Originally published December 2002 (vol. 1, no. 5) in The Bootleg Magazine. "The Next Elway" by Jim Rutter
"The next Elway"… Trent Edwards has heard it. T.C. Ostrander wants to be it. Fans of the formerly formidable Stanford passing game pine for it. We always want a promising new pigskin prospect, something for which to live, to know when Stanford will find the next awe-inspiring, entertaining, charismatic superstar. Come to think of it, another Elway might be a tad greedy. We would settle for the "The Next Darrin Nelson," "The Next Kenny Margerum," or heck, at this point we'd even happily settle for "The Next Anthony Bookman"!
Back in ‘79, a much-heralded, rifle-armed, pigeon-toed quarterback from Granada Hills High School showed up and took part in the first day of Fall Ball. According to local legend, two Card quarterbacks, Babe Laufenberg (a sports anchor for CBS Channel 11 in Dallas-Fort Worth who actually interviewed Elway at 1:30 a.m. after John won his Super Bowl MVP) and Grayson Rogers (who is probably a doctor somewhere), immediately decided to transfer, knowing in their hearts that they would never stand a chance. Elway was that good, he had arrived "as advertised."
John Paye, the #1-rated prep QB in the country in 1982, came in after Elway graduated and eventually proved quite the worthy successor, but technically, the next in line after Elway was a fellow San Fernando Valley native, Steve Cottrell. Let's put it this way – Cardinal Coach Paul Wiggin once stated publicly, "If John Elway is a 10, then Cottrell is a 7 or 8." Thanks, Coach.
The precarious "Next" nametag. It involves the premature prognostication of pigskin prowess. We always get ahead of ourselves. BootBoard recruitniks are already talking about "The Next Teyo" when Teyo still needs to become "The First Teyo"! In American society, we seem obsessed with finding the next best thing. We want the next job, next diet, next house, next growth stock. None of it is necessarily rational or fair. However, as ardent sports fans, we crave a continuous frame of reference. We jump right in, comparing apples with oranges. We want to put imperfect human beings into well-defined categories. It is not that easy. Sport is an imperfect science. Going from high school legend, to campus hero, to pro superstar, to landing in the Hall of Fame is a rare thing indeed. 1953 Stanford All-American QB Bobby Garrett, a one-time Hula Bowl MVP (as were Card QBs Jim Plunkett and Todd Husak), was the #1 pick of the Browns in ‘54, but Garrett lasted only one year in the NFL. Take the case of Michigan State's Tony Mandarich, once dubbed "The Best Offensive Line Prospect Ever"! The "Phenom of all Phenoms" was the #2 pick in the NFL draft ahead of a few decent players like Barry Sanders and "Neon Deion" Sanders. Mandarich was a physical monster, sporting a 54" chest, yet five years later, Sports Illustrated was calling him, "The Incredible Bust," offering him up as the poster boy of steroid abuse. Remember when Kentucky center Sam Bowie was picked ahead of Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft? Go figure.
Unrealistic expectations can put tremendous pressure on young athletes. Our own hoops star Casey Jacobsen didn't perform well in the beginning of last season when he felt he had to take all of the shots. High expectations come from a variety of sources – from fans, the media, coaches and even teammates and families. We, the fans, are the worst. We don't care about the odds of a player reaching and maintaining stardom, we want to dream, and dream big. Is amazing Ohio State freshman Maurice Clarett "The Next Hershel Walker"? We don't know yet. A lot can happen in contact sports. Eddie George became everything OSU fans expected; however, another spectacular Big-10 back, Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter, was an overall #1 pick in the NFL draft, who due to injury, has done diddly. Bo Jackson's degenerative hip kept us from ever knowing just how incredible he might have been. Closer to home, mid-80s Stanford linebacker Del Detwiler was one of the toughest, craziest, hardest-hitting guys I ever met. He was a clear candidate to be "The Next Dave Wyman," but he put his forearm through a plate glass window, severed a major artery, and never played another down. It isn't always injury that gets in the way of success. U$C's "Robo-QB" Todd Marinovich was scientifically bred to be the perfect quarterback, a "stone cold lock," but his rebellion from his famously obsessed father nearly ruined him.
How can we project youngsters to become like athletes who have taken many years to establish their greatness? Can a college player be realistically labeled "The Next Gretzky" or "The Next Barry Bonds"? Can anyone ever really be "The Next Tiger Woods"? Perhaps Kobe Bryant has in some ways become "The Next Michael Jordan," but what about U$C guard Harold "Baby Jordan" Minor, who won the 1993 and 1995 NBA Slam Dunk championships in such spectacular fashion? Where is he now? Hanging out in Vegas from what I last heard.
It seems to get worse and worse. The expectations and the accompanying pressures seem to rise every year. Ohio's two-time Mr. Basketball LeBron James became the first high school junior to ever receive the Gatorade High School Basketball Player of the Year Award. This "miracle-in-high tops" has already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which declared him to be "The Chosen One." LeBron has so much raw potential that Michael Jordan, Shaq, Kobe and numerous other NBA superstars have actually attended his high school games! An Italian league team supposedly offered him $9 million to skip his final year and play overseas. Wow!
Unrealistic expectations can lead to unjustified disappointments. Notre Dame's Ron Powlus was, statistically, a fine college quarterback, but he is viewed by many as a tremendous disappointment. The pressure on Powlus came from constant media hype. Frightening-looking Beano Cook, the crown prince of college football hype, once predicted that we would see at least two Heisman trophies for Powlus during his career in South Bend. Never happened. Oklahoma's Marcus Dupree was supposed to become "The Next Billy Simms." Never happened.
Rating high school players is useful, but hardly precise. Running back Darrin Nelson was considered by many to be "too small," arriving in 1977 at about 159 pounds, soaking wet. He was listed at 5'9", 170. (Yeah, and Troy Walters was 5'9"!) True, Darrin was a First Team All-CIF 4-A (All-State in CA), but so was wide receiver Randy Risser. Randy who? Exactly. Re