He tells the story without emotion, almost as if it happened to another person. The tank turned right, as if to encircle Michael. His left leg was immediately snagged in the metal track, and as the tank moved, the limb was sucked progressively farther into the machinery while his body was pulled along the path of the track, first backward along the ground and then along the top edge. Michael pressed his right foot against the track, preventing the rest of his body from getting pulled in. The action cost him that foot and probably saved his life. Eventually, the wheels revolved to a point that he was spit out on the dirt. The tank drove off, its driver still unaware. In the cacophony of rifle fire and mortar rounds, Michael lay horribly wounded, screaming for help. "Maybe it was two minutes," he says. "Maybe it was an hour. It seemed like a long time."
In the midst of the firefight, Michael was airlifted by helicopter to the nearest medical unit, and weeks later he was shipped to Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington. He never met the man who ran him over, never even knew his name. Michael was still in Walter Reed when he took a weekend leave home to Pittsburgh in 1970 and met Carolyn, then a high school senior, who was visiting one of his sisters. They were married in 1975 and one year later had their first child, also named Michael. When their second son was born on June 30, 1978, they named him LaVar RaShad—LaVar after actor LeVar Burton, whom they remembered from Roots, and Rashad for Ahmad Rashad, then a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings. (The Arringtons also have a third son, Eric, 15.)
For more than three decades Michael has lived a quiet, dignified life, leaving his bitterness in Southeast Asia. He refused to give his sons a crippled father. He was told that he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, yet he uses one only late at night, for trips from the bed to the bathroom. At all other times he walks on his artificial limbs.
He played catch with his boys and shot hoops against them. Only when his oldest son saw a war movie on TV and asked what happened to his father did Michael explain to the boys how he had been hurt. Eight years ago he became an ordained minister and serves in the Church of God in Christ Faith Center in Pittsburgh, a small nondenominational house of worship with about 200 members.
He showed LaVar films of classic All-Pros such as Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers and by turning him on to Brian Bosworth. He gave LaVar visual clues that his son still follows. "If the guard pulls, nine times out of 10 the ball follows him," Michael explained.
LaVar developed into an athletic prodigy. By the time he reached eighth grade, he had reached his full height and weighed 195 pounds. Short, his future Nittany Lions teammate, had seen the 14-year-old Arrington and two of his friends playing in a three-on-three basketball tournament in Pittsburgh and felt relieved that his team wouldn't have to play Arrington's because Arrington was surely in the 20-and-over age division. When it turned out that their teams did play against each other, Arrington and Short each broke a rim of the temporary goals while dunking, delaying the game.
Arrington played on the North Hills ninth-grade football team as an eighth-grader. A year later, when Penn State assistant Tom Bradley went to a North Hills varsity game to scout senior quarterback Eric Kasperowicz, he couldn't take his eyes off a sinewy freshman tailback. "I want to recruit that kid right now," Bradley told McCurry. Twice during his high school career LaVar leaped over the offensive line and made plays in the opposing backfield, so the LaVar Leap was barely newsworthy back home. "Most games, LaVar's natural ability just took over" says McCurry.
Arrington had always wanted to play for Miami or Florida State, bastions of late '80s and early '90s flash. He was crazy about linebackers Ray Lewis of the Hurricanes and Derrick Brooks of the Seminoles. But as he got older, his priorities changed. "He was a homebody, but he didn't realize it," says McCurry. Florida State didn't show enough interest in him until much too late, and Miami dropped out of his plans after linebacker Marlin Barnes was bludgeoned to death on campus in the spring of 1996, Arrington's junior year in high school. Earlier that year Arrington had skeptically made an unofficial visit to Penn State at the urging of his family and McCurry. "I didn't like it there at all," he said. Yet he was struck by the camaraderie on the team, the family atmosphere and the fact that the school was a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh. He orally committed in the spring of his junior year. Homebody, indeed.
Three years later he is the favorite to win the Butkus Award and almost a lock to become a millionaire pro. His world is growing swiftly, and yet his perspective narrows. He understands that what drives him is his father's spirit. One humid summer night Arrington lay sprawled across a ratty couch in his basement apartment. Bishop, his pit bull puppy, scampered across the floor, and air conditioners hummed in nearby buildings. "Somebody told me my father was fast once," Arrington said. "They told me that's where I get my speed." He paused and then his voice became softer. "I owe so much to him. He never missed my games. He played with me. Now I understand what it means to be the very best that you can be, regardless of what God has given you. My goal every Saturday is to make sure anybody watching Penn State comes away and says, 'That kid plays with heart.' That's what I owe. To play as hard as I possibly can."
It isn't so simple then. Arrington speaks loud words and makes big plays, but not just for himself and not necessarily from selfishness or greed. Sometimes his noise celebrates a father's quiet courage and a son's appreciation. That is a revolution worth joining.