The Hunted

Coaches, recruiters, and reporters have wanted a piece of Terrelle Pryor since he was in third grade. Can the most-pursued high-school athlete in history become the next Tom Brady?

"Terrelle Pryor," the Jeannette High School public-address system crackles, issuing the sentence every teenager dreads, "report to the main office immediately."

The staticky voice doesn’t register with the kids shuffling down the halls between second and third periods on a late-spring Thursday in Jeannette, Pennsylvania (population 10,096). Or the ones leaning against the overstocked trophy cases filled with letters from congressmen and the minutes documenting Pryor’s name being read into the Congressional Record for leading the Jeannette Jayhawks to state championships in football and basketball this year. They’ve been hearing this on the PA for months now, half a dozen times a day at the peak of college-recruitment season, just as they’ve been seeing the limos and satellite trucks in the parking lot and all those mysterious men in the bleachers for the past three years.

"Terrelle Mania," Rick Klimchock, Jeannette’s former basketball coach and current guidance counselor, calls the ravenous pursuit of Pryor, the most heavily recruited athlete in NCAA history. At six feet six and 230 pounds, Pryor is the first Pennsylvania high-school quarterback to run and pass for more than 4,000 yards apiece and one of the most tantalizing basketball prospects in the nation. He’s been proclaimed the next Vince Young and the next LeBron James—in one—but he could as easily be the Great Cautionary Tale of the meat market that college recruitment has become. When his signed footballs hit $99.99 and game-used wristband reached $349.99 on eBay, YouTube montages of his gridiron highlights topped a half-million hits, and a site and limited-edition action figure appeared this winter, it begged the question: Are we projecting a bit much onto an 18-year-old from a tiny school in the sticks?

The answer isn’t immediately apparent when Pryor ambles into a conference room with the remnants of breakfast, a bag of doughnuts, in hand. He’s wearing the sweet smile of a much younger kid, even as the mistrust of an older man darkens his brow. Wooed, followed, and worshipped since third grade, he’s clearly tired of being a vessel for people’s hopes and machinations. In an era that insists on making cover boys out of its quarterbacks, Pryor is, or is destined to become, a flack’s worst nightmare: someone who knows the public role he’s supposed to play and just won’t have anything to do with it.

Since he last suited up, he’s put on a few pounds—readying himself for college by lifting relentlessly, running with a parachute into the wind, dragging 50-pound sleds downfield at daybreak—and he has that quiet disdain and confidence you find in the Brett Favres and Tom Bradys of the world. His girlfriend, Katie, is the prettiest girl in town, and his peers and teammates do their best to play along with the idea that he’s just one of the guys, even as he makes them all but disappear from view when he passes—smiling quietly—in the hallways. He wears a red Air Jordan tee, baggy jeans cuffed above the ankles, and red Adidas sneakers, his right arm tattooed with massive Praying Hands, his neck, ears, and wrist flashing cubic-zirconia starter bling. From second to second, he appears as either The Future or just another oversize kid. Gradually you pick up on the fact that he gets a kick out of the ambiguity, and that he’s learned to use it as cover.

"Can I see that for a sec?" he says, as he opens the USA Today sports section on the table to the box score of Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, between the Cavaliers and the Celtics. An ESPN ad on the opening page pairs halves of two opposing athletes’ faces—LeBron James’ and Kevin Garnett’s—above the tagline "Win or Go Home."

Who would you go with?

"LeBron?" he says, effecting a teenage shrug that connotes Kind of a no-brainer, huh?

And so it goes for a half-hour of questions, answers ranging from head nods to two-word demurrals to set speeches: "Just a man on the move," he’ll say when asked about specific 57-yard runs or tomahawk dunks. "Going 100 miles an hour, is all." They clearly convey one sentiment: Back off—I’m just a kid.

That’s the message he sent to wave after wave of Division I football and basketball coaches and their entourages, who were so thick at times they had to be sent packing so Pryor could actually get in a few classes. They kept coming even after Pryor announced he would be concentrating solely on football following his senior basketball season, ending speculation that he’d become the first person ever to be a first-round pick in both the NFL and the NBA.

As February 6, the NCAA National Signing Day (when high-school recruits commit to a college) approached, the caravan of recruiters followed Pryor from game to game—million-dollar-a-year coaches jostling with autograph hounds to get close to him. A week before Signing Day, Pryor ate cavatelli and meatballs in Jeannette with Penn State legend Joe Paterno, who broke his rule of no home-recruiting visits. Four nights later, Jim Tressel and Rich Rodriguez, head football coaches at Ohio State and Michigan respectively, considered the front-runners to land Pryor, were at Jeannette’s basketball game against East Allegheny with at least three assistants apiece.

Other suitors kept at it too. With two days to go, Jeannette’s principal, Stu Albaugh, had to inform a fourth marquee head coach that no, he couldn’t land his helicopter on school grounds. On the day before the big announcement, Pryor was forced to hang up on a particularly persistent coach because he was late for math. "It’s hard to be a kid," he said aloud, and a train of reporters transcribed the profundity.

When the day finally arrived, Pryor disappointed them all—coaches and media—telling the press filling the Jeannette High School gym that he hadn’t had "enough time to get involved in the recruiting process." He was going to decide in his own time. Then the shit really hit the fan. From Florida to Oregon, in State College, Pennsylvania, and across the Midwest, distant relations of Pryor’s coaches and recruiters, reporters who’d wangled a sentence out of the shy teen, and friends and relatives were buttonholed by strangers at Laundromats and tollbooths. Some got late-night calls offering cash in exchange for leads on which school he’d choose. Jeannette’s quarterback coach, Roy Hall, was meeting with Duke head coach David Cutcliffe (who coached both Peyton and Eli Manning in college) when the visiting coach’s cell phone rang. "That was Archie Manning," he told Hall. "He just asked, ‘Did you get him? Did you?’" And on it went for six weeks after his non-announcement, until March 19, when he uttered the words "Ohio State" to two dozen TV cameras in the school auditorium.

It’s hard to connect with the quiet kid you see. Granted, there is no mold for someone who has 4.4 speed and a 40-inch vertical leap and who also can bench 300-plus pounds and throw a football 50 yards from his knees. On paper Pryor is a giant, but one who is so well-proportioned and fluid his size doesn’t register. So when he offers me a doughnut, what looked like a doughnut hole between his massive thumb and index finger becomes a large vanilla frosted in my hand. "How long have you been palming a basketball?"

"Been a while," he says.

"When did you first dunk it?"

"Sixth grade?"

"Won’t it hurt to give basketball up?"

His brow furrows. "Maybe I’ll walk on my junior year at Ohio State. No way now. I’m watching game film Coach Tress [OSU’s Tressel] sent me all day, studying diagrams, plays, coverages. So much to learn."

There are real questions as to whether Pryor can handle the transition—not to the NCAA’s Division I but to the second string. Ohio State already has Todd Boeckman, a sixth-year-senior quarterback who led the team to the brink of a national championship this past season, and Pryor has shown next to no tolerance for playing second fiddle: After a freshman year spent at wide receiver (Jeannette had a star senior quarterback), Pryor had his bags packed for Florida’s Arlington Country Day School (one of several elite prep schools offering a basketball scholarship) until Hall and Jayhawk head coach Ray Reitz convinced him late that summer that he could star in both basketball and football in Jeannette.

"Terrelle, you’ve been the man your whole life," I say. "How are you going to handle the bench?"

"The bench?" Pryor’s expression changes: First there’s the stunned deer, then the hunter ready to gun Bambi down—the kid has given up one of his two loves so he could shine in the other. "I can’t believe I won’t be playing basketball next year," he says, biting hard on his pinky nail—a strange, LeBron-like habit he displays in pressure situations. "I was watching the NCAA tourney last month. Guys I used to own in AAU were getting 20, 25 points a game." He grabs the doughnut bag, swivels his chair, and shoots the bag into a garbage can, quoting the latest LeBron James TV ad: "I won’t be on the bench."

After four years of Friday-night miracles, games in which Pryor went literally untouched, in which the Jeannette Jayhawks would score at will from anywhere on the field (on 7 of the first 10 plays in one contest), in which the Mercy Rule—no clock stoppage once a 35-point lead is hit—kicked in (14 of 16 his senior year) and Pryor pulled himself out, usually in the third quarter, there is no doubt in Pennsylvania that he will soon be starting every Saturday at OSU. The only debates here are about when he’ll be playing football on Sundays, in the NFL. Some insist he won’t spend a senior year in Columbus, others that he’ll stay to collect a National Championship and a Heisman Trophy (or two) on his way to the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

For decades, western Pennsylvania was a production line for Hall of Fame quarterbacks—Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly all hailed from within an hour of Jeannette. That ended in the early 1980s, as overseas competition for steel, glass, and rubber hit the region. Once a community nearly 17,000 strong that supplied the United States with 70 percent of its glass and the world with the majority of its tennis balls, this town carved into the foothills of the Alleghenies has lost more than a third of its population and all but one of its glass factories. "Friday nights are big in small-town USA," says Tony DeNunzio Sr., a former bank president who helps manage his son’s Italian restaurant. "But it’s a lot deeper in Jeannette."

Everyone in town has a favorite Pryor story. How insufferable he could be after his rare losses, and how he’d be a target after all the victories. "For a decade, Terrelle’s was the ass you had to kick to make your name," one local says. "It’s not easy to keep a level head when fists are flying at you." But what everyone noticed most was Pryor’s eyes.

Klimchock first saw those dark eyes when Pryor was 8 and playing Knee-High Basketball. "Terrelle was already two dribbles from foul line to foul line," he says, "but what made your jaw drop was that look. So single-minded. So unnerving for opponents."

"Third grade to sixth—it’s that time of life when magic is always just around the corner, when life hasn’t beaten it out of you," Klimchock says. "If Terrelle has a fault, it’s that he still hasn’t learned that magic isn’t always possible. All the times on court he’d try to thread a pass through a wall of defenders and it didn’t happen, he’d look at me, mystified. I’m halfway thinking There’s a wall there. But the other half, I’m mystified myself, because I’d expected it to go through."

Adolescence is typically when magical thinking hits reality. Not with Pryor. He’s spent his entire life in Jeannette save for eighth grade, when he moved with his mother, Thomasina, to Pittsburgh’s West Mifflin projects. "I knew it was time for Terrelle to come back to Jeannette," she recalls, "when I came home from work one night and found him hiding in the closet. The gunfire outside got to be too much for him." But that year proved to be a turning point. He grew four inches, to six-four, and the look in his eye got even darker. "It was like the year Robert Johnson went away, sold his soul to the devil, and came back possessed," Klimchock says. One evening before practice, early in Pryor’s freshman year, Klimchock found him standing with his back to the basket, six feet out. "He says, ‘Coach, look,’ takes off backwards and throws it down, all backwards," Klimchock recalls. It defied physics, and it defied imagination to try it. "I thought, The body alone cannot do this," Klimchock says. "Something has to happen in the mind."

The rest of Jeannette got an inkling of Pryor’s transcendence early in a football game against Washington High during Pryor’s sophomore year. "Terrelle goes back to pass," Reitz recalls. "The protection breaks down. He comes out of the pocket, gets to the six-yard line, a kid comes up, and Terrelle leaps, sails over the kid’s head, and lands five yards deep in the end zone." While recitations vary as widely as fishing stories, a photo shows Pryor in midair, cleats at eye level with the five-foot-four water boy. And everyone remembers the reaction the same way. "Nothing happens," says DeNunzio. "Terrelle gets up, hands the ball to the ref like nothing special happened. The whole stadium had stopped. It took the ref 15 seconds to signal the TD."

The magic show continued for the next three years, culminating in a senior season in which Pryor led Jeannette to a state-record 860 points. He made rabbits disappear on defense as well: tipping a ball in the end zone to himself and running the interception back 105 yards for a touchdown in a play-off game against Wilmington, or getting through Wilson Area High’s line so fast he didn’t just block an extra point, he met the kicker at the ball. "You can’t imagine how much it galvanizes Jeannette," DeNunzio says.

That much is clear at Pryor’s graduation party in late May, held downtown at the American Legion Hall. For four hours, there are never fewer than 400 in the hall. Pryor, aglow in an orange Lacoste shirt, has a lantern-jaw smile for everyone as he works the room, signing place mats ("So this is for everyone at Nancy’s Diner?") and picking up babies ("God, she’s a beauty, isn’t she?"), then moving on the instant there’s a pause. As the day draws to a close, there are a lot of long faces. Jeannette’s first citizen is all grown up and leaving home.

You don’t get much farther from Jeannette, Pennsylvania, than Santa Barbara, California, host of the 2008 Steve Clarkson Super 7 QB Retreat, where Pryor is one of eight featured high-school guest quarterbacks, along with seven college standouts. Football’s equivalent of Nick Bollettieri’s tennis school, Clarkson’s Quarterback Academy is the proving ground of the blond-haired, blue-eyed quarterback with the perfect five-step drop and rifled spiral. It’s supply-side economics trickling down to amateur sports: $3,000 for private evaluations and up to $1,000 for a private lesson; $625 one-day clinics host hundreds of hopefuls. Clarkson, who coached four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons and has tutored the likes of Tom Brady, Matt Leinart, and Ben Roethlisberger, delivers results—dramatic enough to get dads paying well into five figures for kids as young as 11.

The late-May retreat has brought a certain socioeconomic stratum of the paying public to Santa Barbara for two days of clinics, drills, and competitions held against the backdrop of the yachts moored in Santa Barbara Harbor. Real-estate developers and soap-opera stars with their trophy wives—and, of course, their quarterback kids—break bread with Joe Montana, Wayne Gretzky, and Snoop Dogg (when he’ll leave the pungent air of the SnoopMobile), who have also brought their high-school-age sons to learn from Clarkson.

Pryor stands apart from the group of 50 or so quarterbacks, dribbling a football like a basketball. He looks, as always, both supremely entitled to be the center of attention—which he very much is, even here among the nation’s elite—and a tad lost. He missed his flight out of Pittsburgh yesterday and didn’t get in till 2 A.M., and had no idea he was supposed to bring cleats. "I did a clinic of Steve’s last year as a guest," he says with a shrug. "Didn’t do a whole lot on the field."

A clinic assistant arrives with a pair of size 14s half an hour in, and Pryor starts to throw on the sidelines. Pryor’s balls come out hard but with all sorts of spins. You see, he doesn’t hold a ball the way quarterbacks typically do—his hands are so wide his index finger doesn’t wrap around the laces but curls around the back tip of the ball. His delivery is unusual: he throws overhand, like a center fielder, and after releasing the ball his wrist is bent all the way down, like a jump shooter’s. Even if you believe, with good reason, that Pryor is capable of defying the laws of physics, it’s impossible to see how it all adds up to a spiral.

And, under the glare of the California sun, it doesn’t. From the first exercises, involving throws to live receivers, coached here by Jerry Rice, to athletic-agility drills, to afternoon competitions (throwing at targets, stationary or on moving golf carts 10 to 30 yards downfield), it’s clear to everyone here that Parade’s 2007 Player of the Year and USA Today’s Offensive Player of the Year is as green as they come.

The five-step drop, the rote maneuver of the NFL quarterback, is a mystery to him: It goes against everything fluid and improvisational he understands about sports. Then he starts throwing—his first pass, a 30-yard sideline pattern, falls three yards short of the receiver; the next flies five feet over his head. And on it goes. His attempts at the bomb, the showpiece of any quarterback, are a series of 60-yarders that start wobbling, or "ducking," 20 yards out, all landing pathetically short or wide of the target. "I hate this," Pryor says, but his words are drowned out by Snoop Dogg’s oldest son, Anthony, who cracks up parents on the sidelines with a perfect quacking "Aflac!"

Everyone’s laughing but the two most plainly dressed and least athletic-looking dads here. A warm, unassuming blond guy who happens to be the greatest hockey player of all time sees little importance in Pryor’s failures today. "You won’t believe how many times I have to teach my young players the mechanics of getting and giving a simple pass," Gretzky says of the Phoenix Coyote team he coaches.

But the other dad, arguably the greatest quarterback ever, seems troubled. Deep in conversation about Pryor’s mechanics with Angelo Gasca, one of the retreat’s quarterback coaches, Montana pantomimes the proper throwing motion, shaking his head in confusion.

"Part of it’s his release," Gasca says over lunch. "But everyone does it their own way, and Terrelle will learn his quick enough. He’s a stud."

A lean, handsome man across the table is quick to agree. "Just lying on your bed when you’re a kid," says Rice, throwing an imaginary football up in the air. "That’s how you get the touch for the spiral. Terrelle’s just so strong he’s been able to get it in."

The next morning, Montana, in sweats, takes the field and walks over to Pryor after opening drills, holding a football. They grew up 40 minutes and 30 years apart in western Pennsylvania but had to meet in Southern California for the most storied signal caller in NFL history to teach the most highly recruited quarterback in NCAA history how to throw a football. Pryor makes little eye contact as Montana demonstrates the spiral, throwing the ball up in the air and catching it, softly, over and over, talking his way through each release. Pryor looks mostly side to side, embarrassed, to see if anyone’s watching, obliging with a few gentle tosses before sauntering off without a word, literally leaving Montana holding the ball.

But there’s Pryor after lunch, lying on his back, throwing a football up and catching it, his hand initially bent forward on the follow-through, then increasingly flared out to the right. Snoop Dogg walks by and sees Pryor. "Rest it out, TP," he says, sotto voce. "Rest it out."

Pryor is on the beach a half-hour after the retreat wraps up, calling Coach Tressel to tell him about his weekend. "Hey, Coach, Snoop called me TP," he says into one cell phone, using his free hand to photograph a seagull with another, an iPhone. "Oh, yeah, and Joe Montana worked with me on my mechanics. A little."

Mapquest has the drive from Jeannette to Columbus, Ohio, where Pryor and other freshman football players start the year on June 14, at four hours. But it didn’t factor for Pryor, driving his mom’s white 2007 Hyundai Sonata, pushing the needle to 115. The trip is a three-hour taste of life in the Terrelle Lane, in which there truly is no looking back: The rearview mirror is useless—the portion of back window not obscured by the wide-screen plasma TV is blocked by a white-brimmed fedora, a pair of black Nikes, a signed and framed Randall Cunningham jersey, and a 12-pack of Gatorade resting behind the back seat. The passing median is a green blur for minutes on end.

"Just a man on the move," says Pryor, who turned 19 a few days ago. After a couple of minutes, he starts talking about his famous end-zone leap against Washington High. "Actually, I was slipping when that guy came up. Only way to the goal was up."

He cranks the volume when Lil Wayne starts rapping against the Animals’ "Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood."

"People say you’re a magician."

"Heard that one a lot," he says. "Or the ‘He’s a jazzman, the way he improvises.’ Nonsense. I did it before; they just never saw it, is all."

"Why did you choose Ohio State?"

"I like Coach Tress," he says, staring straight ahead, the needle twitching above 100. "Y’know, at like 9 A.M. I still hadn’t made up my mind. I just couldn’t put it back anymore. I got so much grief about February 6. People saying I was grabbing the limelight, like I needed any more. I never asked to be the No. 1 prospect. I actually hated all that. Everything was moving too fast for me."

The first road sign for Columbus appears on the right, and Pryor turns to me. "Let me ask you a question," he says. "The last two Championship Bowl games—who was there both times? Ohio State."

The speedometer hits 115. "Be there in less than half an hour. I’m tired," he says, leaning his head against the car’s plastic doorjamb. Pryor brings up Tiger Woods’ miracle Friday at the U.S. Open last night, and Dottie Pepper’s analysis of Woods’ focus on the green at 18: "Tiger has the ability to slow it down like no one else."

"That’s it exactly!" Pryor says. "People always compare me to Vince Young. Me, I watch Tom Brady. Just watch Brady. So quiet in the pocket. Everything else is noise. He doesn’t hear it. He’s keeping it slow."

"You realize you’re going 115 now? You say yourself you’re always doing 100 on the field."

"That’s just . . . " He waves—at the road, the oncoming traffic, the first inkling of the Columbus skyline ahead. "That’s just what’s out there, all that space between you and the goal. You watch Brady: There’s no space, no miles per hour. Just him and that goal.

"You’re talking about focus."

"I’m talking about living for the game," he says as we pull up to the Lex Wexner Football Complex in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. "I almost got my first birdie the other day, but I choked the putt. Gotta love Tiger. It’s hard to turn it off on the green."

"You play golf?"

"Nah. I just like hitting it. Messing around."

"On a par 3?"

"A par 5."

"You know most golfers wait a lifetime to miss birdie on a par 5?"

Pryor flashes me a "now you’re getting it" smile as he climbs out of the Sonata. But there’s nothing to get: It’s just him and the other 6 billion of us. "That’s because they don’t drive it 315 yards," he says.

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