Not all was sports and play in the boy's life. His father was a first cousin of Thelonious Monk, the great jazz musician, and young Art was drawn to music naturally, to the electric guitar and even the tuba. In fact he learned to play the tuba so well in the junior high school band that one of his teachers suggested to the family that if he stayed with it, he might one day be proficient enough to get a college scholarship. By the time he entered the 10th grade at White Plains High, though, his athletic ambitions had overtaken the musical ones. Football had become his game, catching passes his unfulfilled passion. "I grew up watching Otis Taylor, Charley Taylor and Paul Warfield," he says. "I would have liked to be a wide receiver, but I didn't think I was quick enough or good enough for that. So I always wanted to be a tight end. I loved catching the ball."
He was in for a wait. Monk was the biggest kid on the junior varsity, and the coaches put him on the line, playing him both ways. Determined to be a receiver, Monk went out for track the following spring, launching a career as a runner that would be filled with more promise than anything he ever showed on a high school football field. "A once-in-a-lifetime athlete to coach," says Nick Panaro, the White Plains track coach in Monk's senior year. For Monk, as focused as ever, running was only a means to a more coveted end. "I not only wanted to lose weight, but I wanted to enhance my agility, my speed and quickness," he says. "Track allowed me to do that. Once I saw some of the benefits I was getting from it, I really got excited and went full steam."
Monk started at tight end his junior year, but he might as well have been a knot in the fence. For that was also the senior year of Sam Bowers, one of the school's most celebrated players, an All-America receiver in various publications and a magnet for college recruiters. White Plains even had a Hail Mary play called Save the Game Sam, which it used to beat archrival Mount Vernon with eight seconds left. "A perfect spiral from the 50-yard line," recalls Bowers. "I was the guy they came to in clutch situations."
Of course, Monk hardly saw the ball at tight end—"He caught only 12 or 13 passes his whole high school career," says Brant Wintersteen, who was then the football coach—but all was not lost playing in Bowers's considerable shadow. When the Syracuse recruiter showed up to see Sam, assistant principal Harry Jefferson pointed him toward Monk, the budding track star. "You're not going to hear much about him," Jefferson told him, "but he's a diamond in the rough as a football player."
Monk, who started out as a sprinter, became a 330-yard intermediate hurdler his junior year, winning races at dual meets that spring. He also showed enormous potential as a decathlete. Without much practice he high-jumped 5'10", triple-jumped 47 feet and put the shot 53 feet. "Art never practiced the shot put," says Panaro. "But if we needed some points in the event, we'd put in Art and he'd win. Art shot up that year, thinned out and really blossomed as one of our top sprinters."
None of this was lost on Wintersteen, who switched him from tight end to running back his senior year. Monk struggled early in the season. "He'd get hit in the legs and go down," says Wintersteen. "He wouldn't keep driving." But by the end of the year he was taking the hits and churning. In the penultimate game of the season, against Newburgh, he carried 24 times for 105 yards and four touchdowns. "I looked at the Newburgh film recently," says Wintersteen. "Good hard running inside, bouncing off tacklers.... We all knew he could play in college."
So did the recruiters, who came sniffing around White Plains again. What sold Syracuse on Monk, as much as anything he showed in football, was the speed and athleticism he had honed in track. In his senior year, in the state championships at White Plains, Monk won the intermediate hurdles in 37.1 seconds, breaking the state record by a full second. In the 120-yard high hurdles, an event he had begun running two months before, he won in 13.5 seconds, .2 faster than the state mark. He ended his track career with a victory in the intermediate hurdles at a national meet for high school champions in California. "He just looked like a great, raw, physical talent," says Frank Maloney, then Syracuse's head football coach.
Monk wanted to attend Maryland, but since his mother liked Syracuse, he signed with the Orangemen. Undecided at first about how to best use Art's skills, Maloney made him a wing-back, a runner-receiver out of the backfield. When Monk looks back on that freshman year, a turning point in his life, it is a nightmare revisited. He had two receptions all year. "I couldn't catch a cold," he recalls. "I don't know why. It was just a disaster. I remember practices where they'd throw the ball to me and it would hit my hands and I couldn't catch it. I knew I was better than that. I got really depressed and down on myself. And I just made up my mind that this wasn't going to happen again."
What he did, of course, was what he had always done and would always do when the fear of failure had him by the neck. He worked. With a friend, he spent the off-season catching footballs, zillions of them. "I trained like crazy," he says. "I just did every ball drill I could possibly imagine—five days a week. The next year I ran every route as hard as I could. I really focused on the ball. I didn't care what was going on around me. I just really wanted to show them that I was worthy of their scholarship." He had 41 catches for 590 yards, as well as 566 yards rushing. "I think the whole year I may have dropped one ball," he says.
After all those years Monk at last was doing what he loved the most. By the end of his senior year, as one of the leading pass receivers in college (102 catches for 1,644 yards in his Syracuse career), he was displaying hints of the style that would make him a success in the pros. "One of our most effective patterns was across the middle," says Maloney. "Most of the receivers we had heard footsteps, always looking to see who was around. Not Arthur. He'd go for the football. He was a fearless guy with terrific hands, and a tremendous punt returner. Catching punts is totally different from catching kickoffs end over end. On punts, the defense is sniffing your jock when the ball's coming down. We wanted a guy that we knew could catch the ball, so I put him back there. God, he was good at that."