"You can't live with 'em -- you cannot live without them!"
How many times have those words been uttered since Genesis I? As you know, the traditional reference is not to quarterbacks. At least not until 1958, when a guy named Johnny Unitas leapt into the national consciousness during the "Greatest Game Ever Played." Since then, purists have argued that the Baltimore Colts-New York Giants 1958 NFL championship game was not an artistic masterpiece. Too many turnovers, too many botched drives, and too many missed tackles to rate with the top performances.
But few would debate what happened next. The crew cut kid with the high-top shoes, bowed legs, laser arm and crooked smile captured the national imagination in a way that survives to this day. Unitas died on Sept. 11, 2002, but owing to the fact that I handed him the football for five years, I am asked about him an average of once a week. If I am in a football setting, I am queried several times a day, just about him.
What happened? Our sports culture is complicated in most ways, but not in this one: We love to create quarterback heroes, lust over them as if they were indeed seductive women, build them into messiah figures, worship them awhile, and then systematically destroy them. Unitas would not be destroyed because he was ready for the trials. He endured as both icon and warmhearted teammate to the end. There was controversy about his injuries and business reversals, but man to man, he never stopped smiling, never stopped loving his teammates, and never wallowed in self pity.
Bart Starr, the great Green Bay Packers quarterback, winner of five world titles and two Super Bowl Most Valuable Player awards, credits Unitas with being part of his inspiration. Starr is another survivor, having endured unspeakable personal tragedy to move into his 70s as a triumph of the human spirit. Not surprisingly, both Unitas and Starr loved little kids, signed autographs and were unfailing in their kindness (except with a few sportswriters). I never saw a tantrum from either of them. I never saw either of them fail to take responsibility for a football performance, even if we protected them poorly. I never saw either of them turn down an autograph request. Never.
Those manifestations of inner substance and caring, folks, are evidence of toughness and maturity, tempered in the fires of adversity. Those qualities, and yes, a large dose of charisma, constitute the basis for great leadership.
The sad fact today is that very few of our talented signal callers are allowed the privilege of growing up, experiencing adversity and developing the human skills necessary to handle fame and irrational expectations.
Now comes our quick-fix, instant-gratification, high-powered, publicity-sick, sports-obsessed society, and we no longer wish to wait until a quarterback has learned his way around, languished in obscurity, and then risen through the ranks. Now we want our heroes to burst forth in Superman capes in their teens. We make them icons before their senior prom. No, wait now we expect that they should pass up the prom, graduate early, and get into the offseason workouts with a bunch of big, fast teammates, starting at 5 a.m. every day, in January of their 18th year.
Furthermore, we, the sporting public, want so desperately to know their plans that we fund ruthless "recruiting services" that become millionaires by calling these kids' houses hundreds of times a day. And Lord help any poor unsuspecting quarterback who decides to forego his state university to go away off to school. He will never be forgiven by his obsessed following, or in some cases by his family.
If you doubt me, have a talk with the families of Mitch Mustain of the University of Arkansas, Tim Tebow of Florida or Matthew Stafford of Georgia. After you have learned that their phones are disconnected or unlisted, get in touch with their head coaches, each of whom has a unique situation in his own private nightmare. Each of these coaches is a veteran, proven winner; each has had notable success with quarterbacks, and each knows his team and freshman quarterback could be deeply and permanently wounded by this scenario. Satisfy the bloodlust of the crowd and risk sacrificing the youngster? Or take the heat, no matter what? Only the head coach knows.
One is simply not allowed to bring along the potential Starr or Unitas if there is a media-anointed savior on the scene. The lone exception is the situation Southern California has enjoyed in its last two transitions, in which the budding superstar is superseded by a mega-superstar who got there first. With Carson Palmer, then Matt Leinart pocketing Heismans, Pete Carroll was forgiven for making John David Booty wait in the wings.
The most-prepared coach in the quarterback cauldron this year is Mark Richt of Georgia. All he has to do is remind the Bulldogs faithful of David Green, D.J. Shockley, Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke. He has used his characteristic calm and wit to keep the situation at bay, and had a yawning win in the opener, 48-12 over Western Kentucky. And yet, the headline on one Dawgs' Web site stated that "nothing has been settled in the quarterback situation." According to accounts, the insertion of Stafford into the game in the fourth quarter was a clear signal that Stafford "was going to be the quarterback at some point in the season." Nonsense. Richt has said all along he would handle it. He has stuck by faithful five-year man Joe Tereshinski III, but the hysterical media and Bulldogs nation conspire to ignore him. Richt knows very well that the effect on the team, Tereshinski and Stafford could be devastating.
In Gainesville, Fla., Urban Meyer has been consistent with his depth chart. Chris Leak will be the man. Read the Gator Web site and the very first line goes: "Chris Leak throws three touchdown passes, and highly touted freshman Tim Tebow ran for a score, as number seven Florida overcame a slow start to beat Southern Mississippi 34-7." Did anyone else play? Leak is a bona fide Heisman candidate, and yet many Gators fans will insist that Tebow should take over now.
Arkansas is the most bizarre of the three soap operas. Houston Nutt hired Gus Malzahn, Mustain's high school coach, as his new offensive coordinator, then proceeded to lose his first home opener since arriving at Arkansas, by a score of 50-14, to the Southern California Trojans, who had rung up 70 on the Hogs a year ago. The headline? "It was under unusual circumstances, but Mitch Mustain is now Arkansas' starting quarterback." Surprised? There are rare cases in which the youngster is mature beyond his years, and can simultaneously handle the first year of college, football stardom, and intense national scrutiny. Mustain has been in the spotlight so long he may well be ready for the challenge.
But what all of this usually means is that young people who happen to have good arms are being readied for the Hall of Fame before they have earned a high school diploma. Teens that are often insecure are being expected to excel in a cruel and brutal arena without the requisite training for such. Even when they succeed, they are often weighed down by a sense of obligation that cannot possibly be satisfied. I have seen wonderful young men overwhelmed by our lust for gridiron victories. There were times I knew that as their coach, I was responsible.
Coaches will be criticized at best, fired at worst, if they insist on an orderly, sequential program, in which jobs are won on the practice field and in the classroom. They will be lauded momentarily by going to the youngster, but roundly criticized when the kid throws five interceptions. When that occurs, and it usually does, what happens in the mind and heart of an 18-year-old who has plummeted from instant fame to outcast? If you are sincerely interested, watch the faces of the young stars' mothers, when they are inevitably featured during televised broadcasts. Are they having fun?
There was a compelling reason that freshmen were ineligible the first century of college football.
ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. He is currently the Executive Director of Leadership Baylor, a comprehensive leadership initiative at Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tenn. His column appears each week during the college football season.