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Counting The Hours
JEANNETTE, Pa. — The small gym at Central Catholic was packed with fans waiting to see the latest phenom from western Pennsylvania.
He was dressed in a blue-and-red basketball uniform and he was lining up at forward for the Jeannette Jayhawks.
And it didn’t take long for Terrelle Pryor to display the athleticism that Michigan fans hope he’ll display as their quarterback when the Wolverines take on Utah in the home opener Aug. 30.
With the Jayhawks clinging to a slight lead in the first quarter, Pryor got loose on a breakaway.
He sped past everybody and lifted his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame into the air and crammed down a vicious one-handed tomahawk dunk.
Jeannette went on to a 69-43 victory over its archrival, and for a couple of hours, the nation’s No. 1 football prospect was safe from the constant question.
What college will get his services Wednesday, the first day recruits can sign national letters of intent?
Will it be Michigan? Ohio State? Oregon? Penn State?
“It’s a hard decision,” Pryor said. “Sometimes, you wish it was a little longer and sometimes you just want to get it over with because it’s so long.”
The buzz grows
Jeannette is a similar town to many in the Midwest, hurt by the decline of the manufacturing industry and a shrinking population. It was once a glassmaking giant. But it remains a close-knit community that comes together every Friday night in the fall for high school football.
Everybody knows everybody and local eatery DeNunzio’s, a popular Italian restaurant, is a gathering place for people to mingle and talk about the latest happenings.
And nothing has ever hit this region like Pryor — and that’s saying something in a region that has produced Hall of Fame quarterbacks like Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly.
“He was always a head taller than everybody he played against,” said Jeannette football coach Joe Reitz, who remembers when Pryor played midget football. “The thing that stood out about him, he was very good athletically. But you never know. Sometimes by the time they reach high school, the kid levels off and the kid that’s about three feet tall catches up to him.”
But that didn’t happen. By the time he was in the ninth grade, Pryor stood 6-2 and was still faster than everybody.
Pryor’s mother, Toni, moved to a nearby town for another job during his eighth-grade year. But she gave guardianship of her son to a family friend, Willie Burns, for a variety of reasons, including that Pryor missed his childhood friends.
That paved the way for Pryor to return to Jeannette.
Reitz, a longtime assistant, took over as head football coach for Pryor’s sophomore season. He moved Pryor to QB from wide receiver, wanting his best athlete to have the ball at all times.
He installed the run-oriented wing-T and had some modest success, as Jeannette finished 8-2. But Reitz realized he needed to improve the passing game and figure out ways to get Pryor and his talented teammates out in space.
He installed the spread-option, similar to the offense new Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez ran at West Virginia and will likely use with the Wolverines.
Pryor instantly soaked up the new offense and Jeannette rolled to a 14-2 record and advanced to the state title game. By then, Pryor had grown to his current dimensions to go along with 4.35 speed. Let’s just say it was unfair to try and bring him down.
Pryor was considered one of the best prospects in the nation before his senior season. But folks hadn’t seen anything yet.
He led the Jayhawks to a 16-0 record and a state championship. He became the first person in Pennsylvania history to rush for 4,000 yards and pass for 4,000.
He was named offensive player of the year by USA Today and the top player by Parade Magazine and he is ranked the No. 1 prospect in the country by Rivals.com and Scout.com.
Some of his games were televised, and he became somewhat of a media magnet. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writes regular updates about him, and he has a recruiting diary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. ESPN the Magazine did a story on him last month. Sports Illustrated was in town.
About the only thing that surpasses Pryor in interest these days are the Steelers.
“Terrelle is one of the most-read stories and he gets a lot of hits,” Tribune-Review reporter Paul Schofield said of the paper’s Web site.
And Jeannette High School has become a regular stop for some of the biggest names in college football and their staffs. Penn State’s Joe Paterno dropped by Wednesday. Oregon’s Mike Bellotti visited in December and LSU’s Les Miles also was there recently.
Through it all, Pryor has remained essentially the same, friends say.
“He isn’t letting it get to his head,” said senior football teammate Jerry Harris, who has known Pryor for most of his life. “He kind of keeps his recruiting life, his media life and his personal life completely separate. We’ll be hanging and we won’t be talking about school, the media or nothing.”
Signs of wear
Despite the glamour of Pryor’s celebrity, some close to him are growing weary of all the attention.
“It’s starting to get, like, a headache,” Burns said. “He has a decision and he hasn’t even told me yet. I tell (people) I don’t know what’s going on myself.”
Reitz estimates he gets 25 to 30 calls a day about Pryor from coaches and media and thinks of the whole thing as kind of a circus.
Pryor just went through a recent stretch of five basketball games in seven days, as the team plays catch-up on a season delayed by the football team’s championship run.
So he is juggling basketball, coaching visits and his school work.
“He’s just tired,” Reitz said of the recruiting visits. “What he doesn’t understand is what they can say to him in 15 minutes, they take an hour and a half. It gets repetitive.”
And then there is another headache: Internet rumors.
One of the most popular pictures of Pryor circulating on the Internet is one of him dressed in a white tuxedo, posing in front of a black Corvette. Bloggers have speculated on all kinds of unfavorable stories that might catch the attention of the NCAA.
Harris, though, said the picture was from prom night and that the car belongs to a family friend who loaned it to Pryor just for the evening.
“The only time that I know of him using that car is when he went to prom,” Reitz said. “(But) by putting that on the Internet the way they did, if somebody from the NCAA or another school sees that … it reeks of impropriety. That puts up a red flag to some people. People always assume the worst.”
Pryor has tried to surround himself with people to help him avoid recruiting pitfalls. He has Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, who used to play for the Lions and Eastern Michigan. Batch is serving as an adviser to Pryor, and accompanied him on his visit to Michigan last month. He also will join Pryor on any other recruiting visits the young quarterback might decide to take.
Pryor’s father, Craig, is confident that the family and Batch will be the only ones with significant voices on his son’s college decision.
“It really just comes down to me and Terrelle,” said Craig Pryor, who is in wheelchair because a genetic muscle disorder. “He listens to me more than anybody else. I can usually get Terrelle to do things everybody else can’t.”
At one time, Michigan wasn’t even on Pryor’s radar screen. But then Lloyd Carr retired and Rodriguez was hired from West Virginia.
Pryor immediately started considering Michigan. Ryan Mallett’s decision to transfer means the Wolverines are desperately in the market for a quarterback.
“When you consider who’s left on the roster and they don’t have anyone on the roster who fits Rodriguez’s offense, you can’t overstate how important Pryor is to Michigan,” said Josh Helmholdt, who covers Michigan recruiting for Rivals.com.
But Michigan has major competition. Pryor’s position coach, Roy Hall, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that his gut told him Pryor would choose Ohio State. OSU coach Jim Tressel was expected at Pryor’s basketball game Saturday night, as was Rodriguez.
And Reitz said Thursday that Pryor could delay making a final college decision because he is considering making visits to Oregon and Penn State.
If everything goes according to plan, CSTV and ESPNU will carry Pryor’s announcement live at noon Wednesday. But the situation remains fluid, and seems to change on a daily basis.
“I got an idea where he’s going, but I don’t want to say nothing right now,” Burns said. “It’s starting to get down to the wire. Everything is starting to speed up fast.”