At Penn State, it’s a LaVar Lovefest

The Associated Press | August 21, 1999


By David Kinney

Joe Paterno has tried. Oh, how he’s tried to stamp out the buzz surrounding Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington.

But the breathless chatter continues.

One questioner dared to ask Paterno before last year’s season-opener whether Arrington – then listed as a second-stringer – might be on the verge of stardom.

“I don’t expect anybody to be a superstar,” the coach shot back.

Too late, Joe. It’s already happened.

In just one season, Arrington has dropped jaws by embracing everything Penn State is not: flashiness in the plain ol’ Paterno program; standing out on a team that cherishes no-names-on-the-jersey anonymity; and taking risks on a defense that hasn’t changed much in half a century.

The Pittsburgh junior is probably the best athlete Penn State has ever had, and he may be the best defensive player in college football today.

If only he could convince his coach. Paterno concedes Arrington’s athleticism but insists he isn’t the team’s best linebacker.

“At times, I wonder if he’s serious, what’s going on in his head,” Arrington said. “He’s my head coach. He’s supposed to believe in me.”

Then he stopped. “I’m going to let my playing do my talking for me. It’s time-out for talking.”

Paterno is perhaps the only person who needs to be convinced of Arrington’s greatness. The LaVar Lovefest is in full swing.

He has been lauded by commentators and coaches. One coach, Minnesota’s Glen Mason, even hugged Arrington on the field – during a game.

The 6-foot-3, 233-pound hard-hitter with a 4.4-second-40 and 40-inch vertical has been compared to Lawrence Taylor, Michael Jordan and Superman. Sports Illustrated put him on the cover this month.

The No. 3 Nittany Lions are ready to try to bring one last national title to Paterno and defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, the “Linebacker U” architect who is retiring at season’s end.

So, Arrington doesn’t need anybody else to tell him his time is now. And if any 21-year-old player is equipped to handle the pressure, it’s Arrington, who will seriously consider jumping to the NFL next season.

He’s welcomed the attention, fed it. At North Hills High, he high-stepped in for a touchdown on his first carry against a high school rival, index finger poked in the air. He leapt over the line to sack the quarterback twice. He went 100-plus yards for a TD when he filled in as punter once and the snap sailed over his head.

And he’s fed it by talking. And talking. And talking.

Nothing is off limits, from his coaches to his on-the-field heroes. He’ll tell you about his three pit bulls and give you his theories for why it is a misunderstood breed. He’ll give you a blow-by-blow account of how he punched his high school friend who wore a T-shirt that read, “Malcolm X Is Dead.” He’ll ruminate about chess strategy and his engagement to his high-school sweetheart.

“He seems to thrive on the attention,” said Jack McCurry, his coach at North Hills. “He has this persona. That’s why he’s known only as LaVar – never Arrington.”

Back in kindergarten, his size brought the most attention. In pee-wee leagues, parents angrily declared him a ringer so much that his mother carried his birth certificate in her purse.

“He didn’t want to just take you down, he wanted to flatten you,” Arrington’s father, Michael, said. “And so the parents would say, ‘That can’t be a 10-year-old.”‘

“He’s not,” the Arringtons would answer. “He’s 9.”

Once, as he stood on the sideline of a Penn State game, all of 17, one player thought he was a visiting NFL player.

Arrington was already a celebrity by the time he arrived at Penn State, but the coaches made it clear that persona alone wouldn’t win him a starting job. Sandusky was none too impressed the first time he saw the star recruit in person: He was nursing blistered feet at camp.

“I wasn’t sure we were the right fit,” Sandusky said.

He saw Arrington’s aggressive roaming as undisciplined play. But eventually he turned the sophomore loose, and Arrington turned in a statistically solid season: 65 tackles, 17 for losses and seven sacks.

But as in high school, the incredible plays were what drew attention – and no play sealed his reputation as a superstar-in-waiting more than The Leap.

With Illinois facing 4th-and-1 during a Penn State rout, Arrington timed the snap, flew over the center and yanked fullback Elmer Hickman down in the backfield.

There were other show-stoppers: Against Ohio State, he was in the backfield so quickly on one play that he wrested the handoff away from the back. Against Northwestern, he blitzed, hurdled a chop block and sacked the quarterback.

“My respect and admiration has changed drastically,” Sandusky said. But he wasn’t talking about football prowess.

Sandusky, who’s retiring in January to work with the charity he founded to help children, is talking about the other Arrington he quickly saw – the one raised by a father who lost half his left leg and his right foot as a 19-year-old soldier in Vietnam, and a mother who teaches special-needs children.

“He doesn’t use a wheelchair. He uses prostheses,” Arrington said. “If that’s not some kind of inspiration or a motivation, then I don’t know what is. You would never even know he goes through what he goes through. Things you wouldn’t even think about, like walking up stairs. He does it, but he does it at a price.

“Dad’s is such a dramatic, movie-type story, but my mother she’s in Vietnam everyday with those kids, too,” he said. “She gets the worst cases, but she gives them a chance. She gives them hope and a lot of kids end up doing well in school.”

Arrington is following in her footsteps by studying counseling. He helps out at Special Olympics and with Sandusky’s camps. He takes a 6-year-old girl out on “pizza dates” in his hometown.

“He likes to play the role of rough-and-tough – ,” Michael Arrington said, sitting in his living room in Pittsburgh surrounded by his son’s pictures and trophies.

“With the pit bulls and all that,” said his wife, Carolyn, finishing the thought. “But he’s a cream puff. He’s just a softy.”