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Shining Armour

Feb. 18, 1991
Feb. 18, 1991

Table of Contents
Feb. 18, 1991

Books
UNLV-Arkansas
Olympians
Justin Armour
Shadow Of A Nation
Point After

Shining Armour

Colorado schoolboy Justin Armour is a scholar-athlete who is almost too good to be true

It seems unfair that a young man with such a gleaming future should rise every morning to this. The house where Justin Armour lives doesn't have a backyard so much as it has a field, which tumbles into a valley, which stretches toward the Rampart Range of the Rocky Mountains, indigo and severe.

This is an article from the Feb. 18, 1991 issue Original Layout

"We do get some incredible sunsets," says Justin, a senior at Manitou Springs High School in Colorado. "Deer sleep right under my bedroom window, sometimes a whole herd. We're just very fortunate to be here. Of course, you have to watch out for the droppings."

Throughout the months of ego massage that have thus far constituted his senior year, Justin has repeated that same theme—that fortune has indeed smiled upon him. Whether the discussion concerns Justin's athletic ability or his intelligence or his role in the Manitou Springs Mustangs' state football championship last fall, he assiduously sidesteps full credit. "We've been very fortunate," he will say, or "I've been blessed."

No argument here. This will sound syrupy and should earn Justin some grief from his classmates, but it is true: Getting to know 18-year-old Justin bolsters one's faith in today's youth. Cynics, commence your sneering, then have a look at this rèsumè: Justin will be his class's valedictorian. He is a three-sport athlete, a member of the National Honor Society, the French club, the math and science club, president of the student council, editor of the school newspaper, a Bible scholar, a performer in school plays, a tutor, an antidrug spokesman and, of necessity, an accomplished catnapper. He is bound for Stanford this fall on a football scholarship, but he also plans to play basketball for the Cardinal.

"He's what we call a slam dunk," says Brian Billick, a Stanford assistant coach. "By that I mean, after one look at his transcript, you walk over to the admissions office and slam-dunk him through."

National signing day for high school football recruits was Feb. 6, but to spare himself and his family the infernal barrage of recruiters' calls, Justin decided on Stanford in early October. He then phoned all the jilted suitors to break the news. "I didn't want them to be wasting their time," he says. His politeness was not always reciprocated. Colorado assistant basketball coach Tom Abatemarco called Justin a fool and told him he was making a big mistake. Notre Dame assistant football coach Jay Hayes also ridiculed Justin's choice. "You're saying you want to go 4-7 every year and never play in a major bowl," said Hayes, whose negative recruiting might have been more effective if, a few days after their conversation, Stanford had not beaten the Irish 36-31 in South Bend. "And that," says Justin, "was the last we heard from Jay."

Stanford football coach Dennis Green says he plans to redshirt Justin next season, and will excuse him from football on Oct. 1, to give him time to get into basketball shape. With his ability to handle the ball and shoot from outside, Justin is projected as a small forward in college. "But eventually, he'll have to choose one sport over the other," says Billick, who believes that Justin's future is in throwing a football. "He's very accurate, has beautiful touch, throws a real nice deep ball. And he's tall [6'6"], which is what I prefer to see in a quarterback. I've seen other big quarterbacks up close—Dan McGwire, Scott Mitchell—and he is clearly a better athlete than those two. I've been at BYU and seen Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon, and I have never been as excited about a guy's potential as I am about Justin's."

From his tailback position in coach George Rykovich's quaint but effective single-wing offense, Justin threw 25 touchdown passes for the Musings last season. Coaches from among other places, UCLA, Michigan and USC wooed Justin for his right arm. But he also ran for 27 touchdowns, and many of his 1,320 rushing yards were tough inside efforts.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Justin is, you would like him. Dashing as he is, he is not some 6½ foot Ken doll. He has a bad haircut—"My mom cuts it," he says—and mild acne. Strong as his Christian values are, he is not above gossiping, flirting and trading insults. Justin even missed a recent prayer meeting because he was on the phone with a volleyball player from Longmont's Niwot High—a 6-foot, blonde volleyball player named Melissa Sharp.

Justin's success has come at one of the most spectacularly situated high schools in the country. Manitou Springs High rests at the foot of Pikes Peak, which, at 14, 110 feet, towers over the Ramparts. The town of Manitou Springs, seven miles west of Colorado Springs, has only 4,800 residents, yet anyone expecting the local teenagers to reflect a small-town homogeneity is in for a shock. John Harris sports a diamond-stud earring and wears sunglasses in the school halls; Diana Buchanan wears a ring in her nose and prefers to sit atop her desk during class; Will Schraml has a full beard and plans to become a Catholic priest. Only the dearth of black students—there are seven out of an enrollment of 347—reminds a visitor that he is in Colorado and not on the set of 21 Jump Street.

There are the predictable cliques, and Justin, a cross between Ferris Bueller and Bruce Jenner, moves effortlessly among them. "We all love Justin," says senior Ashley Jorstad. "He isn't stuck up." Last September, Justin won the student council presidency in a landslide.

If the acceptance of his peers were a higher priority for Justin, he would long ago have succumbed to their frequent entreaties to "get nailed." Says one senior, "Drinking beer is about 90 percent of what there is to do around here on weekends." After the state championship game, most of the football team celebrated at a keg party. Justin spent the night at home with his convictions. His rejection of drugs and alcohol—"I have never experimented and don't intend to," he says—are at least in part a reaction to having witnessed the trials of his older brother, Jason, a member of Manitou Springs' class of '87. Jason twice went through rehabilitation for substance abuse and did not graduate with his class. He has since gotten a handle on his life and is taking courses at Colorado State.

"He's worked really hard to get it back together," says Justin. "That has been a very positive influence on me."

"Justin has not had a storybook life, by any means," says Diana Kelting, his English literature and French teacher. "But he is so talented, he has success at everything he attempts. I don't know how a mèlange like that occurs. It's just gross."

Justin has had classes with Kelting every day since ninth grade. Reputed to be the school's toughest grader, she gave Justin the only B of his high school career, in ninth-grade English. It was a quarter grade, however, and Justin earned an A for the semester; he carries a perfect 4.0 to this day. Kelting has dozens of Justin Armour stories. "But if I could only give you one," she says, "this would be it, because it shows what kind of guy he is: When he was in 10th grade, I took my French II class outside to play blindfolded tag in which they have to use French words to identify each player. The boy who was 'it' just couldn't catch anyone. The laughing got louder and louder. His frustration level was just sky-high."

Kelting was seconds away from having a sobbing adolescent male on her hands. "Then I noticed Justin drifting toward the middle of the circle," recalls Kelting. "He just sort of let himself get tagged. I know it was a little thing. But he's always doing things like that. He is aware, almost unconsciously, of everyone's feelings."

For Justin, third period is calculus. As the teacher, Terry Sloan, writes a solution to a homework problem on the chalkboard, Justin spots an error and quietly points it out. Sloan makes the correction.

"I'm probably a little stronger at math and science than English and the arts," says Justin on the way to his next class, personal finance. Here, students pair off and run make-believe pen companies. At the end of the semester, the "executives" of the most profitable company go to lunch with the teacher. Early in the fiscal year, Justin and his business partner, Nissa Weeks, poured too much money into research and development and into marketing. Now, to the delight of the leaders, Justin and Nissa are in fifth place.

"Justin, $40 a pen?" asks Brian Manly. "You're kidding, right? Who's going to spend $40 on a pen?"

"We're selling the public the best pen money can buy," Justin answers. "This is an ethics question. You guys are sticking it to your customers with those junky pens."

"The company that makes the best pens is not the company going to lunch," says Brian. Touchè.

Five minutes remain in the period, but no work is getting done. Students are walking around, glancing at the clock. In the back of the room, a heavyset, pasty-faced boy is sitting by himself. Justin wanders over, slaps him on the shoulder. "What kind of day you having, buddy?" he asks. They shoot the breeze for a few minutes, talk some basketball. When the bell rings, the heavyset kid is smiling.

Having met Justin, one looks forward to meeting his parents, to congratulating them on a job well done. So it is mildly surprising to learn that Tom and Anne Armour were divorced when Justin was nine. The three children—Justin has an older sister, Necole—stayed with Anne. Tom, a lawyer in Colorado Springs, has remarried. Both parents remain friendly. "Considering how some divorces end up, I guess we've been fortunate," says Justin. Both parents come to Justin's games, though they don't sit together.

Anne's constant companion since the divorce has been her work. She owns a popular cafè on Manitou Avenue. At 11:40 a.m. most weekdays, Justin and his buddies pile into a car and head for Anne's Cafe. Everything on the menu is good, but beware of the green chili stew; it's guaranteed to clear your sinuses. On this late January day, Anne comes out from behind the counter to chat, and she massages her son's shoulders. "Everyone in the country should receive a massage once a week," she says. "And the government should pay for it."

Even as mothers and sons go, these two are close. Earlier in the school year, one of Justin's teachers came to school in tears; her teenage son, who attends a nearby junior high, had spoken harshly to her. Justin sought the young man out and told him, "I don't ever want to hear of you showing that kind of disrespect for your mother again. Someday she's going to be your best friend."

On the way out of Anne's Cafe, Justin stops by a table of elderly men. Will Gomez, the local barber, notes that Justin's five-month-old crew cut has all but grown out. Another fellow at the table wishes Justin luck in tomorrow night's basketball game against St. Mary's, a Colorado Springs rival. "And Justin," he says. "I've got money on you guys!" Everyone at the table breaks up. Justin dismisses them with a smile and a wave of his hand.

Justin can't wait for the St. Mary's game, either. The 7-2 Mustangs haven't played in two weeks, and practice no longer offers Justin a challenge. "I have to admit," he says, "sometimes I think, 'Isn't it time for me to go to college yet?' "

It is a Herculean effort for Justin to remain patient with his teammates. He is, after all, one of the best basketball players to come out of this area in some time, and he didn't get that way by playing in Colorado Springs. Every Saturday morning, starting when Justin was in the eighth grade, Tom drove him the 65 miles to Denver, where Justin played for the Police Athletic League in the morning and at the Salvation Army Red Shield Boys' Club in the afternoon. "The first time we walked into the Boys' Club," Tom recalls, smiling, "Justin's eyes got wide." There were no other white kids in the gym. The summer he was 15, Justin stood 6'5" and was invited to play for the Big Orange, a Denver AAU team. As the only white member of the 10-man squad, he was nicknamed Token. "It was the most fun and most educational summer I'd ever had," says Justin. Halfway through it, Token was asked to play with the Big Orange's 17-and-under team.

Last summer, Justin started for the Denver-based Colorado Orangemen, who went 15-3 against other AAU teams around the country. The Orangemen's most impressive win was over the powerful New York Riverside Church club in the semifinals of the BCI/Slam-n-Jam Invitational at Long Beach, Calif. Justin's 16 points included a last-second, game-winning jumper. Earlier, he had been invited to the prestigious Nike Basketball Camp in Princeton, N.J.

From Nike camp to Manitou Springs is quite a drop-off, though Justin is too polite to say it. Back among the Mustangs, Justin muzzles his exasperation as some of his niftiest passes whistle through his teammates' hands. "Justin sometimes plays down to the level of his teammates, rather than pulling them up to his," says Ken Vecchio, the Mustang coach.

Not always. Against St. Mary's, Justin scores his team's first 11 points, including two three-pointers. His third bucket is a layup off an alley-oop pass. The crowd goes wild.

Behind Justin's 27 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks, the Mustangs rout St. Mary's 74-52. This being Friday night, Justin and two carloads of friends take in a postgame movie, Awakenings, which reduces the Parade magazine and SuperPrep football All-America to tears. During the drive home, Justin, still sniffling, attempts to explain that he is not usually this emotional.

"What about Beaches? What about Steel Magnolias?" says Necole. "You cried at both of those. You cry at store openings."

Eager to change the subject, Justin blurts, "How about that behind-the-back pass Robby threw to James? Was that sweet or what?"

It was sweet. It was also virtually the only one of the game's highlights in which Justin did not figure. So it follows that it is the only one he will talk about.

The final word on Justin is reserved for Rykovich, the single-wing specialist. "I feel pretty doggone good that we've got people in this country the caliber of Justin," he says. "You've got to figure that somewhere out there, there are others like him. They will provide the leadership we're going to need."

Gross but true.

PHOTOWILLIAM R. SALLAZColorado's Garden of the Gods provides a fitting backdrop for someone of Justin's abilities.PHOTOWILLIAM R. SALLAZJustin (in white) will play forward at Stanford, but scouts feel that football is his future.PHOTOBOB JACKSON/COLORADO SPRINGS GAZETTE TELEGRAPH[See caption above.]PHOTOWILLIAM R. SALLAZJustin (center) and Brian Wiesner get some special attention at Anne's Cafe.