The Top Five: One Writer’s Sometimes-Relevant, Never-Boring Breakdown of This Week’s “News”
1. Terrelle Pryor, quarterback/body-art enthusiast, Columbus, Ohio
An exhibit from November 7, 2009 from the town of State College, Pa.: Terrelle Pryor taking a snap at his own 38-yard line, dropping back three steps, four steps, five steps, then creeping forward into a down pillow of a pocket, left arm lurching skyward, right arm cocking back and letting fly, the ball carrying 50 yards over a pair of Penn State defenders and into the arms of a wide receiver, who overcomes his disbelief in time to hasten to the end zone. This is entered into the record with the realization that it may not have been the greatest throw of Pryor’s Ohio State career, but with the assertion that it was one of them, that it was a rare moment when one of the best pure athletes in college football history seemed unburdened by restrictions or expectations, when a kid from Pittsburgh stood in the geographic center of his home state and finally cut loose.
The irony of the Jim Tressel era at Ohio State — which ended with his resignation on Memorial Day after a series of inept attempts to cover up his knowledge of Pryor’s and several other players’ acceptance of improper benefits — is that he appears to have gotten everything backward. And nowhere is that more evident than with Pryor, who announced Tuesday that he was leaving Columbus before his senior season with an uncertain future and a trail of scorched earth in his wake. What Pryor (one of the most celebrated recruits in Pennsylvania history) needed was someone who could restrain his self-regard off the field and liberate him on the field; what Tressel appeared to offer was the exact opposite.
Big Ten football games, especially those between Penn State and Ohio State, are crammed with blood and gristle and possession changes. Both sides are so fearful of mistakes that most of the time, nothing actually happens. That was the heart and soul of Tresselball: It was infuriating, but also 82 percent effective. When Pryor was a freshman, the strategy backfired, and his last-minute fumble led to a 13-6 Penn State victory. A year later, Tressel adhered to the same game plan: Ohio State was plodding along, late third quarter, with a 10-7 lead when finally Pryor broke the pattern and hurled it deep, slicing open the game (the Buckeyes won 24-7) and reenergizing a season marred by self-doubt. Ohio State went on to win the Rose Bowl; Pryor was the offensive MVP of that game.
That’s the funny thing about this: In three seasons, Terrelle Pryor went 31-4 as a starting quarterback. He beat Michigan three times. He improved every year. But it often felt like there was something we weren’t seeing, that somehow Tressel’s very nature as a football coach was keeping his quarterback from realizing his true potential, that every time Pryor was on the verge of cutting loose, he would get lost again. Whether Pryor compensated for that suppression of character on the football field by acting out in tattoo parlors — whether Tressel and Pryor each facilitated the other’s downfall — is something we’ll never know for certain. All we can say is that they were entirely wrong for each other.
2. Michael Jordan, underwear spokesperson/dictatorial facial-hair enthusiast, Chicago, Ill.
With the exception of that ignominious attempt in D.C. to quash Kwame Brown’s career, Michael Jordan retired 13 years ago. And yet he remains the most influential presence in the modern NBA. Case in point: If Dirk Nowitzki were unable to play in Game 4 of the Finals due to a spiking fever, his legacy would have been tarnished all because of what Jordan did in Salt Lake City in ’97. Jordan made it acceptable to marginalize illness as a mitigating factor in athletic performance, which, when you give it some thought, is both admirable and insane. Beyond that, he burdened the best players in the game with the notion that anything less than a fistful of rings and a sociopathic dedication to success is the equivalent of desultory failure. When you start to think about it, you realize that his bacon-necked spectre looms over every fourth quarter of every NBA Finals game of the modern era, and will do so for quite some time. Maybe this is what really drives LeBron into hiding.
We know now that Jordan may not be a model human being, but we don’t care. We want more of him. And anything less is a disappointment.
3. The Shark-Infested Custard, by Charles Willeford (Vintage, 2005)
If you take to the beach only one shockingly bizarre noirish pre-Tarantino comedic novel about white-collar men in Miami who wound up embroiled in the murder of a teenage girl and a drug dealer honestly, Willeford (who died in 1988) is a twisted genius, and this reissue of a novel that went unpublished during his lifetime due to its inherent weirdness is the sort of book you will either find repelling or fascinating, depending on your reaction to men in jumpsuits and/or five-page descriptions of the contents of a woman’s purse and/or sentences like these: “I had about an hour and fifteen minutes to shave, shower, select the right clothes, and get ready for what I could envision as the greatest afternoon in the sack I had ever had.”
4. Greg Schiano, head football coach, Rutgers University, Piscataway Township, N.J.
According to the Newark Star-Ledger‘s Steve Politi, Schiano has proposed a plan that would eliminate kickoffs and onside kicks in college football, replacing them with the option to either (a) punt, or (b) face a fourth-and-15 from one’s own 30-yard line. The idea behind it is that kickoffs cause the greatest number of serious injuries — including to Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand, who suffered a severe spinal-cord injury last season — and that eliminating them is an obvious way to mitigate the full-speed collisions that cause these injuries.
Now, I know what your initial reaction is going to be, because it was my first reaction, too. You’re thinking, This is a terrible idea. This will irrevocably alter football as we know it. Or, if you are either a 17-year-old kickoff return specialist or a member of a fight club, you’re thinking, Football is an inherently violent game, and this is a misguided attempt to legislate around the violence.
But let us separate ourselves from the issue of debilitating injuries for a moment, and pose a few basic questions: What is more inherently exciting: a straight-ahead 98-yard kickoff return in which the ball carrier goes untouched, or an undulating punt return in which the returner skips around six tacklers, drifts backward 15 yards, traverses the width of the field, and then outruns a safety to the corner of the end zone? And what is less exciting than a touchback — which, given the leg strength of most collegiate kickers these days, is often the end result? And what would be more exhilarating than putting a frantic comeback attempt in the hands of a quarterback rather than the random permutations of an oblong spheroid when launched by foot from a tee?
Think about football as it was in 1961. It’s barely recognizable. (Joe Paterno was merely an assistant coach.) Every radical change in the history of sports sounded like heresy when it was proposed. “I say, let’s evolve, let the chips fall where they may,” a powerful man once said, and that powerful man just happened to be Tyler Durden.
5. NBA Finals, Game 6, Miami, Fla.
Apologies in advance to my aunt Max, but here is what I recall about her wedding: sitting shotgun in a parked Volvo with my father, listening to a grainy radio broadcast of the second half of a football game between Penn State and Syracuse. I was a child, and wedding receptions were a blur of doilies and Motown compilations, and it always felt a like an act of sedition to sneak off from a formal occasion in your clip-on tie and blister-inducing loafers in search of a ballgame. Years later, as my friend Ryan and his wife sashayed to an Al Green song, I ducked into a coat closet with several friends and watched on a portable television set as our alma mater battled Wisconsin.
For this reason alone, I refused to schedule my wedding during the football season; for this reason alone, I coaxed my girlfriend to schedule our ceremony in mid-June, when I imagined nothing could disturb it, but I’d neglected the interminability of the NBA playoffs. And so on Sunday night, in the midst of our reception, Game 6 of the NBA Finals will take place. I imagine there will be a television somewhere within the venue, and I imagine, if the game remains close in the fourth quarter, that several of my friends/relatives will sneak off to find it. And while I will utter several vows on that day, I cannot vow that I won’t sneak off with them.
Michael Weinreb is a Grantland staff writer