- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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TEXARKANA, Texas -- They agree to meet on the Texas side of the city, past the giant water tower that says "Texarkana is twice as nice," because that's where all the strip malls and new restaurants are popping up. Jim and Debbie Mallett have already eaten, thank you, but they pull into the Chili's parking lot Monday just before 9 o'clock on a school night because Jim's fired up and they want to say their piece.
When this whole thing started, and their only son's face was splashed everywhere as a big-armed quarterback entering the 2011 NFL draft, the Malletts thought it was cool. Look at Ryan on TV! Now, Debbie sighs a lot and scurries to find the remote control. "I'm so ready," she says, "for all this to be over with."
They slide into a booth near the door and order two tall glasses of iced tea. Just about everybody in the restaurant knows them. They're middle-school teachers. Country folk, Debbie says. Jim Mallett is an old football coach with a buzz cut and a deeply furrowed brow that was no doubt enhanced from years of dealing with teenagers. Like his son, he speaks from the heart, occasionally without a filter. But he has Debbie at his side, and she'll gently tap him with her foot under the table when he says too much.
There are a hundred theories about why Ryan Mallett is possibly the biggest wild card in this crapshoot of a draft, and Jim has a few conspiracy theories of his own that he'll refrain from elaborating on. Physically, Mallett has it all: a 6-foot-7 frame, a cannon of an arm and 7,493 passing yards in a pro-style offense at Arkansas. The mental part is where this gets twisted. Some analysts say he has character issues, which, for a quarterback, sits like a giant black mark covering a three-page résumé.
In the three months since he decided to forgo his senior season at Arkansas, Mallett has been called everything from immature to cocky to a bad leader. Rumors about drugs have swirled on sports talk radio and the Internet. Folks in Arkansas don't get it. The only known blemish on Mallett's record comes from 2009, when, at the age of 20, he was arrested for public intoxication outside a nightspot near campus in Fayetteville. But the criticism and innuendo continue, and Team Mallett can't figure out why. Ryan's grandma cries when she hears the kid's name sullied on TV.
Mallett denies all of it, except the public intoxication, and says he's finished fighting. He says he doesn't care what anyone outside of the decision-makers in the NFL think of him.
"Turn it off, Daddy," he calmly tells Jim when the elder Mallett is ready to throw something at the television. People are going to say what they say and write what they write, Ryan says. He just wants to play football, anywhere, but preferably after a high-round pick.
But will those questions cost him millions?
"People keep bringing up these alleged off-the-field issues," Jim says. "There are no off-the-field issues. If there are, they need to tell us about it, because apparently Mom and Dad don't know about it.
"It's just wrong. And none of it's true."
The early years
So what exactly is it about Ryan Mallett that rubs people the wrong way? Is it the hoodie he occasionally wears up over his head in public? Is it his odd accent, which is a cross between Eminem and Billy Bob Thornton? The fact that he bolted from Michigan after his freshman year and transferred to Arkansas raises a red flag or two, but Mallett had his reasons for that.
"The only answer I would give you would be a question," says Razorbacks offensive coordinator Garrick McGee. "Is any of this negative stuff being spread about Ryan coming from the state of Arkansas? The answer is no. I don't think you can go anywhere in this state and hear somebody say, 'That kid's not a leader,' or, 'That kid's a troublemaker.'
"He was born and raised in Arkansas, he spent three years here playing for us, so all except for one year of his life he's been in this state. And there's nobody in this state who has said anything bad about him."
Well, there were some people in the Natural State who definitely were annoyed by him. He was always in your face. Ask the kids at Lincoln High in northwest Arkansas about the time they taped Mallett to the goal post when he was in third or fourth grade. Seems they were a little sick of him trying to throw and punt with the team, sick of the way he used to drill them in the back of their heads with footballs.
"Leave 'em alone, Ryan," Jim used to say. Mallett's daddy would squat on the sideline during basketball games, and there Ryan was, squatting right next to him. He was 3 years old. Sometimes, Jim nearly tripped over him.
The family moved to Texarkana when Ryan was about 11, giving him his first taste of big-time football. In this tight-knit community where burnt orange and Razorback red clash but coexist, there is one common dominator: They love the kids, and they love their football.
Mallett had the best of both worlds. Their house sat in his beloved Arkansas, near the state line; his school was powerhouse Texas High. He threw footballs in his backyard and pretended he was Troy Aikman. Young Ryan was making progression reads by the eighth grade.
Cocky? Mallett's a quarterback. That's the way he was supposed to be. Too big for his britches? Consider the territory. Texas High is a monstrosity of a school with a three-story practice field that rivals most of the local college digs, and they do spring football practice in middle school.
So of course Mallett was going to think big. When he'd go to Cowboys games and get snubbed for autographs, Jim told him to remember that, and to never deny a kid a signature when he became famous someday. Debbie would never utter anything like that. She's the more practical one, the special-education teacher who encourages kids to dream but to always have a backup plan.
But when Mallett committed to Michigan, signed on to play for Lloyd Carr and follow in the footsteps of Tom Brady, Mallett was all-in. He graduated a semester early, and flew from the Army All-American game in San Antonio to snowy Ann Arbor to register for spring classes.
"It was tough," Jim says. "And now, I'll take the blame for that. I wish he would've never gone that early semester. He saw that Matthew Stafford did it, but I could just kick myself over it now. Now I say, 'Stay your whole senior year, because you'll never have another one.'"
Sure, his son was immature that first year, Jim says. Who isn't when they're 18 years old and 1,000 miles away from home? But he was grown up enough, on the field at least, to replace an injured Chad Henne in the second game of that freshman season and to throw for 892 yards in three starts. Then Carr retired and Rich Rodriguez arrived with his spread offense, and Mallett, a pocket passer, didn't fit.
"After the transfer, it did take me a little time to mature," Mallett says. "I just think that whole experience of having to go through something new and being able to adjust to it and come out and be successful has really helped me out."
A 'fun-loving young man'
An impeccably dressed sports information director at Arkansas advises reporters to be prompt. When coach Bobby Petrino has an 11:30 a.m. interview, it means you'd better get there by 11:25. He's a stickler, and his office is large and immaculate. When Mallett was charged with public intoxication in March 2009, Petrino kept both eyes on him. He gave him an 11 p.m. curfew for the rest of the semester and made him do 6 a.m. workouts.
"One thing about Ryan is he's a fun-loving young man," Petrino says. "He enjoys life, he enjoys people, he enjoys being out with people. What he learned here at Arkansas is that this is a fishbowl. He can't do things the normal student or the normal person can do, or I'm going to find out about it like that."
Petrino doesn't snap his fingers. The point is well-taken. Petrino and Mallett came to Arkansas together. And when people used to approach the coach about his new quarterback, the conversation eventually veered to someone asking him, "Is he still like he was at Michigan, or has he straightened up?" Petrino never really knew what they meant.
He saw a quarterback who was so competitive that he knew, even during that redshirt year in 2008, that the Razorbacks would be special once Mallett left Sunday scout-team duty and could play for real. He also saw a young man who could be easily misunderstood.
Though Mallett is from a relatively small Southern town, his lingo made him sound like a street kid. His speech was larded with slang. Blame it on texting and technology, Petrino says. That's how the kids talk these days. Mallett's first summer in Fayetteville, Petrino says he tried to "polish up" his new quarterback. Mallett attended a class on speaking with the public and honed his communication skills with Chuck Barrett, the voice of Razorbacks football. They knew Mallett would soon be the face of the program.
"It's all about perception," Petrino says. "We try to train our guys to be themselves but to be comfortable and have an understanding of how to answer questions."
Still, the image questions persist. A Google search of the words "Ryan Mallett" and "thug" produces more than 43,000 hits. Debbie wonders if the hoodies prompted some of it. She'd go to Walmart with him on Sundays to pick up toiletries in Fayetteville. She knew he wouldn't get to the checkout stand without getting stopped 20 times for autographs. At 6-7, you can't hide.
So Mallett tried to slip in and out with a hoodie pulled over his head. It didn't work, obviously. But it did get people talking.
"I don't know where all of [it] came from," Petrino says. "All I can judge is how he did for us. He did a great job for us. He was a guy you love having in your program, not only as a great player, but he represented our program great.
"I wanted the ball in his hands with him making the decisions, giving us a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter. And the greatest thing is, he wanted the same thing."
Petrino says his players are randomly screened for drugs by the NCAA and the university, and that Mallett has never tested positive for any banned substances. He says he has talked to a number of NFL teams about Mallett, and tells them the same thing: Mallett doesn't have any character issues.
"I know he doesn't," Petrino says.
A 'freak of nature'
The tangibles were never an issue. Mallett's tough in the pocket, has a quick and high release, and can fire the ball just about anywhere he wants. He once stood at the 50-yard line in the Razorbacks' indoor facility during his redshirt season and aimed for the goalpost.
"He hit it," says Arkansas running back Knile Davis. "I'd never seen that before. I know he can throw the ball the length of the football field. He's a freak of nature."
He's also big and slow and ran a 5.37 40-yard dash at Arkansas' pro day last month. But Mallett jokes that he never claimed to be the next Michael Vick. Mallett has shown the ability to adapt, though. In his inaugural SEC season, he had so much energy and emotion that McGee worried it got in the way of his execution, especially in road games. So they worked on his poise all summer, and Mallett lifted the Razorbacks to a 4-1 start when they traveled to eventual national champion Auburn.
Mallett was knocked out of that game with a concussion, but headed back to the sideline to help tutor sophomore quarterback Tyler Wilson along.
"He acted almost like a big brother for me," Wilson says. "He pushed me to push myself every day."
Teaching their son
A teenage waiter at Chili's brings the Malletts two more glasses of sweet tea, and Debbie quickly pushes hers away. It's well past 10, and she doesn't want to be up all night. They climb into their SUV and take a tour around town. Here's the high school, Jim says, as he rolls over the speed bumps. In the light, you can see how big the practice facility is.
"It's much prettier in the day," Debbie says. "We've never lived in a big town before this. … You don't really have to leave Texarkana to do anything if you don't want to."
On draft day, they'll gather at a hunting lodge in the country, about 60 family members and friends, and wait to hear Ryan's fate. The plan is to meet Thursday night, April 28, even though that day is reserved for first-round picks and a number of various draftniks expect Mallett to still be on the board come Friday.
They believe, deep down, that they taught their son and their older daughter, Lauren, to do the right things, to be polite and answer questions with a "Yes, sir" or a "Yes, ma'am," to treat people the way they'd want to be treated themselves.
So they'll be there Thursday night, waiting, with all those people. They expect him to go in the first round. They know they're biased.
"I hope we're not disappointed," Debbie says.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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