Santa Claus is ingrained in Cutler's upbringing
SANTA CLAUS, Ind. -- It's the day after Easter, and you can't find a bunny anywhere in this town.
You can, however, find its namesake. Even in mid-April, St. Nick is omnipresent, keeping a relentless eye on who's naughty and nice. His face and name are on businesses, restaurants and municipal buildings. He has his own reserved parking spot at the town visitor's bureau. There are several life-size Santa figures in front of businesses -- including one climbing the chimney at the post office -- and a larger-than-life (at least 15 feet tall) monster Santa in front of the community hall.
The dogwoods are in bloom, the birds are chirping ... and you can't help but think you're hearing sleigh bells. It's Christmas here 24/7/365. The seasonal trappings that make a one-month appearance in normal towns -- wreaths, garlands, red-and-green lamp-post signs that read "Noel" and "Season's Greetings" -- stay up all year.
Somewhere along the line, after the town fathers decided in the 1850s that the Santa Claus name was worth doing, folks here decided the Santa Claus theme was worth overdoing.
"It can get on your nerves if you're not in the spirit," says resident Paula Werne.
The place is part kitsch, part cute, part creepy. (There is a low-budget horror movie to be made here. Think bad Santa with murderous elves and man-eating reindeer.) The one thing you don't think when driving around here is football town.
If it sounds like it would take a Christmas miracle to go from this rural hamlet in Southern Indiana to the first round of the NFL draft, start believing. One is at hand.
For quarterback Jay Cutler, product of Santa Claus, it's a wonderful life. And Saturday figures to be one of the highlight moments of that life.
(In fact, there is a palpable Christmas-in-April vibe to this draft. Boise State offensive tackle Daryn Colledge, from North Pole, Alaska, also figures to be a first-day pick.)
The Vanderbilt quarterback will watch the draft with his family, some of his teammates and his college coaches at a restaurant in Nashville. But he's also invited his old high school coach and some other Santa Clausians down for the party. And a part of him will be back home in the rolling hills north of the Ohio River, where everybody knows the Cutler boy.
"My wife babysat him," says the guy at the bar at the VFW Hall.
"He was just always into sports, and always a good kid," says Dee Ann Woolems, whose son once took Jay's sister to a middle-school dance.
"Him and his dad did our concrete work," says Santa Claus postmaster Marian Balbach.
"They did a garage for me," chimes in one of her customers.
Cutler knows they'll be cheering at St. Nick's Restaurant and Frosty's Grill when his name is called. They'll be cheering in living rooms on Candy Cane Lane, Arctic Circle and Mistletoe Drive, too. They'll certainly be cheering on Cutler's old street, Holly Way. And they'll be cheering at Holiday World, the booming amusement park -- with themed areas for Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving and, naturally, Christmas -- that dominates this town of 2,000.
When the moment comes, he'll give them a tip of his stocking cap.
"They should be proud," Cutler says. "That's where I'm from, and I'm happy to be from there."
Jay Cutler will be king for a day in Santa Claus. The hard part is being king longer than that.
Think of the competition the guy is up against in his hometown and surrounding county. Even though Cutler's rise up the draft board to challenge guys named Leinart and Young as the top QB prospect has made him famous nationally, he's forever trailing a universal myth and an American legend in the Spencer County hierarchy.
Santa Claus you know about. But consider this additional fact: A lad named Abraham Lincoln lived for a time on a farm located in the woods one mile from Heritage Hills High School, Cutler's alma mater. The farm site is now a national memorial, and Lincoln's mother is buried there.
Kris Kringle and Honest Abe. In terms of popularity, that tandem is tougher to beat than Florida and Tennessee in the same season.
Which Cutler very nearly did in 2005. Vanderbilt conquered the hated Volunteers for the first time in 24 years, in and of itself enough to make the season a stark-raving success for beleaguered Commodores fans. Vandy lost to Florida in double overtime, in no small part because of a lousy excessive celebration flag on a Commodores freshman wide receiver.
Those two games are significant reasons why a quarterback from Vandy is getting unprecedented NFL interest. It's also unprecedented interest in a Spencer County football player.
Fellow Heritage Hills alum Ken Dilger (from Mariah Hill, three miles up the road from Santa Claus) was a productive tight end in the league for many years, but he also was a mid-second-round pick. Cutler plays the glamour position and is positioned to be taken in the glamour round, when Paul Tagliabue still commands the podium.
Nothing like that has ever happened to a kid from Santa Claus, Ind.
"He's been waiting for this," Cutler's dad, Jack, says. "This is what he wants to do. I tell you, on draft day, that's going to probably be the proudest day in my life.
"It's just unreal. I love football -- played it, coached it. To see your son do this, it's a dream come true."
Actually, Cutler has been drafted before.
He was 10 the first time. For two years, Jay had nagged his dad to let him play organized tackle football -- but there was none in Santa Claus. Finally, Jack relented and drove him 40 miles each way, twice a week, to play in a league in Evansville.
An ol' country boy named Joe Sharp took one look at the Cutler kid during tryouts and picked him.
"Tryout day is like an Oklahoma land rush," Sharp said. "There are kids screamin' and hollerin' and runnin' all over. This league is an inner-city league, so you've got to be tough. I don't care if you're black, white or purple, it's different than coming from the country."
But Sharp watched the country kid from Santa Claus throw and said, "Kid, you're going to be my quarterback."
"Nobody else even bid on him," Sharp said. "Nobody else wanted him. You're talking to one of the most antisocial river rats who ever walked the earth, but I was the first man to turn Jay Cutler into a quarterback."
Cutler led that Lake View Optimist team to an undefeated season and the league championship game. He's been a quarterback ever since, among other things.
Cutler was a three-sport star at Heritage Hills, playing basketball and baseball as well. But football was where he excelled. He led the Patriots to a 15-0 record and a Class AAA state championship his senior year, feats memorialized at the top of the school's scoreboard today.
"They weren't the best team we've ever had here by any means, though their record says they were," says Bob Clayton, then and now the Heritage Hills coach. "They were just an average group of guys, with the exception of Jay."
That championship alone, from the end of the state that usually struggles to compete with the schools from Indianapolis and the old industrial towns to the north, qualified Cutler for lifetime celebrity status in a small town smitten by sports.
"We're born and bred to love football and basketball around here from the day we pop out of the womb," says Amy Hoffman, bartender at the VFW Hall. "That's just the way it is."
But being a high school star in Santa Claus doesn't exactly guarantee your future. Cutler had to go scrambling to find a scholarship from a Division I-A school.
Jack Cutler and the Heritage Hills athletic director, Jay Burch, put together a highlight tape and began carpet-bombing colleges with it.
"Jay always wanted to play in the SEC, so I initially sent them to all the schools in the SEC -- except Vanderbilt," Jack says.
Illinois was the first BCS conference school to show interest, in the fall of Cutler's senior year. He decided fairly quickly to join the Illini and spurned overtures from Purdue, Duke, Maryland and others.
But Jay jumped immediately from that state title run in football to playing basketball, and he didn't get a chance to make a campus visit until late December. By then, according to Jack Cutler, Illinois coach Ron Turner was backpedaling. He rescinded the scholarship offer to Cutler and took a kid from the West Coast instead -- a kid nobody in the NFL is interested in today.
"It's not right," Jack Cutler says. "I still have a bitter taste in my mouth over that."
Suddenly, Jay entered the final few weeks of recruiting without a clue where he'd go. Bridges were burned with some schools. The SEC yawned in Cutler's direction.
"Let's send a tape to Vanderbilt," said Burch, the athletic director.
The Commodores were immediately interested. In the wrong guy.
"When I called, they didn't know who I was," Cutler says. "They were watching the wrong game film. They thought I was a tight end from Northern Indiana."
Once the mistaken identity was cleared up and they saw tape of the quarterback from Southern Indiana, Vandy got excited all over again. They offered. Cutler accepted.
"And the rest is history," Jack Cutler says.
Not so fast. Going to Vandy is by no means the expressway to the NFL. For Cutler's first few years, it was an expressway to the training room, as he took a fearful beating in the pocket but never crumbled.
"Around here we just sort of prayed every Saturday that he'd survive the game," Clayton says. "To be the starting quarterback there for four years and come out of it alive and very healthy is a small miracle. That's a tribute to his toughness."
Toughness came early in Santa Claus. Jack Cutler has been a state trooper for 25 years, but he's been pouring concrete on the side for longer than that. At age 12, when most kids had no idea what work means, Jay was doing manual labor alongside his dad.
"It taught me about hard work and what it took to do a job right," Cutler says.
By Jack's estimation, the Cutler family had done 90 percent of the concrete work at one point in the upper-middle-class Christmas Lake Village subdivision, the primary neighborhood in town.
So Jay's reaction was natural when he was a sophomore at Vandy and saw a concrete crew losing the sidewalk they were pouring. It was firming up before they'd gotten it fully shaped, so Cutler grabbed a trowel and helped them edge it up.
"It only took 15 minutes," he says, modestly.
It's also 15 minutes more than most college quarterbacks would have volunteered to a construction crew in need. But those are the kind of boys they raise in Santa Claus, Ind.
Jay Cutler's 15 minutes of NFL draft fame are now approaching, though not fast enough for the anxious quarterback's taste. Friday night will be like Christmas Eve. And Saturday? It'll be like Christmas Day -- which is to say, another normal day in Santa Claus, Ind.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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