Recruiters, fans, profiteerers—everyone wants a piece of hotshot QB recruit Terrelle Pryor. But how much can he be expected to give?
After a high school football game in Jeannette, Pa., this fall, a man drove a white van through an open gate, then up a small hill behind the south end zone of McKee Stadium. He parked near the Jeannette Jayhawks' locker room, turned off the engine, emerged from his vehicle and walked around behind the van to open the back doors.
His confidence deterred suspicion, which meant that everyone who saw him assumed that someone else had given him permission to be there. The man had driven four hours from Detroit, and as he walked toward the locker room, he saw the purpose of his trip: Terrelle Pryor, Jeannette High's senior quarterback, the No. 1 football recruit in the country by many lights and a top-30 prospect in hoops. He shook Pryor's hand and introduced himself as Joe before leading him to the back of the van. Then he asked Pryor to take a silver Sharpie and sign his name and number on two uninflated footballs, two squares of basketball floorboard and a basketball. Noticing a wristband on Pryor's right arm, Joe asked for that, too, and Pryor agreed to sign it and hand it over.
Requests fulfilled, the man thanked Pryor, offered his hand again, shut the back doors, got into the van and drove out the way he came in. The whole operation took barely five minutes. As Pryor walked back to the locker room, an assistant coach asked, "Who was that?" Pryor replied with a shrug. "I have no idea."
J-fed Authentics posted those two footballs on eBay with "Buy It Now" prices of $149.99, along with Terrelle Pryor football cards touting him as a "future Heisman hopeful" and Terrelle Pryor basketball cards touting "future March Madness." It was a testament to the power of audacity. But perhaps it was inevitable: The same false-friendly parasite that makes professional athletes dread hotel lobbies and stadium parking lots has seeped through to the high school level. "It's hard to believe these people will use a kid to make a buck," says Jeannette head coach Ray Reitz. "It's enough to make you sick."
How much is too much? How young is too young? Reitz has his opinion, and J-fed Joe has his. Joe, as it turns out, isn't big on introspection. In an e-mail exchange, he wrote: "with a player like Pryor, when he becomes a college athlete or even a pro athlete he has to expect people to try and make money off him, I believe it comes with the job when you sign up for something like a athlete or a movie star. i feel that if he doesnt want people to make money off him then dont become a athlete. some day he is going to be making millions of dollars &hellip why does he care if someone makes a few hundred dollars off him. he is going to be making way more than me and all he is doing is just playing a game."
Jeannette High responded to Joe's visit by assigning a uniformed Jeannette police officer to the gate at the bottom of the hill behind the Jayhawks' locker room. For the remaining home games, he stayed there until Pryor left the premises.
There's a line out there somewhere. There must be. On one side is the unavoidable, perspective-free legend-building that accompanies the truly blessed. On the other is a guy in a van carrying footballs and floorboards, crossing two state lines to entice a kid to sign his name. But how did the line get so blurred that a high school QB needs a security detail in a small, depressed Western Pennsylvania town most people couldn't find with a map?
HE IS THE FIRST PLAYER IN THIS STATE'S RICH FOOTBALL HISTORY TO BOTH RUSH AND PASS FOR MORE THAN 4,000 CAREER YARDS.
Jeannette is like so many other places in Western Pennsylvania—proud and poor. It used to be something, in this case a hub of glassmaking, but it hasn't been for some time. Like Aliquippa and Monongahela and Beaver Falls, it's the kind of town where football matters and kids matter, and a big crowd on Friday night can fool you into thinking better times are on the way. "Terrelle has brought this town together," says Tony DeNunzio, 78, a lifelong Jeannette resident who used to run a local bank before he got into the restaurant business. "The stadium is sold out. There's nothing like being there on a Friday night."
Football is woven into the region's double helix. Joe Montana played 30 miles down the road at Monongahela. Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas-all locals. "It was football or a job in the steel mill," says Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, from nearby Baldwin. "That was our motivation."
As Pryor's magnetic pull has extended out from his Jeannette epicenter, the town has remained possessive. In fact, Jeannette is Pryor's family. It starts with the kids. Michael Matt, Jason Marquis and Jordan Hall have been his classmates, teammates and friends since kindergarten. His godfather and legal guardian, Willie Burns, has given Terrelle a home for the past four years. DeNunzio says he is always on call if Terrelle needs a lift or a meal. And, of course, there's Coach Reitz, hawkishly watching the perimeter of Terrelle's circle as a steady stream of outsiders try to get close.
But does a high school kid lose his right to privacy when his ability leaks out beyond the reach of his local newspaper? If Pryor is featured in enough TV shows and recruiting sites and yes, magazines, does he automatically become a public figure, and fair game? Special talent brings special hassles. The biggest, Pryor says, are the constant phone calls from the recruiting services. And the incessant questions at school. And the people asking for autographs. And the local media, which he believes seeks out flaws. (In October, he got a $50 citation for disorderly conduct at Kennywood amusement park after exchanging words with someone who was rude to a female friend. The story was near the top of most Pittsburgh newscasts.) Outwardly, though, he is the definition of nonchalance. And even if he appears to be brooding, he assures that he's not. "The attention can be suffocating," he says. "But I'm just going with the flow, really. I'm enjoying myself and going with the flow."
This should be a glowing, happy story of a football player many observers feel is the best in the hard history of Western Pennsylvania. But amid the swirl of impending fame is a tinge of sadness. There's a system in place that allows a young man to be commodified. As J-fed Joe explained, "I wanted to get him while he was still young."
Until two years ago, Pryor was a basketball prodigy who also played some football. But his gridiron profile exploded last year when, in his second season at QB, he led Jeannette to the state AA title game in Hershey. After the Jayhawks' bus had passed through the towns of their rivals to find signs and banners wishing them luck, Pryor told his story to the media from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and most places in between.
Like many kids in the region, Pryor has had a life filled with twists. He grew up in Jeannette, moving to nearby West Mifflin during middle school, after his parents split. Less than a year later he petitioned the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League to let him transfer back to Jeannette and play for the Jayhawks. The 14-year-old testified at the hearing that he didn't feel safe in West Mifflin, that he once took shelter in a closet after hearing gunshots outside his mother's place. He explained how his separated parents-a mom who struggled with personal issues and a father who's in a wheelchair-loved him, but couldn't provide a stable home. How he wanted to live with his godfather and be with his friends.
Terrelle repeated some of this story for the media in Hershey several times, always trying to reveal as little as possible. Still, the process left him feeling overexposed. Afterward he told Reitz, "Coach, I don't want all this attention."
Reitz is no-nonsense. He works in the pump house of the Iron City brewery and coaches football. Beer and football, as he admits, are cliché in this part of the country. And so, faced with the news that his star, a kid with once-in-a-generation ability, didn't want the attention that goes along with it, Reitz looked at Pryor and said, "Guess what, buddy-with your talent, you don't have a choice."
Vince Young left a voice mail on Pryor's cell before Jeannette's season opener this September, but Terrelle says, "I don't want to talk about that. I don't want to bring his name into this." (Perhaps because it could be a violation of NCAA rules.) Soon after, rumors circulated that Peyton Manning called and left a message too. "I don't know where that one got started," Pryor says.
But when he ducks into his shoulder pads, the gossip vanishes and the strain disappears. Stoicism is replaced by pure joy. Pryor wasn't tackled in Jeannette's season-opening, 60-0 win over Brownsville. Of course, it helps that he didn't play past the first minute of the second quarter. Late in the game, a freshman linebacker for Jeannette made an interception to seal the shutout. In a blur, a huge body bolted from the sideline and leapt onto the surprised boy. It was a smiling No. 11, one of the best players in the country.
As an athlete, Pryor is a revelation.
At 6'6" and 225 pounds, he runs a 4.4 40 and bench-presses more than 300 pounds. He throws the ball 70 yards in the air yet still has the touch to loft passes over the defense as if the balls were falling directly from the sky. He glides in the open field like he's got at least four more gears. To say he is a man among boys is an injustice; a man among toddlers seems more apt. The easiest and most appropriate comparison is to Young, but most recruiters rate Pryor as more refined.
His play inspired new levels of hyperbole, and his recruitment gained more layers of intrigue, as the 2007 state playoffs reached their inevitable conclusion on Dec. 15—a Jeannette title. Pryor ran for 209 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries, made his first-ever TD reception and threw for 83 yards and a score on just four attempts in a 49-21 win over Dunmore.
That same weekend, Pryor revamped his list of prospective colleges. Penn State, Florida and presumptive favorite Ohio State remained. But Oregon earned a spot at the table, no doubt after Mike Bellotti sold the system that made QB Dennis Dixon a star. Tennessee and Texas were dropped. And then, on the day after the state title game, West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez called Pryor to tell him he was taking the Michigan job. Pryor told Rivals.com his number was the first Rodriguez called after deciding to leave Morgantown. It worked, too. Pryor dropped WVU and added Michigan. The list, it seems, is subject to the typical whims of an 18-year-old.
Reitz gets letters from all over the country, each one a different version of the same theme. They include a Pryor trading card, a self-addressed stamped envelope and a letter explaining how an autograph will brighten the day of a terminally ill child. The child is never named, because a signed card is worthless if personalized. "I don't want this to sound wrong," Reitz says, "but not everybody can have cancer. It just can't be."
The stands were packed for Jeannette's regular-season finale, against Greensburg Central Catholic, two of the seats filled by Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel and hoops coach Thad Matta. The men sat not too far from Pryor's cheering parents, who each live within 50 miles—his father, Craig, 20 minutes south, in West Newton, and his mother, Thomasina, now an hour east, in Johnstown. A neuromuscular disorder called Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome has Craig, 38, confined to a wheelchair, but he and Thomasina attend all of Terrelle's games. Craig, especially, is a factor in the recruiting process for every coach who visits. "They're with him all the way," says DeNunzio.
But no one follows Pryor as closely as DeNunzio, whose devotion to the kid raises eyebrows among townspeople, who wonder: Why would a 78-year-old be so attentive to an 18-year-old high school senior? DeNunzio helped Pryor get his driver's license. He has driven him to AAU basketball tournaments and quarterback camps. If Pryor and his friends need a ride to the mall, DeNunzio takes them there and brings them home. "There's nothing in this for me," DeNunzio says. "I love Terrelle. He's brought the world to Jeannette."
HE TOLD HIS COACH HE DIDN'T WANT THE ATTENTION THAT COMES WITH BEING A STAR. HIS COACH TOLD HIM THE ONLY THING HE COULD: LEARN TO LIVE WITH IT
To understand Jeannette, understand DeNunzio. Every small town has someone like him-an older man, more worldly than most, who knows everything about everyone. And since Pryor is the biggest happening in Jeannette in at least a generation, DeNunzio is in the middle of it.
He says he speaks to many of the coaches recruiting Pryor, including Alabama's Nick Saban, Wannstedt and Tressel. He's on a first-name basis with Joe Paterno. Perhaps to offset speculation, DeNunzio has a habit of refuting assertions that haven't been made. "I'm not an agent," he says. "Don't get that part wrong. I don't make any decisions for him. People wonder, What's in it for Tony? Well, I don't need anything. If he calls, I help him. I'm just here to help a needy kid."
Which is how Pryor sees it. "He's a funny guy," Pryor says of DeNunzio. "He's just around. I go eat there with friends. We don't pay nothing to eat."
A free meal here, a free ride there. It doesn't add up to much. But how much is too much? The Aug. 29 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette included a special section on high school football with Pryor on the cover. A full-page photo showed him in half a football uniform and half a basketball uni.
DeNunzio, by his count, went to four or five Jeannette stores to buy as many copies as they had. After school, he stood outside the entrance to Jeannette High, passing out the paper to eager students and staff, like a street-corner pamphleteer.
Too much? Too young? As DeNunzio spread the news, Pryor was in the locker room, away from all the questions and the hype and the uncertain motives, laughing with his friends and getting ready for practice. It was a break, not an escape. The world is coming, even if he can't hear the footsteps.
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