Raiders backup quarterback Terrelle Pryor barely hesitated on April 29 when he received a question about his mental state. The tweet read: "u worried about an imminent matt leinart signing?"
Pryor, who did not attempt a pass last year after being selected in the third round of the supplemental draft, answered eight minutes later.
"nope !! :)" he wrote.
Leinart indeed joined the Raiders two days later and will compete to be Carson Palmer's backup, but anyone expecting Pryor to be thrown off his game has not looked in his eyes in recent weeks. Pryor is focused and confident, qualities that were missing last season after he left Ohio State a year early because of the memorabilia-for-cash/tattoos scandal that resulted in a five-game suspension for him and a forced resignation for coach Jim Tressel.
As if his situation weren't difficult enough, Pryor missed all but the final week of training camp because the supplemental draft wasn't held until Aug. 23. Then he had to serve a five-game NFL suspension because, the league contended, he tried to manipulate the supplemental draft by applying after its deadline.
The discipline prevented him from practicing with the team and set back his development, because he was trying to learn a new offense and develop a rapport with new teammates. An alpha male on the youth, high school and college levels, Pryor found himself on the sidelines for the first time in his athletic life. And he struggled.
"It was extremely hard considering the circumstances," he said recently. "I couldn't be outside with the team, I couldn't meet with the team, I couldn't even get paid by the team during the suspension. It was hard. ... When I was finally cleared, I didn't want to bother the coaches because they were trying to get ready for games. It was kind of hard asking them for help, because I saw how stressed out they were during the season, which I totally understand. But it just killed me that I didn't know the stuff that I was supposed to know. That was the worst part. I also couldn't compete. That's what really killed me.
"There was a point -- and I know it seems crazy -- but there was a point I was asking myself if I really loved this game anymore. That's where I was at [emotionally]. Throughout the whole season I wasn't playing, I wasn't getting no love toward me. I just felt some type of way. I started questioning myself, even though I shouldn't have. I was like, 'Do I even love this game? Do I want to play this game? Is this what I want to do?' "
He got his answer in the offseason, when first-year general manager Reggie McKenzie fired coach Hue Jackson and replaced him with Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Suddenly Pryor felt like he was back on a level playing field. Everyone would have to learn a new playbook, not just him.
"Everything is a clean slate," said Pryor. "I can learn at the same pace as everybody else. Last year, I felt some type of way. I was like, 'Geez, I can't play the game that I love, I can't play the game that I'm very good at, I can't play the position that I'm good at. I can't get any respect from anybody because they haven't seen me play. It's a weird topic for me because I had never sat on the bench before. But now I have a chance to go out and compete."
A slight smile creeps across his face when he thinks about his current situation. He is so focused he has been training on and off the field six days a week, resting only on Sunday. He says he has not been back home to see friends and family, including his father, who had been suffering from pneumonia.
"I feel like if I take a day off, somebody is outworking me and I'm losing an opportunity to get a percentage point better," he said. "Coach Tressel used to always tell us to get 1 percent better each day. Drew Brees said the same thing in his book, just try to get 1 percent better, 2 percent better each day. What is 1 percent or 2 percent? I don't know. But I know it's important to be aiming toward goals rather than sitting in a chair and flying and going to see people, and just being happy that you're in the NFL and people are saying your name. I don't look for that. I look to work hard and stay to myself and work to accomplish my goals, what I believe I can do. I feel if I take any time off I'm screwing myself."
"He certainly has been here and putting in some hours to make sure that he's getting better," Allen said recently. "The thing that I've been impressed with is, Terrelle is very, very eager to learn. That's what you look for in a young guy like that. He's hungry for it, and he's working. It's obvious he's got great physical talents. I was out there and they were throwing, and just looking at him he's really impressive. But like any young player he's got to develop a full understanding of the game, because it's more complex than it is in college. The thing that I talk to him about is, don't worry about anything other than you just working to get better every single day, in the meeting rooms, on the field, everything you do. At the end of the day the results will take care of themselves."
Pryor said he works out with the voices of doubters in his head. People continue to question whether he has the skills to succeed at quarterback because of accuracy issues. He completed at least 60 percent of his passes in two of his three seasons with the Buckeyes, but also threw 11 interceptions as both a sophomore and junior.
At 6-foot-6, 233 pounds, he is a freakish athlete who ran the 40-yard dash in under 4.4 seconds. He has heard talk that he is a tight end in waiting, and he dismisses that notion as easily as he would a slower, undersized opponent in the open field.
"That talk doesn't bother me, because every day I'm getting taught at the same rate as Carson Palmer at the quarterback position," he said. "People say that because I do have blazing speed. I do have to work a little bit on my accuracy, but who doesn't have to work on something? If you didn't have to work on something, you'd be the best there is or you'd be starting. But what if I didn't have to work on that? I'd be the perfect quarterback. Well, I don't know of anyone to be perfect but the Lord. And until I see someone perfect, I'm going to keep on working."
When asked what he took from last year, Pryor steered the conversation back to the start of his troubles at Ohio State.
"It was humbling," he said. "A mistake I made when I was a freshman by selling my pants for $3,000 just took away everything from me. I was just driven into the ground. I was the worst person in the world. My face popped up on the screen, and it seemed like I was the only one who did anything. I was the only one who was getting attacked. At that point last year, I'm 21 and it just felt like everything was against me, like I can't do anything right. I did something to help somebody else out, and I end up getting into trouble. I understand. I shouldn't have sold the stuff and taken $3,000. But I was kind of in a place where I didn't understand why this is happening to me -- especially for the reason that I did it.
"The reason why I did it was to pay my mother's gas bill and some of her rent. She was four months behind in rent, and the [landlord] was so nice because he was an Ohio State fan. He gave her the benefit of the doubt and she said, 'My son will pay you back sometime if you just let me pay you back during my work sessions.' She ended up losing her job, and she and my sister lived there. Let me remind you it was freezing cold in November, December, and she's using the oven as heat. That's what I did as a kid. I was telling the NCAA, 'Please, anything that you can do. I gave my mother this so my sister wouldn't be cold, so my mother wouldn't be cold.' They didn't have any sympathy for me. It's not like I went there and bought new Jordans. It's documented. Whenever I write my book the proof will be in there, the receipt that the money I gave my mother was to pay the electric and heat bill. The truth is going to come out one day when the time is right. I don't think I deserved [being punished] in that way, because of the reason I was doing it. I felt like I was doing God's work in a way, and I was getting driven into the ground.
"But it's a new day and I'm feeling better," he continued. "It was humbling, but I learned from it. When I was coming into Ohio State ... I had some type of ego with me. I felt like this stuff humbled me and brought me back down to the ground -- like, your stuff stinks, too. I'm just trying to be the best person I can be and best quarterback I can be. It comes to me every now and then that I was the last draft pick of Mr. Davis (who died of heart failure last October). Before he passed away, he would call me and he'd be like, he'd say my name and then say, 'I believe in you. This year is going to be tough for you, but I believe in you for the future.' Every single time it was the exact same thing. He would just keep spitting that exact same thing. That's something that makes me want to have success too. Sometimes people say that he didn't make the right draft choices, and to be his last pick, I don't want to be gone off the team, I don't want to be cut, I don't want to have people be like, 'Oh, why did he pick him?' Knowing that he believed in me just pushes me more."