No More Mr. Nice Bone-Crushing Linebacker Guy

“Look at this! Look at this! Get him! Hit him and put him down quick. Get off the block; make a play. Check it out: Destroyed that tackle. Destroyed him. Boom!

LaVar Arrington is sitting in an over-air-conditioned windowless meeting room at Redskins Park, the Washington Redskins’ training facility in Northern Virginia, describing, in a running monologue that’s equal parts pride and amazement, what it is that he does for a living. On the wall, a computer program is projecting scenes from the Skins’ 2002 season–play after play, shown from the side and then from above the end zone. In the indecipherable scrum of enormous bodies that follows each snap, one feature is consistent: the explosive, exuberant number 56. In one play, a tight end for the New Orleans Saints catches a pass and crosses the field into LaVar’s zone. He delivers a monstrous hit.

“Oh, my goodness,” says LaVar, impressed. “Anything that comes up in my zone, I am going to destroy that shit!”

As the players disentangle for the next play, Arrington gives the receiver a pat on the back of his helmet that from a distance looks almost tender, like a love pat. “I push my hand off his head,” he clarifies. “I’m letting him know I’m in this game: ‘This is what you’re gonna have to deal with.'”

Another game, another play: Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Bobby Shaw, not a slow man, breaks free and is sprinting down the sideline, pursued by three hapless Redskins. From across the field comes number 56–all 250 pounds of him–overtaking his own teammates and bringing Shaw down, turning what could have been a huge play into a merely big one. LaVar rewinds. “Look at that. I’m dang near walking. He’s running. To me this is unbelievable. I mean, to me.” It looks like everyone else on the field is in slow motion.

“My job,” Arrington says, smiling now, “is to go out every Sunday and bust someone in the mouth.”

It has been three seasons since he arrived in Washington from Penn State as that year’s second-overall draft pick, a $10.75 million signing bonus in his pocket and a mountain of expectations on his sizable noggin. In those three years, he has labored under three head coaches and three defensive coordinators on a team whose best record has been 8-8. There’s a sense, then, that this season is the one in which LaVar Arrington may finally cash in on the full extent of his potential. Asked about that, he offers a scary thought for anyone who carries or catches a football for a living: “I haven’t even begun to scrape the surface of my talent.”
* * * * * *

The strip malls and McMansions of Northern Virginia don’t offer much opportunity to show off the advertised capabilities of a Mercedes SUV, but LaVar Arrington is determined to give it a shot. Bumping along the rutted road that connects the Redskins’ complex with two identical multilane highways, the 25-year-old guns the engine just before reaching a small bridge. It’s no Montana butte, but the boxy black vehicle gives a satisfying lurch. “Yes!” he says, grinning approvingly. “Rugged.” The assassin as soccer dad.

This mundane landscape suits Arrington fine. It reminds him of North Hills, the Pittsburgh suburb where he grew up. Arrington has lived here since signing with the Skins but is about to trade suburbs. He has his eye on a new house, in Annapolis, Maryland, one with enough land to build a separate house for his family and enough square footage to set up his chess room, a space he decorates with suits of armor and where he plays before and after games. The annihilator as chess geek.

This is the dirty little secret of one of football’s nastiest players: He’s a homebody, a nice guy, a mama’s boy. His mom, Carolyn, a former special-ed teacher, once reprimanded LaVar after a particularly bad performance during his particularly disastrous first year in the pros. “It was the most embarrassing time of my life, man,” he says. “When my mama told me I played like a scrub, she never had to tell me again.” This is worse than a cliche; it’s a goddamned Chunky soup commercial.

Just minutes ago, as he was making his way through the Redskins Park lobby, LaVar made small talk with staff members. A group of middle-aged white guys who make the team’s lunches approached to invite him to a “very special” wine dinner they were holding. LaVar listened patiently “I’ll go, too,” he said as we walked away. Clearly, this is a guy who wants to be liked off the field as much as he wants to be feared on it.

“I’m like the Hulk,” he says. “Before a game, my body transforms. You can see every vein. My muscles are bigger. But I can turn it off.”
* * * * * *

In Developing Linebackers the Penn State Way, written two decades before LaVar Arrington ever donned a Nittany Lions jersey, legendary defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky laid out the impossible blend of physical skills needed to play the position: quickness, power, fluidity, eyesight, toughness. Sandusky, now retired after thirty-two years at “Linebacker U.;’ says he never saw anybody closer to the ideal than Arrington. “He’s built like a linebacker,” Sandusky says, one of the few men qualified to utter that phrase without cracking a smile. “If you were to draw up a prototype, that’s LaVar.”

Arrington regards his own physical gifts with all the sunny insouciance of someone who has never lived a day without them. He prefers to focus on the other set of skills in Sandusky’s book–the so-called intangibles:

1) Able to recognize plays quickly.
2) Possessed with a feeling for the ball.
3) Consistently and mentally tough.
4) Able to concentrate.
5) Aware.
6) Endowed with a flair for the “big play.’
7) Alert and capable of directing teammates.

“Awareness and recognition,” says Arrington. “That’s the most important thing.” To him, the two to four seconds before the snap of the ball is like one of those hyperreal slow-motion snippets from an NFL Film, and he’s taking it all in: “Okay. The lineman is hunkered down with all this pressure on his hands. It’s going to be a run. Or: All right, that back looked to his left twice and to his right only once. Somewhere along the way, if he’s not careful, he’s going to give away what that means.”

You want flair for the big play? How about the famous LaVar Leap at Penn State, a mind-boggling fourth-and-inches play against Illinois, in which Arrington leaped over the entire offensive line to take down a back for a loss.

And as for concentration, what can you say but this: A half hour before game time often finds LaVar at his locker, towel over his head, bawling his eyes out. “I get so jacked up that I cry,” he says. “I can feel all this energy inside me. And then you use it, use it, until it’s all used up. It was easier in college and high school, because you had bus rides afterward. Sometimes I can’t even drive myself home, I’m so drained.”

But the most important mental trait for a linebacker lies between the lines of Sandusky’s list, an intangible that’s a bit more tangible to unlucky running backs. Call it number 8: being a mean-ass motherfucker. From Dick Butkus to Jack Ham to Lawrence Taylor to Ray Lewis, linebackers are a brutal breed. “They’re hitters,” says Hall-of-Famer Sam Huff, who played the position for the Giants and the Redskins in the ’50s and ’60s and now broadcasts for the Skins. “They’re intimidators. In a war, a linebacker would be first to die. He’d be storming the trenches while the quarterback was back in the tank, discussing plans with the general.”

Says LaVar, “I just want to play like they used to. Bloody-knuckles stuff. You know, Jack Lambert: ‘Gimme a six-pack and a cigarette and we’ll win this game.'”
* * * * * *

Make a play. Make a play. Take over the game. Look at that. I’m like a heat seeker All I see is red. Watch this…. Booyah! That’s bad intentions. That’s the way a lion brings down an impala. Bam!

Try to imagine, as the film rolls, what it might have been like to play against this guy in high school. Remember, he was only four years away from Monday Night Football, and he was taking on kids who were athletic, yes, but destined for careers in sales or accounting or in the steel mills. Sure, in those days, LaVar spent most of his time playing tailback, and Pittsburgh’s Quad A football division was among the best in the nation, regularly shipping talent out to major colleges and then on to the NFL. But still…

By 15, he was six feet three, almost 200 pounds and absurdly athletic. If that wasn’t enough to intimidate his prep rivals, he was already something more: a star. The bubble of sports celebrity closes fast over kids like this. He gave his first interview when he was in the sixth grade, when a local paper wanted to get him the Guinness World Record for youngest kid to dunk a basketball. College-recruitment letters started arriving when he was in the eighth grade. In tenth grade, he made his SportsCenter debut as a punter; the snap flew over his head, into the end zone, and LaVar picked it up and ran the length of the field for a touchdown.

“Very early you could see he was a bit more than normal,” chuckles LaVar’s father, Mike Arrington. Mike raised three sons-and three star athletes–despite having lost parts of both legs in a tank accident in Vietnam. Unable to participate in his sons’ sports, he analyzed and instructed instead, teaching them that football is as much a cerebral game as a physical one.

As for the bubble, it never stopped growing. And the reporters never stopped coming, especially after Arrington eschewed other suitors to stay close to home at Penn State and switched from running hack to linebacker. They loved the Leap. They loved the ferocity and the trash-talking and the sparring with venerated head coach Joe Paterno. They loved the chess room, the three pit hulls, the rumored romance with Serena Williams. (Arrington insists they were just friends.) They loved it when he sent the great Troy Aikman into retirement with one flying, crushing hit his rookie year in Washington. And, yes, they loved it, too, when it all blew up during that first season, when he was trapped in a rigid defensive scheme that didn’t make use of his speed, far from home and suddenly rich, prone to foolish penalties. It was easy to cast LaVar as just another spoiled, maladjusted modern athlete. Worse, as a bad guy.

LaVar professes not to care what gets written about him, but it’s clear that the bad rap confuses and upsets him.

“I have never been in trouble with the law. I have never touched a woman in anger. I am always courteous. I would never in a million years give anybody the benefit of saying LaVar Arrington did this or that to me,” he says. “But if you only saw me play, you’d probably think I’m arrogant. I’m out there to dominate, and if you’re sitting there watching, you’d think I was an asshole.”

This very morning, the news is full of the accusation that Kobe Bryant–the prototypical sports good guy–has sexually assaulted a 19-year-old in Colorado. “Nobody’s really saying that they think he did it, but what if he did?” Arrington asks. “If it were me, people would be like, ‘His crazy ass? He’s a madman. He’s like Lawrence Taylor.’ It’s hurtful.”

Some of this comes with the territory. To this day, Sam Huff says he won’t step foot in a bar because inevitably someone will want to see how tough the big bad linebacker really is. “You’re like a western gunslinger:” Huff says. “Everybody wants to test you.”

The Hall-of-Famer and the rookie formed a bond soon after LaVar arrived in D.C., and the old linebacker would like to see the new one get nastier, press be damned. “He’s so talented; if he had my meanness, he would be outrageous. Did Dick Butkus care about what people thought?”

Vicious as he can be on the field, LaVar may be temperamentally incapable of embracing the bad-guy role. Last year, when Arrington injured his wrist, Huff took him aside, gleam in his eye, and told Arrington that the trainers could put it in a cast, the better for clubbing blockers. “He said, ‘It’s not legal,'” Huff remembers. “I told him, ‘There’s lots of things that aren’t legal. Let the referees decide. That’s why they have whistles.'”

LaVar never put the cast on.
* * * * * *

“I’m a grown man,” he says at one point, out of nowhere, putting down his steak sandwich in his favorite pizzeria. “I’m a responsible adult.” The 25-year-old’s need to insist on this point is a reminder of how difficult it is, this business of figuring out how to be a man in a world that wants to keep you a boy. We like our athletes in tidy categories: journeyman or superstar, smack talker or class act, thug or saint. So you build an MTV-worthy crib but keep the family close; you hit like a demon hut fret about being seen as a showboating asshole; you play old-school, lunchpail ball but yearn for that big highlight play; you have a relationship with one of the few women in the world more famous than you, hut you won’t talk about it in public. You do what everybody does: struggle to assemble all those complex and contradictory pieces into a life. Only most of us have the luxury of doing it in private.

“LaVar was so gifted, so talented when I met him, he’d never had to work for anything,” says Jerry Sandusky. “I felt it was going to be extremely important for him to struggle.” In the intervening six years, the struggles have come and gone. No longer a phenom or rookie, surrounded by real talent on a team that finally has some continuity, Arrington says this is the year he stops scraping the surface of his talent and starts digging deep–just like a grown man would, like a responsible adult.

The plays continue to flicker on the screen, and LaVar is no longer talking to anybody hut LaVar. Jekyll regarding Hyde. “Take over a game. Take over a game. Make a play. Var, make a play.” On-screen he does, again and again. “Go, Var, go.”