- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

ROSS TOWNSHIP, Pa. If today's hot button issue in the NFL is character, the Washington Redskins didn't just get a first-round draft pick for 2000 when they selected Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington.

They got a draft pick for the decade.

Arrington oozes character. If you could measure it with a stopwatch, it would be the equivalent of a 4.0 for the 40-yard dash.

He was born into it and raised all around it. He might be the Todd Marinovich of character, programmed from birth to have an All-American character to go along with his 6-foot-3, 250-pound All-American body.

Except there is nothing programmed about LaVar Arrington. He is the real deal, the product of two people who have lived their lives by their good words and good deeds no matter how difficult that might be at times and expect their children to do the same.

"We raised him based on the fact that the Lord is the nucleus of this household and the springboard for which everything else is done," said his mother, Carolyn Arrington. "With that in place, everything that we do is rooted and grounded in the word of God. When it comes to morality and things of that nature, like right and wrong, our children know."

How could they not, when they witnessed every day growing up in their suburban Pittsburgh home the strength, courage and commitment of their parents to the simple but difficult goal of doing the right thing? How could LaVar RaShaud Arrington known as "Shaudie" by his family and friends be anything but a good man when he watched his father handle the bad hand life had dealt him with uncommon grace?

Michael Arrington has a prothesis for his right foot and half his left leg. He was serving in Vietnam in the summer of 1969 when, during an enemy attack, he was caught under a tank that ripped up his legs. He was shipped home to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District, where he was told he would never walk without the help of crutches.

Michael Arrington had other ideas. After 15 months of determined work, he walked out of the hospital on his own, and left behind any bitterness that might have accompanied such a fate.

"Make yourself better, not bitter," said Michael, now an ordained minister at 50. "My wife wouldn't let me be bitter, and I have always tried to be the best person I could be for my children. It meant a lot to me for her to accept me the way I was and what happened to me. It kept me from feeling sorry for myself, or getting into this 'why me?' mindset."

Michael did this so well that his children didn't even realize their father had such a burden to overcome.

"I thought he was normal," LaVar said. "That's a testimony to how resilient he is. I thought there was something wrong with me because I was different from him. That shows you what type of man my father is."

The Arrington way

The tone of the Arrington way is not just set by Michael. His wife, Carolyn, 46, is a special education teacher; her work with children with special needs not only served as yet another example for LaVar but also for the people who have come into his life, such as Tom Bradley, one of his coaches at Penn State and the man who recruited him.

"I've learned a lot from the people I have recruited, but not as much as I learned from LaVar's mother," Bradley said. "I watched her in her school and what she does for kids, and I learned how to handle people in certain situations. There is no question that LaVar is a product of his mom and dad. I see both of them in him when he does certain things."

But 21-year-old LaVar also is an original. He is more outgoing, more aggressive than his older brother, Michael Jr., and his younger brother, Eric, who is now a high school basketball star. His play on the field has been flamboyant at times, but LaVar says it is because he plays with emotion.

"He really enjoys playing," said Jack McCurry, his coach at North Hills High School.

Arrington has been criticized at times for being too expressive on the field, but it is simply the only way he knows.

"I was raised in a great home, and we were not afraid to express how we felt about one another," LaVar said. "My parents promoted self confidence and to believe in yourself. It was a warm, friendly house."

That's why LaVar was so friendly to his classmates when he first went to elementary school. That's what made it so painful for his mother and father when he was rejected for being so warm and open as a child.

"When he was in an elementary school that was mostly white, a teacher said at a parent-teacher meeting that there were some complaints that LaVar was touching the other kids too much," Carolyn said. "Not fighting or anything like that, but some of the parents didn't want him touching their children so much. Then they didn't want their kids to play with him. They didn't want him to be part of anything. He was so sad. It hurt him so much. Your kids have to be able to play, and that wasn't happening. You could tell the other children had been told by their parents."

LaVar transferred to another elementary school, but there would always be racism along the way. It would be one-sided, though.

"There is no hatred in this house," Carolyn said. "Our guidelines and values are based on the Scriptures."

NFL needs good guys

Players with such values are more important than ever these days for the NFL. With all of the furor over players appearing on police blotters a situation exacerbated by murder charges against Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Carolina Panthers receiver Rae Carruth the issue of character loomed over the 2000 draft. Still, teams weren't drafting candidates for the seminary. They were drafting football players, and all indications are that Arrington is the real deal on the field as well.

At every level where he has played, LaVar Arrington has been extraordinary. He often has been described in these terms: "He did things that I've never seen before."

That's how friends who had played with LaVar in Pop Warner football described him when they were telling McCurry about him before he arrived in high school.

"The players at North Hills would tell the coach, 'Wait until LaVar gets here. Wait until you see LaVar," Carolyn said.

Word got around so much that the local newspaper started something called "the LaVar Watch" when he was in eighth grade a time when Arrington was 6-3 and weighed 195 pounds.

"When he was in eighth grade, we put him with the freshman team," McCurry said. "It was evident he could play varsity football as an eighth-grader."

As a freshman, LaVar led North Hills to a state championship, actually getting more attention for his play at running back than linebacker. By the time he graduated, LaVar who also was a star basketball player recruited by a number of schools had rushed for more than 4,000 yards, left a case full of trophies in the lobby at North Hills and was receiving national acclaim as Parade magazine's High School Player of the Year.

Arrington had caught Bradley's eye long before the rest of the country learned about LaVar.

"I went to see a quarterback there who was a senior," Bradley said. "I get there at game time, and I see this kid take the opening kickoff and go 50 yards. I'm wondering, 'Who the heck is this kid?' After I watched him play that game, I went back and told Joe [Paterno] that I saw a freshman who is out of this world."

When Paterno met LaVar, he saw the second coming of Franco Harris at running back. But LaVar wanted to play linebacker.

"We talked about this before he went to Penn State, and he felt he would have a longer career on the defensive side of the ball," McCurry said. "He will be a great pro linebacker. But I think he could still be a great running back in the NFL as well."

Patience, patience

Arrington didn't have a chance to show his greatness right away, though. Football is run at Penn State the way Joe Paterno wants it run, and that means freshman don't start.

In fact, Arrington didn't start at linebacker until the second game of his sophomore season, but he immediately made a huge impact, winding up second on the team in tackles and third in sacks. He was voted the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team All-American. And he also introduced the "LaVar Leap," the move he made against Northwestern in a 41-10 win when he hurdled over a blocker and sacked the quarterback.

Going into his junior and final year at Penn State, Arrington was on the cover of Sports Illustrated's college football preview and fulfilled those expectations by winning the Butkus Award as the country's top college linebacker in 1999.

Now he is the second pick overall in the NFL Draft, the first by the Washington Redskins (followed by offensive tackle Chris Samuels), and probably will be the most heralded and watched rookie on a team that, after bringing in such high-profile veterans like Bruce Smith and Jeff George, has Super Bowl expectations.

If Arrington can produce as he has at every other level, he will be a memorable player in the history of this franchise. But for those who get the opportunity to know him, LaVar's legacy will be the kind of man he is, the man he learned how to be from his mother and father.

"He has a side of him that looks out for the underdog and those less fortunate than him," McCurry said. "He gives back to the community. He is a well-rounded young man."

And people will want to know him, because he embraces them, and they sense it, Bradley said. "People gravitate to LaVar. They like being around him. His heart is as big as his body. He is a remarkable young man. I've been here 23 years, and he is my all-time favorite.

"Tell him I miss him," Bradley said. "Tell him I'm like the Lone Ranger without Tonto."

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