High-level football is easy enough to enjoy when you’re actually watching it, which — and I’m just spitballing here — probably has something to do with its bestriding-colossus position among the major sports. There’s something for everyone: idiots get their mechanized, faceless violence; dorks get the increasingly ornate technical aspects of the coaching game; poets get periodic moments of athletic virtuosity; there’s also a unique individuation-of-task/collectivity-of-purpose dynamic at work in every play that, for all the pickups-and-flags BS during the commercial breaks, makes the whole enterprise aesthetically pretty socialist. It’s interesting, and I like watching it. It’s on the days when football games are not being played that things get pretty freaking gross.
Because of what Ft. Lauderdale-area safety Wayne Lyons can do during football games, he is a very highly sought-after college football prospect. A safety who can cover like a corner, Lyons has offers from Alabama, Florida, LSU and a number of other schools that, despite not being in the SEC, are generally considered BCS title contenders. Lyons is also on track to be the valedictorian of his high school class, and is carrying a 3.8 GPA at Broward Community College, where he has already picked up 24 college credits towards his engineering degree. His mother expects him to graduate from college during his sophomore year, at which point he’ll begin work on his Master’s. In short, Lyons is the sort of kid who deserves a glowing profile in Sports Illustrated and, what do you know, here’s Andy Staples with just that very profile:
Lyons and his mother, Gwen Bush, have sent each school a list of 50 questions ranging from mundane details every student must consider (“Will it be necessary or advantageous for Wayne to have a car?”) to highly specific questions that would apply only to Lyons and a handful of recruits who are elite students as well as elite athletes (“How many African-American players have graduated with an engineering degree in the past five years? Year-by-year? Please list their names.”).
Lyons and Bush want all these answers, because they know Lyons has the potential to follow in the footsteps of former Florida State safety Myron Rolle, who started for a major program, got drafted into the NFL and won a Rhodes Scholarship in between. So far, most coaches have been happy to answer every question in great detail, because they know true student-athletes such as Lyons don’t come along often.
For example, of all the blue-chip high school players who now post details of their recruitment on Twitter, how many also include tweets such as the one Lyons sent out last week? “High school GPA has jumped to a 5.0 on the head! Gotta keep that no. 1 spot! Holding on to the dream — Class Valedictorian for DHS c/o 2011.”
The questionnaire itself is here, and it’s every bit as wide-ranging as a 50-item questionnaire for Nick Saban to fill out should be. It might be a little heavy on the mom-intensive stuff — Gwen Bush is no Prophetess Legion, but it seems a good guess that she’s going to be fairly involved in her son’s day-to-day — but it’s also admirably forward-thinking and even a little inspiring insofar as it so thoroughly rejects the passive-object-of-wooing routine in favor of what are really some very important concerns.
In all this, right down to his position on the field, Lyons is indeed notably reminiscent of Myron Rolle, the Florida State safety and Rhodes Scholar who similarly made no attempt to conceal the fact that academics were at least as important to him as giving slot receivers concussions. That particular bit of swimming-against-the-tide earned Rolle his own glowing Sports Illustrated profile (Stewart Mandel, this time), an eventual year at Oxford on the Rhodes Scholarship and… well, Rolle fell to the very end of the sixth round of this year’s NFL Draft, despite having been projected as an early-rounder before accepting the Rhodes. So it earned him that, too.
While spending a year away from football — if not away from football-style training — probably didn’t help Rolle’s stock, NFL types were seemingly unembarrassed about expressing the belief (off the record, naturally) that Rolle’s intelligence and academic accomplishment made him a less attractive NFL prospect. (Champion butthead Mel Kiper, to his kinda-sorta credit, did go on the record to that effect with USA Today’s Skip Wood) If Rolle had been the best safety in his draft class, he probably would’ve been chosen in the first round; he wasn’t, and so he wasn’t. But despite being seen as a top-tier safety, Rolle was the 17th safety selected in the draft, 206th overall. As Andy Hutchins writes in The Sporting News, no one is even pretending not to know how this happened:
Myron Rolle didn’t slip to the Tennessee Titans with the last pick of the sixth round in the NFL Draft because he has too much character, or because the NFL doesn’t want character. He slipped because his character comes with interests outside football that made NFL coaches and GMs question his devotion, and because his talent can’t make up for that question mark. I wouldn’t bet against Rolle: He knows what he must do and will work tirelessly to do just that, becoming a stellar NFL player. But I don’t expect every NFL coach to see that my way.
The question of why Rolle’s wish to become a neurosurgeon somehow makes him difficult to coach — when no one who has ever actually, you know, coached him has suggested as much — gets to the dark, dumb heart of what’s gross about big-time football. The racial semiotics of all this I’ll leave to the Sports on My Mind guys, although it’s worth mentioning that the NFL’s managerial demands for docility (and suspicion of anything that even faintly suggests otherwise) has always had a racial cast to it, and that both Lyons and Rolle are black.
But leaving the racial politics of it all aside, rightly or wrongly, it’s sad to think of what lies ahead of Lyons, wherever he winds up. A lot will have to go right for Lyons in the years to come for him to be drafted into the NFL, of course, above or below 206th overall. As with every kid in or out of football, it’s tough not to pull for him, and he does seem like a pretty admirable young dude. But it’s sad to think that Lyons is going to face management-level suspicion and worse simply for being a smart, studious, forward-thinking and serious kid in a business that values exactly zero of those attributes.