By Kevin Armstrong, SI.com
NEW YORK -- Who was that oversized Texas cowboy slinging black Nerf footballs in the middle of Times Square on Monday afternoon? And how exactly did he get here?
"That's Ryan Mallett," said Anthony Davis, another finalist for the Ken Hall Trophy, awarded to the nation's top high school football player. "He's from Texas, but he looks at home, right?"
Friday Night Lights met Times Square on this afternoon as the U.S. Army All-American Bowl coordinators brought four of the top high school football players in the nation to the Big Apple. A newcomer to the New York scene, Mallett, 18, didn't toe the water before making a splash. What started as a photo opportunity spotlighting a high school football quarterback playfully tossing a spongy football to a little girl unwilling to catch it, turned into an impromptu firing range practice session as the 6-foot-6, 210-pound Mallett unleashed a bag full of miniature footballs into a crowd of tourists.
Donning navy blue slacks and a blue collared shirt under his white U.S. Army All-American jersey, Mallett threw balls to doormen, tourists, cops, soldiers in camouflage fatigues and the crowd standing outside ABC's Good Morning America studio on the corner of 44th Street and Broadway.
"Some of these people have no hands," Mallett said to an event organizer. "It's hard enough to throw spirals without the regular feel of the ball, but I'm like, 'C'mon, you have to catch that Miss.'"
Michigan fans can only hope that Mallett assimilates to the confines of Michigan Stadium just as quickly. The nation's second-ranked quarterback behind Notre Dame-bound Jimmy Clausen, who could not make the trip because he is finishing his high school exams this week in California, was set to hop on a plane from New York on Monday night to begin orientation in Ann Arbor. Having satisfied his high school requirements early, Mallett will enroll at Michigan next month and will participate in spring practice.
"It's just something that makes the most sense these days," says Mallett, who committed to the Wolverines last April. "Watching guys like [Florida backup Tim] Tebow get in early last year definitely showed they got a head start. There's a lot to get accustomed to in college, both with the speed of the game and in the classroom."
Joining Mallett in New York were three other finalists for the Ken Hall trophy, including 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive lineman Marvin Austin from Ballou High (Washington, D.C.), Davis, 6-foot-5, 330-pound offensive lineman, and 5-foot-11, 185-pound do-everything, Joe McKnight from John Curtis Christian (River Ridge, La.)
"Being from Jersey, I'd been here before," said Davis, who attends Piscataway (N.J.) High and has narrowed his schools down to Ohio State and Rutgers. "I'd never signed autographs and lived the good life in New York like this, though."
The TRL-aged stars were not the sole attraction in Times Square. Holding the ball bag for Mallett was Ken "Sugar Land Express" Hall, the 71-year old former running back from Sugar Land (Texas) High, whose likeness is used for the top high school player's trophy.
"This is one of those moments where I'm looking up at the buildings and I become a 4-year-old again, saying, 'Ken, what are you doing here, and how have you become so lucky?'" said Hall, who made stops at the high schools of Mallet, Austin, and Davis during his four-day, 1,940 mile drive from Texas with his wife of 51 years. "Usually you're dead before they use your likeness for a trophy, but I'm enjoying all of this."
Hall set the national high school career rushing record in 1953 with 11,232 yards as well as 14 other state and national records before playing for Bear Bryant at Texas A&M and then professionally for the Baltimore Colts, St. Louis Cardinals, and Houston Oilers. When asked if he felt honored to be the figure for high school's version of the Heisman, Hall made sure to clarify his association's record.
"There's no curse carried my this trophy," said Hall, who pointed out that Chris Leak, Adrian Peterson, Kevin Jones, and Mitch Mustain were four of the six past winners.
"He's older, but you definitely hear about his legend all over Texas," said Mallett, whose team (Texas High, Texarkana, Texas) team went 12-1 this year, losing in the third round of the state playoffs. "There are stories of him rushing for more than 500 yards on 11 carries and going a full game without being touched."
All that Mallet has between now and college is the Jan. 6 U.S. Army All-American game in San Antonio, which will be preceded that Friday night with the Hall trophy presentation.
"Usually we just hear names of other top athletes," said Austin. "But this whole experience has been great to meet the other guys. I saw Ryan Mallett when I came here, and I said, 'Is that a quarterback? Man, he looks like an offensive lineman. I'm gonna have to take him down?'"