will be more wary in the coming weeks.
"Terrelle's got a lot of people telling him a lot of things," says Jeannette football coach Ray Reitz. "It's easy to understand why it's difficult for him."
Whether the heavy-breathing pursuit of Pryor foreshadows great things to come or is a cautionary tale about the unpredictability of potential remains to be seen. It's easy to determine that a running back with 4.2 speed is going to be able to get around the corner at the next level and that a 300-pound lineman with a 400-pound bench press is going to be able to knock people over. But Pryor's great gifts aside, can he locate his secondary receivers when pressure comes? Can he check off when the defense is massed to stop the called play? Can he maintain his bravado when the offense is backed up to the goal line and 10 sets of uncertain eyes look to him for inspiration? He routinely ran away from trouble as a high school star -- observers swear that there were games in which he literally was not touched by the defense -- but you can't do that in college, never mind in the NFL.
"Probably 85 percent of the time some kind of change has to be made at the line of scrimmage by a college quarterback," says Colorado coach Dan Hawkins, "and that rarely happens in high school. Sometimes it's something simple like keeping the same play but running it to the other side. But that reading ability is something that's hard to gauge about a high school quarterback, even one who's been as successful as Terrelle."
Charlie Batch, the Pittsburgh Steelers and former Eastern Michigan quarterback who is Pryor's recruiting adviser and close family friend (four years ago Pryor went to a camp Batch ran), has told the young man, "Mobility and speed will only get you so far." But Batch also says the message got through a long time ago. "Terrelle is very smart about the quarterback position."
Though Pryor's size and stats suggest a second coming of dual-threat Heisman-winning quarterback Tim Tebow of Florida -- his career yards at Jeannette were almost equally divided between rushing (4,250) and passing (4,249) -- he has been compared most often to the Tennessee Titans' Vince Young because of his sheer athleticism. But Pryor takes umbrage at the supposition that he has simply outrun and outleaped everyone to reach greatness. At the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a high school all-star game played in San Antonio on Jan. 5 in which he was named MVP after leading the East to a 33-23 victory over the West, he says he encountered several players with speed superior to his. "It's about angles and thinking on your feet and knowing how to play," he says. "Look, I don't want to be like Vince Young. I don't like it at all when I hear that. Nothing against Vince, who's been real nice. We've talked on the phone. But it's just that I don't see myself as him at all. I like Tom Brady. I admire how he handles the team, the way he freezes the defense with pump fakes. I want to be that kind of quarterback."
There are, of course, other comparisons that could be made. Ten years before Pryor came along, a young man named Ronald Curry blazed a trail to two-sport immortality at Hampton High in the Peninsula District of southeastern Virginia, earning national player of the year honors as both a football quarterback and a basketball point guard. He was recruited madly and chose North Carolina -- where he had a desultory two-year career as the latter and a mediocre four-year career as the former. He never did make it as an NFL quarterback, although he led the Oakland Raiders in receiving last season with 55 catches for 717 yards. Not exactly the kind of precedent Pryor wants to hear about.
Precedents mean precious little to the wunderkind who on a recent January morning sat in a conference room in Jeannette High's main offices. That room had become his second home, Fawning Central for college coaches and the media. As he talked, he displayed his generation's artful multitasking, juggling two cellphones, compulsively checking and sending messages. An Associated Press reporter texted Pryor while he was attending a Michigan basketball game during a recruiting trip on Jan. 19 and breathlessly reported the young man's response to a question about his visit -- "It's cool."
Pryor agrees, that, yes, life has been strange ever since he was identified as the nation's No. 1 recruit before his senior football season began. One day he logged onto the Internet and found a website called terrellepryor.org. "I didn't have anything to do with it," he says. "I would've put different pictures up there." He has received letters from fans of dozens of colleges. "They tell me, 'We'll take care of you if you come here.' I don't pay any attention to them."
He at least has turned down the heat from basketball recruiters by announcing that he will concentrate on football in college. At week's end Pryor, a small forward, was averaging 21.9 points per game for the 16-4 Jayhawks. "If Terrelle would've never touched a football," says former Jeannette High hoops coach Rick Klimchock, "he would be talked about, right now, as a LeBron James type of talent." As much as Pryor's gifts are displayed on the football field (at various times at Jeannette he played defensive end, outside linebacker and free safety as well as quarterback), they are even more manifest on the court, where he is divested of pads. He reaches full speed almost immediately. When he takes off on the wing, he's often downcourt before the ball can find him. If he's near the basket, he'll dunk. At the same time, he depends way too much on his athleticism. He tries outlandish passes and can't believe it when they don't work.
Pryor's there's-nothing-I-can't-do mentality is apparent in football, too. "His biggest weakness -- and it's correctable -- is that he has to learn how to get rid of the ball a little quicker," says Reitz. "He's always looking for the big play, and sometimes he has to just get positive yardage."
But that's often how it is with gifted athletes. And one intangible asset Pryor will bring to college is that he is "Jeannette tough," as he puts it. When he was in eighth grade he and his mother, Thomasina, who is separated from Craig, moved to nearby West Mifflin. But the son was unhappy being away from the kids with whom he started in midget ball as a six-year-old. He returned to Jeannette and moved in with his godfather, Willie Burns. His mother lived 45 miles away in Jonestown (until she returned to Jeannette last week, and was joined by her son), and his father still lives in nearby West Newton (where he was visited by Penn State's Bradley). "Everybody always says athleticism is natural," says Pryor, "but you can pick it up, too. A lot of mine came from the kids I played with all the way through. I made them better, and they made me better."
He perks up at a question about his future: Will he come back to Jeannette one day even if he is an NFL star? "I already know I will," he says. He gazes out the window, past, presumably, the entryway to Jeannette High, past the tree line, past the closed-up glass factories that once were the town's hallmark, into a future that must seem both golden and uncertain. "I'm thinking about maybe having a drive or a street named after me, something like that," he says.
Pryor Parkway perhaps?
"That sounds good," he says, smiling. Sometimes, even when you're the Next Big Thing, it's hard to leave home.