"Last year was my coming out," Arrington says. "This year puts me over the top. If there was any doubt last year that I was the best linebacker in the country, there will be none this year."
He stands in front of a mirror in his off-campus apartment, preening and flexing, admiring a body that has grown to more than 240 pounds, still covers 40 yards in 4.4 seconds and leaps 40 vertical inches from a standstill. A visitor chides him that maybe Ohio State junior Na'il Diggs might be the best linebacker in the country. "He's all right," Arrington says, grinning, "but he's not me."
That's not all. "This is the year to rank us Number 1," says Arrington. "We are going to whip up on some people." There's one catch, he says. The coaching staff has to turn loose the defense the way it did in last year's season-ending 51-28 rout of Michigan State and 26-14 victory over Kentucky in the Outback Bowl. "You saw intensity and emotion in those games, and you saw results," says Arrington. "That's the way we have to play. Let loose. Don't kill our games."
Fighting words? "LaVar and I have clashed a little bit on this," says Jerry Sandusky, defensive coordinator on 31 of Paterno's teams. "A football game takes a long time, and emotions can waste energy. There's a very fine line."
Paterno is more blunt: "I want LaVar to play with emotion, but I also want him to do things the way we want to do them to win games. Nobody can think he's bigger than the whole operation."
The coaches are right. The player is right. Abridge between them is the path to Penn State's third national championship and first since 1986. It promises to be a roiling autumn. "If LaVar wants to be a revolutionary," says Paterno, "he'll be a revolutionary in exile."
Admit it. You have already judged Arrington, haven't you? You have drawn a picture in your mind of a typically egocentric modern athlete who is impatiently awaiting a diamond-encrusted future. Probably has his Benz picked out and won't ever look back. But in your picture do you see the son of a special-education teacher and a wounded Vietnam veteran turned preacher who built a loving, stable home for three boys? Do you see a kid who, when provided with a limousine to a banquet honoring him as the high school player of the year, brought not his high school posse but both sets of his grandparents? Do you see a college athlete who prefers chess to video games? Do you imagine his high school coach, Jack McCurry, recalling him like this: "A respectful kid, from a strong family with strong moral fiber. A kid with determination and drive who worked as hard every day in practice as he did in the games. He was full go every minute." Arrington had a cell phone—briefly. Rang up $900 calling his girlfriend in North Carolina and got rid of it. The LaVar Leap? He's tired of hearing about it. "That play is a stigma," he says. "It overrides everything I've tried to do. I am not a one-play player."
Your picture clouds now, dismissing stereotypes. In this case to know the home is to know the child.
Carolyn Arrington, 46, has worked 24 years as a first-, second-and third-grade special-ed teacher in a public school in Pittsburgh. On June 30 she underwent surgery to relieve carpal tunnel syndrome in her right wrist, brought on in part, she says, by years of restraining difficult students. She is the type of mother who enforces a midnight curfew as if it were law, even on All-America players home for the weekend. She is the type, as well, who not only feeds her son's visiting teammates but also gives them money to spend at an amusement park, which is what she did for four Lions who visited LaVar in late May.
Michael Arrington is 50, a broad-chested man who stands to greet a visitor to his home and walks him to his car when he leaves, neither of which is easy to do with prostheses for his right foot and half his left leg. Michael was barely 19 years old, just out of high school, when he was drafted into the Army in the summer of 1968. Eleven months later he was shipped to South Vietnam and assigned to a tank unit. On an August night just six weeks after his arrival, the base came under attack. Michael scurried to the tank-holding area and jumped aboard one, only to be sent to another, replacing a man who was being shipped out the next day. "Somebody was inside, so I jumped on the side and grabbed hold of the gun," recalls Michael. "The driver must not have known I was out there, because the tank lurched forward and I fell off."