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Say It's So, Joe

He can't get his coach Joe Paterno to admit it, but Penn State's brash linebacker LaVar Arrington is the best in the country.

Penn State is a place where football players are expected to be gentlemen. It is a place where nominations to the Playboy All-America team are unwelcome and where the drab uniforms are designed as armor against ego inflation. It's also a place where emotions on the field are kept in control, lest they interfere with the blessed execution of football fundamentals, and where the prescribed pecking order demands that seniors rule and underclassmen wait. If Penn State football lived and breathed, it would floss twice daily and come to a full stop before turning right on red.

Such staunch conservatism can take root when the man who sets the tone is a campus fixture for 50 years (think about that), including 33 as the coach. Joe Paterno gives the public a program it can feel good about, unlike renegade schools with extroverted thugs and low graduation rates. For this he is deified as an island of dignity, and he deserves it. Paterno has not only won 307 games (fourth most in major college football history to Eddie Robinson's 405) but also had a four-year graduation rate of 74% of his players (according to the latest NCAA figures) and given more than $4 million to Penn State, toward the construction of a library and for the endowment of faculty positions and scholarships.

Yet occasionally there comes a player who tries to upset the Happy Valley status quo. For 1999, junior outside linebacker LaVar Arrington has volunteered to lead the latest attempt to revolutionize Penn State football. "They do things a certain way around here," says Arrington. "I don't think that's going to win you many national titles, not in 1999 or 2000. Athletes have evolved. To win a national title, you put your best athletes out there, and you let them play with emotion and intensity. You don't change them."

Arrington speaks from experience when he offers this blasphemous take on the Penn State philosophy. He came to State College as the Parade national high school player of the year, a 6'3", 230-pound linebacker-running back from North Hills High in Pittsburgh and one of the first to commit in Paterno's terrific recruiting class of '97. As a true freshman that year, he played some at outside linebacker. A year later he dominated preseason practices but didn't start the season opener against Southern Mississippi, dues-paying that he found humiliating. "They like to give the older guys an opportunity," says Nittany Lions senior co-captain Brandon Short, a linebacker who plays alongside Arrington. "In LaVar's case, they wanted to test his mental toughness. I said to him, 'You're the best athlete out here, no way they can keep you off the field,' but it was rough on him."

Arrington was made a starter in the second game and tore through the season as if he were trying to cram a career into 10 weekends. It wasn't just that he finished second on the team in tackles (67), and third on the team in tackles for lost yardage (17) and sacks (7). Or that he tied for the team lead in passes broken up (11) and intercepted two other passes, returning one for a touchdown. It was the way he did all of those things with reckless domination. In a 28-9 loss to Ohio State, he came from 30 yards across the field to run down Buckeyes tailback Michael Wiley. In a 27-0 win over Illinois, he dived over the top of the line and tackled Illini fullback Elmer Hickman for no gain on fourth-and-one, a play instantly immortalized in State College as the LaVar Leap. In a 41-10 win over Northwestern, he cleanly hurdled a blocking back and sacked Wildcats quarterback Gavin Hoffman.

Arrington was voted the Big Ten's defensive player of the year and a first team All-America. Illinois coach Ron Turner compares him to Michael Jordan. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr compares him with Lawrence Taylor. "When you're standing on the sideline, as a coach, you just feel his presence out there," says Carr. "He's so fast, agile and competitive. Definitely one of the best players I've seen in this conference in a long, long time."

Arrington also punctuated his play with a stylish flair. He celebrated big hits and taunted opponents. After taking an interception 16 yards for a touchdown against Bowling Green, he did what looked like a high-step inside the pylon, much to Paterno's displeasure. (Arrington's explanation: "It was not a high-step. Their little quarterback was diving at my ankles." Arrington's roommate, tight end John Gilmore says, "Looked like a high-step to me and a mighty fine one, too.") When a Michigan tackle pancaked Arrington in the first quarter of Penn State's 27-0 loss to the Wolverines, Arrington, angry that what he thought was an obvious holding penalty hadn't been called, drilled the blocker with a forearm shiver long after the whistle, incurring a 15-yard penalty and Paterno's wrath. "The referee didn't call a penalty," Arrington says, "so I called my own."

The NFL is salivating over Arrington, who will seriously consider leaving college after this season. Pro personnel people won't comment publicly on Arrington, for fear that Paterno, in retaliation, will tighten his already rigid access to Penn State practices, but this is a summary of how they feel about Arrington: an explosive hitter with a nasty streak; has a freaky build--looks gangly and not too flexible, but is nevertheless powerful; at least as good as Chris Claiborne (first-round pick of the Detroit Lions last spring); top five pick whenever he comes out; and the type of player other players will be compared with someday.

On the other hand Paterno makes the following evaluation: "He's not even our best player. He might not even be our best linebacker, behind Brandon Short and [senior] Mac Morrison. He made a few spectacular plays. He's our best athlete, and he has great potential, but that's all. People want me to say he's the best linebacker I've ever coached. Put him in the same class as Shane Conlon and Jack Ham? You've got to be kidding. Someday, he might be all those things."

There is clearly a motivational tug-of-war in progress between the 72-year-old coaching legend and a 21-year-old linebacker who is--sorry, Joe--one of the best players in school history. It isn't personal. Arrington is the only Penn State player who will walk into a team meeting and slap Paterno on the butt. "He's a good kid," Paterno says. "Lots of personality." The show promises to get better.

"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. A bridge 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."

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.