FOR ONE hour on a drizzly, unseasonably warm morning last week, Jeannette, Pa., a blue-collar burg of about 10,000 that lies 25 miles east of Pittsburgh, was the center of the college football world. That's where native son Terrelle Pryor, an 18-year-old uncommonly blessed by nature and toughened by both his Jeannette homeboys ("They're the reason I am where I am") and the rugged western Pennsylvania pigskin tradition, announced that, yes, he would be saving some school's football fortunes come August, but he still wasn't sure whose. That a teenager's not being able to make up his mind would generate national headlines (ESPNU and CSTV carried Pryor's no-news press conference live, and SI was among other national publications in attendance at the Jeannette High gym) says everything about the meat-market mania of college recruiting and national signing day. Though Pryor's indecision exasperated those close to him—most of them had been sure 24 hours earlier that he had chosen Ohio State over Michigan, thought to be the last two schools standing in this most intense of recruiting battles—it also speaks to the bewilderment that Pryor must be feeling after spending months as the nation's It Recruit.
It's easy to understand why so many are so invested in the young man's future. In Jeannette, where football is king, Pryor is the grandest of Friday Night Lights heroes, a 6'5 1/2", 225-pound quarterback with a sprinter's speed and an arm that can throw a football more than 70 yards. Since he is also one of the state's top basketball players, slack-jawed fans have routinely proclaimed him "the best athlete I've ever seen."
A few days before Pryor announced his intention to equivocate, the
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Mike White, who collaborated with Pryor on a recruiting diary for the newspaper, was recognized as he paid a toll on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. "So, where's he going?" the collector asked. (The writer said, "I was just [with him], and I have no idea.") Says White, "Without a doubt, Terrelle is the most hyped, most talked-about, most watched athlete we've had in the history of western Pennsylvania." That is no doubt accurate since other western Pennsylvania worthies such as Tony Dorsett and LaVar Arrington and quarterbacks with names like Unitas, Namath, Marino and Kelly came along before the Internet age.
But even when you are considered that One in a Million, the Difference Maker, the Program Turner, it is hard to say no to persuasive adults schooled in the art of enticement.
So it is that Pryor will make an official visit to Penn State, long thought to be the Big Ten's Third Wheel in the Pryor sweepstakes. And while he's at it, Pryor has said that he might as well make a visit to Oregon, where coach Mike Bellotti runs an attractive spread offense, also the primary ammunition that new Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez pulls out in an effort to lure Pryor to Ann Arbor.
Linebacker U was the real surprise. No one but Pryor can say for sure that he is genuinely considering taking his high-def game to a school with an analog offense, but it's certain that he feels pressure to make an official visit. Over time, amid the sweet nothings whispered by all the college coaches, Pryor had gotten on well with Penn State recruiters Tom Bradley and Jay Paterno. Eighty-one-year-old Joe Paterno himself showed up one day near the end of the recruiting process.
Around town there are a lot of Penn State people. Dick Hoak, a Jeannette legend five decades before Pryor came along, played running back for the Nittany Lions and still attends most of Pryor's football and basketball games. Hoak doesn't say much to Pryor, but his friend, a 78-year-old restaurateur named Tony DeNunzio, a Penn State fan and unabashed admirer of JoePa, is somewhere in the corner of the Pryor picture. DeNunzio says that he doesn't impart his own opinions to Pryor ("I just love the kid and what he's done for Jeannette," says DeNunzio), but he has driven around Pryor and his friends when they need a lift and used to give them free meals at his restaurant.
On (non-)signing day, Pryor said that the major reason he will make an official Penn State visit is the affection that Craig Terrelle Pryor, his father, feels for ace recruiter Bradley, the Lions' defensive coordinator. "My dad is, like, in love with him," says Pryor of Bradley. That's, like, a lot of pressure. Many insiders still believe that Pryor will sign with Ohio State, but prognosticators will be more wary in the coming weeks.
"Terrelle's got a lot of people telling him a lot of things," says Jeannette football coach Ray Reitz. "It's easy to understand why it's difficult for him."
Whether the heavy-breathing pursuit of Pryor foreshadows great things to come or is a cautionary tale about the unpredictability of potential remains to be seen. It's easy to determine that a running back with 4.2 speed is going to be able to get around the corner at the next level and that a 300-pound lineman with a 400-pound bench press is going to be able to knock people over. But Pryor's great gifts aside, can he locate his secondary receivers when pressure comes? Can he check off when the defense is massed to stop the called play? Can he maintain his bravado when the offense is backed up to the goal line and 10 sets of uncertain eyes look to him for inspiration? He routinely ran away from trouble as a high school star—observers swear that there were games in which he literally was not touched by the defense—but you can't do that in college, never mind in the NFL.