The Young and the Talented
Jul 24, 2012 -- 10:52am
     If you're like me, you start the annual sports calendar with the opening of the NFL season and close it when the NBA Finals wrap up.  Yes, there is baseball - and this year, the Olympics, but for the most part, that's the guts of the sports year.  If you buy that, then get ready to start your calendar with the Redskins opening training camp this week. 
     The number one story, of course, is the begining of what is hoped to be a long and successful career for Robert Griffin III.  RGIII is 22-years-old and could wind up being the Redskins quarterback for the next 15 years if all goes well.  But he's not the only local sports (keep your fingers crossed) star to be in this town.  Bryce Harper, at age 19, is living up to the hype with the Nats.  John Wall hasn't blown anybody away yet, but doesn't turn 22 until September and still could live up to being drafted number one overall.  And Alexander Oveckin may be a well-worn 26, but still may have big days ahead, and may ultimately captain a Stanley Cup champion here.  Throw in Stephen Strasburg, who just turned 24 and you have quite a collection of young stars here.
     If you think it's been a long time since that's happened here in D.C. (sorry, I don't think I'll ever adopt the term "DMV"), you're right!  You have to go back to the 1983-84 sports year to recall this kind of collection of young talent in town - at least talent that panned out.  The 1994-95 year gave us rookies Heath Shuler and Juwan Howard, plus young Chris Webber.  It didn't work out, to say the least.
     Here's how it stacked up as the defending-champion Redskins (boy it's been a while since we could say that!) opened the 1983 season with 23-year-old Darrell Green running Tony Dorsett down from behind to make his first mark in what would be another Super Bowl season.  A month later 22-year-old Cal Ripken (hey we didn't have a team then, so the Orioles served as the de facto local baseball team) caught the last out of the World Series to cap off his MVP season in which he hit .318 with 27 home runs.  Less than a month later, the Bullets with 25-year-old Jeff Ruland would launch a playoff season in which Ruland averaged 22 points and 12 rebounds.  And the Capitals would make the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history, led by 26-year-old Rod Langway, who had established himself as one of the best defensemen in the league.
     Twenty nine years later, Green, Ripken and Langway are all Hall of Famers.  Ruland might have been, had he not hurt his knee.  Although before he was injured, the Bullets sent him to Philadelphia for Moses Malone, who did make the Hall of Fame.  We'll see what becomes of Griffin, Harper, Wall and Ovechkin, but enjoy them while they're here - it's been nearly three decades since we've seen this kind of collection of young talent in town.
     Regardless of how you feel about whether or not Penn State should have received the death penalty in the Sandusky scandel, this situation can in no way be compared to what happened to SMU 25 years ago.  Nor would the fallout at Penn State been the same as it was at SMU.  Many believe that because it took the Mustangs more than 20 years to recover from the death penalty, that no school would ever be punished in the same way again.  That likely factored in to the NCAA's decision not to shut the Penn State football program down this time.
     However, even if it was shut down, Penn State's football recovery would be much faster than SMU's.  I worked in Dallas at the time the cheating at SMU really got cranked up.  The "Pony Express" was zipping right along with Eric Dickerson and Craig James.  They were beginning their junior years when I was hired to work at WFAA radio in the fall of 1981. 
     Coach Ron Meyer, who had come from (where else) Las Vegas, had managed to land two of the top running backs in Texas.  And it was an open secret how he did it.  The gold Trans Am that Dickerson drove, and was later chronicled in the fine 30-for-30 documentary "Pony Excess" on ESPN, had been paid for by Texas A&M boosters.  Everybody knew it.  And everybody knew about the guys named "Hoss" who congratulated players on wins with $50 handshakes. 
     Meyer had his boys playing home games at Texas Stadium, home of the Cowboys.  They were paid almost like pros, so why not play in the home of the most celebrated team in the NFL?  These were fast times in a fast city and nobody wanted to know anything about anything as long as the Ponies were piling up the wins.  Even after they got caught paying players, they continued to do it.  That's what ultimately sealed their death penalty fate.  Heck, without the cheating, it's unlikely anybody could have built SMU in to a national power.  Nobody had done it before and nobody has done it since.
     At Penn State, as fast and as far as Joe Paterno fell, he did build a powerhouse football program that was from at least all appearances, devoid of paying players.  Penn State football is the biggest thing in a small town.  This is not like Big D, especially in the 80's when the oil and money were flowing like water.  SMU's football success flashed.  Penn State's football success had burned brightly for decades.
     There will be some down years.  It may take a decade to get back to bowl game, including the next four years where they couldn't go even if they qualified.  But the program will be back, make no mistake about it.  If the NCAA used the devastation that followed the death penalty at SMU in the Penn State case as a guide, they were misguided.

Return to: Andy Pollin Blog