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Say It's So, Joe 1 LAVAR ARRINGTON He can't get his coach to admit it, but Penn State's brash linebacker is the best in the country

Aug. 16, 1999
Aug. 16, 1999

Table of Contents
Aug. 16, 1999

Pro Football
College Football Preview 1999

Say It's So, Joe 1 LAVAR ARRINGTON He can't get his coach to admit it, but Penn State's brash linebacker is the best in the country

Penn State is a place where football players are expected to be
gentlemen. It is a place where nominations to the Playboy
All-America team are unwelcome and where the drab uniforms are
designed as armor against ego inflation. It's also a place where
emotions on the field are kept in control, lest they interfere
with the blessed execution of football fundamentals, and where
the prescribed pecking order demands that seniors rule and
underclassmen wait. If Penn State football lived and breathed,
it would floss twice daily and come to a full stop before
turning right on red.

This is an article from the Aug. 16, 1999 issue Original Layout

Such staunch conservatism can take root when the man who sets
the tone is a campus fixture for 50 years (think about that),
including 33 as the coach. Joe Paterno gives the public a
program it can feel good about, unlike renegade schools with
extroverted thugs and low graduation rates. For this he is
deified as an island of dignity, and he deserves it. Paterno has
not only won 307 games (fourth most in major college football
history to Eddie Robinson's 405) but also had a four-year
graduation rate of 74% of his players (according to the latest
NCAA figures) and given more than $4 million to Penn State,
toward the construction of a library and for the endowment of
faculty positions and scholarships.

Yet occasionally there comes a player who tries to upset the
Happy Valley status quo. For 1999, junior outside linebacker
LaVar Arrington has volunteered to lead the latest attempt to
revolutionize Penn State football. "They do things a certain way
around here," says Arrington. "I don't think that's going to win
you many national titles, not in 1999 or 2000. Athletes have
evolved. To win a national title, you put your best athletes out
there, and you let them play with emotion and intensity. You
don't change them."

Arrington speaks from experience when he offers this blasphemous
take on the Penn State philosophy. He came to State College as
the Parade national high school player of the year, a 6'3",
230-pound linebacker-running back from North Hills High in
Pittsburgh and one of the first to commit in Paterno's terrific
recruiting class of '97. As a true freshman that year, he played
some at outside linebacker. A year later he dominated preseason
practices but didn't start the season opener against Southern
Mississippi, dues-paying that he found humiliating. "They like
to give the older guys an opportunity," says Nittany Lions
senior co-captain Brandon Short, a linebacker who plays
alongside Arrington. "In LaVar's case, they wanted to test his
mental toughness. I said to him, 'You're the best athlete out
here, no way they can keep you off the field,' but it was rough
on him."

Arrington was made a starter in the second game and tore through
the season as if he were trying to cram a career into 10
weekends. It wasn't just that he finished second on the team in
tackles (67), and third on the team in tackles for lost yardage
(17) and sacks (7). Or that he tied for the team lead in passes
broken up (11) and intercepted two other passes, returning one
for a touchdown. It was the way he did all of those things with
reckless domination. In a 28-9 loss to Ohio State, he came from
30 yards across the field to run down Buckeyes tailback Michael
Wiley. In a 27-0 win over Illinois, he dived over the top of the
line and tackled Illini fullback Elmer Hickman for no gain on
fourth-and-one, a play instantly immortalized in State College
as the LaVar Leap. In a 41-10 win over Northwestern, he cleanly
hurdled a blocking back and sacked Wildcats quarterback Gavin
Hoffman.

Arrington was voted the Big Ten's defensive player of the year
and a first team All-America. Illinois coach Ron Turner compares
him to Michael Jordan. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr compares him
with Lawrence Taylor. "When you're standing on the sideline, as
a coach, you just feel his presence out there," says Carr. "He's
so fast, agile and competitive. Definitely one of the best
players I've seen in this conference in a long, long time."

Arrington also punctuated his play with a stylish flair. He
celebrated big hits and taunted opponents. After taking an
interception 16 yards for a touchdown against Bowling Green, he
did what looked like a high-step inside the pylon, much to
Paterno's displeasure. (Arrington's explanation: "It was not a
high-step. Their little quarterback was diving at my ankles."
Arrington's roommate, tight end John Gilmore says, "Looked like
a high-step to me and a mighty fine one, too.") When a Michigan
tackle pancaked Arrington in the first quarter of Penn State's
27-0 loss to the Wolverines, Arrington, angry that what he
thought was an obvious holding penalty hadn't been called,
drilled the blocker with a forearm shiver long after the
whistle, incurring a 15-yard penalty and Paterno's wrath. "The
referee didn't call a penalty," Arrington says, "so I called my
own."

The NFL is salivating over Arrington, who will seriously
consider leaving college after this season. Pro personnel people
won't comment publicly on Arrington, for fear that Paterno, in
retaliation, will tighten his already rigid access to Penn State
practices, but this is a summary of how they feel about
Arrington: an explosive hitter with a nasty streak; has a freaky
build--looks gangly and not too flexible, but is nevertheless
powerful; at least as good as Chris Claiborne (first-round pick
of the Detroit Lions last spring); top five pick whenever he
comes out; and the type of player other players will be compared
with someday.

On the other hand Paterno makes the following evaluation: "He's
not even our best player. He might not even be our best
linebacker, behind Brandon Short and [senior] Mac Morrison. He
made a few spectacular plays. He's our best athlete, and he has
great potential, but that's all. People want me to say he's the
best linebacker I've ever coached. Put him in the same class as
Shane Conlon and Jack Ham? You've got to be kidding. Someday, he
might be all those things."

There is clearly a motivational tug-of-war in progress between
the 72-year-old coaching legend and a 21-year-old linebacker who
is--sorry, Joe--one of the best players in school history. It
isn't personal. Arrington is the only Penn State player who will
walk into a team meeting and slap Paterno on the butt. "He's a
good kid," Paterno says. "Lots of personality." The show
promises to get better.

"Last year was my coming out," Arrington says. "This year puts
me over the top. If there was any doubt last year that I was the
best linebacker in the country, there will be none this year."

He stands in front of a mirror in his off-campus apartment,
preening and flexing, admiring a body that has grown to more
than 240 pounds, still covers 40 yards in 4.4 seconds and leaps
40 vertical inches from a standstill. A visitor chides him that
maybe Ohio State junior Na'il Diggs might be the best linebacker
in the country. "He's all right," Arrington says, grinning, "but
he's not me."

That's not all. "This is the year to rank us Number 1," says
Arrington. "We are going to whip up on some people." There's one
catch, he says. The coaching staff has to turn loose the defense
the way it did in last year's season-ending 51-28 rout of
Michigan State and 26-14 victory over Kentucky in the Outback
Bowl. "You saw intensity and emotion in those games, and you saw
results," says Arrington. "That's the way we have to play. Let
loose. Don't kill our games."

Fighting words? "LaVar and I have clashed a little bit on this,"
says Jerry Sandusky, defensive coordinator on 31 of Paterno's
teams. "A football game takes a long time, and emotions can
waste energy. There's a very fine line."

Paterno is more blunt: "I want LaVar to play with emotion, but I
also want him to do things the way we want to do them to win
games. Nobody can think he's bigger than the whole operation."

The coaches are right. The player is right. A bridge between
them is the path to Penn State's third national championship and
first since 1986. It promises to be a roiling autumn. "If LaVar
wants to be a revolutionary," says Paterno, "he'll be a
revolutionary in exile."

Admit it. You have already judged Arrington, haven't you? You
have drawn a picture in your mind of a typically egocentric
modern athlete who is impatiently awaiting a diamond-encrusted
future. Probably has his Benz picked out and won't ever look
back. But in your picture do you see the son of a
special-education teacher and a wounded Vietnam veteran turned
preacher who built a loving, stable home for three boys? Do you
see a kid who, when provided with a limousine to a banquet
honoring him as the high school player of the year, brought not
his high school posse but both sets of his grandparents? Do you
see a college athlete who prefers chess to video games? Do you
imagine his high school coach, Jack McCurry, recalling him like
this: "A respectful kid, from a strong family with strong moral
fiber. A kid with determination and drive who worked as hard
every day in practice as he did in the games. He was full go
every minute." Arrington had a cell phone--briefly. Rang up $900
calling his girlfriend in North Carolina and got rid of it. The
LaVar Leap? He's tired of hearing about it. "That play is a
stigma," he says. "It overrides everything I've tried to do. I
am not a one-play player."

Your picture clouds now, dismissing stereotypes. In this case to
know the home is to know the child.

Carolyn Arrington, 46, has worked 24 years as a first-, second-
and third-grade special-ed teacher in a public school in
Pittsburgh. On June 30 she underwent surgery to relieve carpal
tunnel syndrome in her right wrist, brought on in part, she
says, by years of restraining difficult students. She is the
type of mother who enforces a midnight curfew as if it were law,
even on All-America players home for the weekend. She is the
type, as well, who not only feeds her son's visiting teammates
but also gives them money to spend at an amusement park, which
is what she did for four Lions who visited LaVar in late May.

Michael Arrington is 50, a broad-chested man who stands to greet
a visitor to his home and walks him to his car when he leaves,
neither of which is easy to do with prostheses for his right
foot and half his left leg. Michael was barely 19 years old,
just out of high school, when he was drafted into the Army in
the summer of 1968. Eleven months later he was shipped to South
Vietnam and assigned to a tank unit. On an August night just six
weeks after his arrival, the base came under attack. Michael
scurried to the tank-holding area and jumped aboard one, only to
be sent to another, replacing a man who was being shipped out
the next day. "Somebody was inside, so I jumped on the side and
grabbed hold of the gun," recalls Michael. "The driver must not
have known I was out there, because the tank lurched forward and
I fell off."

He tells the story without emotion, almost as if it happened to
another person. The tank turned right, as if to encircle
Michael. His left leg was immediately snagged in the metal
track, and as the tank moved, the limb was sucked progressively
farther into the machinery while his body was pulled along the
path of the track, first backward along the ground and then
along the top edge. Michael pressed his right foot against the
track, preventing the rest of his body from getting pulled in.
The action cost him that foot and probably saved his life.
Eventually, the wheels revolved to a point that he was spit out
on the dirt. The tank drove off, its driver still unaware. In
the cacophony of rifle fire and mortar rounds, Michael lay
horribly wounded, screaming for help. "Maybe it was two
minutes," he says. "Maybe it was an hour. It seemed like a long
time."

In the midst of the firefight, Michael was airlifted by
helicopter to the nearest medical unit, and weeks later he was
shipped to Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington. He never
met the man who ran him over, never even knew his name. Michael
was still in Walter Reed when he took a weekend leave home to
Pittsburgh in 1970 and met Carolyn, then a high school senior,
who was visiting one of his sisters. They were married in 1975
and one year later had their first child, also named Michael.
When their second son was born on June 30, 1978, they named him
LaVar RaShad--LaVar after actor LeVar Burton, whom they
remembered from Roots, and Rashad for Ahmad Rashad, then a wide
receiver for the Minnesota Vikings. (The Arringtons also have a
third son, Eric, 15.)

For more than three decades Michael has lived a quiet, dignified
life, leaving his bitterness in Southeast Asia. He refused to
give his sons a crippled father. He was told that he would spend
the rest of his life in a wheelchair, yet he uses one only late
at night, for trips from the bed to the bathroom. At all other
times he walks on his artificial limbs.

He played catch with his boys and shot hoops against them. Only
when his oldest son saw a war movie on TV and asked what
happened to his father did Michael explain to the boys how he
had been hurt. Eight years ago he became an ordained minister
and serves in the Church of God in Christ Faith Center in
Pittsburgh, a small nondenominational house of worship with
about 200 members.

He showed LaVar films of classic All-Pros such as Dick Butkus
and Gale Sayers and by turning him on to Brian Bosworth. He gave
LaVar visual clues that his son still follows. "If the guard
pulls, nine times out of 10 the ball follows him," Michael
explained.

LaVar developed into an athletic prodigy. By the time he reached
eighth grade, he had reached his full height and weighed 195
pounds. Short, his future Nittany Lions teammate, had seen the
14-year-old Arrington and two of his friends playing in a
three-on-three basketball tournament in Pittsburgh and felt
relieved that his team wouldn't have to play Arrington's because
Arrington was surely in the 20-and-over age division. When it
turned out that their teams did play against each other,
Arrington and Short each broke a rim of the temporary goals
while dunking, delaying the game.

Arrington played on the North Hills ninth-grade football team as
an eighth-grader. A year later, when Penn State assistant Tom
Bradley went to a North Hills varsity game to scout senior
quarterback Eric Kasperowicz, he couldn't take his eyes off a
sinewy freshman tailback. "I want to recruit that kid right
now," Bradley told McCurry. Twice during his high school career
LaVar leaped over the offensive line and made plays in the
opposing backfield, so the LaVar Leap was barely newsworthy back
home. "Most games, LaVar's natural ability just took over," says
McCurry.

Arrington had always wanted to play for Miami or Florida State,
bastions of late '80s and early '90s flash. He was crazy about
linebackers Ray Lewis of the Hurricanes and Derrick Brooks of
the Seminoles. But as he got older, his priorities changed. "He
was a homebody, but he didn't realize it," says McCurry. Florida
State didn't show enough interest in him until much too late,
and Miami dropped out of his plans after linebacker Marlin
Barnes was bludgeoned to death on campus in the spring of 1996,
Arrington's junior year in high school. Earlier that year
Arrington had skeptically made an unofficial visit to Penn State
at the urging of his family and McCurry. "I didn't like it there
at all," he said. Yet he was struck by the camaraderie on the
team, the family atmosphere and the fact that the school was a
three-hour drive from Pittsburgh. He orally committed in the
spring of his junior year. Homebody, indeed.

Three years later he is the favorite to win the Butkus Award and
almost a lock to become a millionaire pro. His world is growing
swiftly, and yet his perspective narrows. He understands that
what drives him is his father's spirit. One humid summer night
Arrington lay sprawled across a ratty couch in his basement
apartment. Bishop, his pit bull puppy, scampered across the
floor, and air conditioners hummed in nearby buildings.
"Somebody told me my father was fast once," Arrington said.
"They told me that's where I get my speed." He paused and then
his voice became softer. "I owe so much to him. He never missed
my games. He played with me. Now I understand what it means to
be the very best that you can be, regardless of what God has
given you. My goal every Saturday is to make sure anybody
watching Penn State comes away and says, 'That kid plays with
heart.' That's what I owe. To play as hard as I possibly can."

It isn't so simple then. Arrington speaks loud words and makes
big plays, but not just for himself and not necessarily from
selfishness or greed. Sometimes his noise celebrates a father's
quiet courage and a son's appreciation. That is a revolution
worth joining.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER COVER 1999 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW A Paterno Inferno? LaVar Arrington Fires Up No. 1 Penn StateCOLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Say It's So, Joe Penn State's LaVar Arrington can't get his coach to admit it, but he's the best linebacker in the country [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLERCOLOR PHOTO: TOMASSO DEROSA/TDSI IDEAL NFL TEAM Given his penchant for mashing opponents, Arrington would fit nicely with the Jets. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Character Beneath the chiseled exterior is a man driven by his father's spirit.
"If there was any doubt last year that I was the best linebacker
in the country," says Arrington, "there will be none this year."
"My goal," says Arrington, "is to make sure anybody watching
Penn State says, 'That kid plays with heart.'"