At its best, college football is about a grass-strained, mud-caked education.
It’s about kids pushing, and falling, and pushing again until they cross a painted white line into adulthood, battered but stronger, whipped into wisdom, boys to men.
At its best, college football is about growing up, and no team is a greater example of this than the University of Oregon, which brings to the Rose Bowl a tale of redemption that will tingle your socks.
But, at its worst, college football is also about pride and ego and control.
So this week we won’t be hearing from LeGarrette Blount.
Remember him? Of course you do. You’ve seen his video. You’ve screamed for his head.
Back in September, after a loss to Boise State, the Oregon running back became a national symbol of the angry young athlete when he threw a right jab that flattened the Broncos’ Byron Hout.
The haymaker was on national television. The fallout became a national debate. Blount was kicked off the team, while national perception kicked his teammates to the curb.
But, slowly, together, they came back.
Blount couldn’t play, but he practiced, and cheered, and by all accounts became a better teammate than ever.
He wrote a letter of apology in the school newspaper, attended anger management classes, and eventually began speaking about the dangers of his recklessness to Eugene, Ore.-area schools, clubs and even a juvenile detention center.
In the meantime, the Ducks were becoming a stronger team than ever, overcoming the early chaos to embarrass USC and briefly push into the national title picture.
The comebacks of player and school wonderfully collided in the regular-season finale against Oregon State, when the reinstated Blount gained 51 yards rushing and scored a touchdown in the Rose Bowl berth-clinching win.
It was thus with great anticipation Wednesday that I scanned the dozens of green jerseys in a downtown hotel ballroom during Rose Bowl media day for the running back who symbolized the redemption.
Where was LeGarrette Blount?
“He’s not here,” said Jeff Hawkins, Oregon’s director of football operations. “He’s not the story.”
Um, when it comes to individual Oregon players, he’s the only story.
He’s a story that college football needs. He’s a story that the Rose Bowl deserves. He’s a story that Oregon, having earned the privilege of appearing on this granddaddy of all national stages, owes.
Every other Duck shows up at media day except the one who could impart the greatest message through the media?
Where was LeGarrette Blount?
“He’s not talking, it’s his decision,” said Chip Kelly, Oregon coach. “He decided he didn’t want to speak, and I respect that.”
Interesting that a guy who willingly talks to residents of a juvenile detention center suddenly wouldn’t want to talk to a bunch of folks wielding hotel pens.
Turns out, while Blount has not said more than a few passing words to the media since his September suspension, he’s been affable and accessible to everyone else.
“I’ve been around him a lot, he loves to talk about it, he likes showing people that he would not let himself be defined by that punch,” said Ed Dickson, the Ducks tight end.
Sounds as if this isn’t his decision.
Sounds as if his coach still considers him a distraction not worth the inspiration that his story would generate.
Sounds as if the Oregon program fears tales of Blount’s weaknesses so much, it is willing to sacrifice a celebration of his strength.
Surely Kelly doesn’t still think Blount’s story is embarrassing to his team. Frankly, Oregon’s appearance here is embarrassing without it.
Here is a guy who, even after his entire season was trashed, willingly helped freshman LaMichael James take his place, leading to James’ 123-yard rushing average and selection as a third-team All-American.
“Everybody thought LeGarrette was this big bad bear, but really he’s been nothing but nice to me, always there for me, always willing to help me,” James said.
And here is a guy who, even though he was not allowed to dress for the games, would show up in the locker room afterward to pat shoulders and give hugs.
“He really wanted to show his teammates who he was,” Dickson said. “And he’s done that.”
If only Oregon would allow him to show it to everyone else.
Show it to the NFL scouts who are watching every move. Show it to Oregon alumni who might one day be able to help him in the business world.
Show it to himself, furthering this important lesson of accountability and maturation.
By silencing Blount here, Oregon is hiding the most redeeming feature of college football while highlighting one of the most vexing.
There is occasionally real education occurring among the hardy men of these hardened fields.
But, shhh, just don’t tell anybody.
An L.A. howdy to out-of-towners Columnist Chris Erskine alerts Rose Bowl fans to our idiosyncrasies. C7 He has a history with the game Oregon assistant Nick Aliotti recalls a stop in Pasadena with UCLA. C6