Local hero Pryor plays a new role: the pariah
Terrelle Pryor with Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, who resigned Monday amid allegations that some Ohio State players traded autographs and memorabilia for tattoos and money.
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Venture around the streets of Jeannette's quiet downtown and you might find a handful of small, white posters hanging in storefront windows.
Small Town. Big Pride.
That motto is no more evident than in the way Jeannette adores Terrelle Pryor, the hometown kid who ascended to national college football prominence. And it is no more needed than now, when his name is vilified just about everywhere else after he was suspended for five games by Ohio State University and coach Jim Tressel resigned Monday in the wake of a widening scandal and NCAA investigation into the receipt of improper benefits.
This is the town that watched Pryor carry its high school football team to glory, accounting for five touchdowns in its first state championship victory in December 2007. He followed that by leading the Jayhawks to a state basketball title about four months later.
As a quarterback, Pryor set records in a state that has produced its fair share of football stars. He was tall, strong and quick, and just about every college coach in the nation knew it.
Recruiting services ranked him as the nation's No. 1 high school football prospect, and Buckeyes fans were thrilled when he committed to their school. "THE" Ohio State University fans even forgave him for calling it "the university of Ohio State."
But the aura around the high school senior took its toll.
"I've been watching sports all these years and it's amazing how different it is when you're considered the No. 1 player in the country coming out of high school, rather than just maybe the No. 30 player," said Ray Reitz, who was Pryor's head coach at Jeannette. "It's a whole different pressure, and you never lose that label of being the No. 1 player. The thing is, you're in a fishbowl your whole life because of it."
As the accolades and attention grew, so too did Pryor's ego.
Shortly after scoring a touchdown to stretch Jeannette's lead in the state title game to 42 points, Pryor approached Reitz and simply told him he was done for the day. It's not unusual for a star player to sit out the final minutes of a blowout victory. But usually the coach tells the player he is done for the day, not the other way around.
The Observer-Reporter in Washington wrote in February 2008 of a run-in Pryor had with South Fayette fans after the Jayhawks beat the Lions in a WPIAL playoff basketball game. Following post-game handshakes, he got into a heated exchange with the South Fayette student section, which had directed venom his way most of the night. An on-duty police officer said security officials nearly had to apprehend Pryor.
Less than a month later, Pryor and his Jeannette teammates got into a post-game fight with players from North Catholic, and he had to be restrained.
Pryor didn't join 14 teammates at a subsequent meeting with WPIAL officials, "because I'm not talking to the media," he said in an email at the time. "Everyone blames me."
His Columbus-based attorney, Larry James, declined to comment via email for this story.
In high school, Pryor grew close to two Jeannette businessmen: Tony DeNunzio, former president and CEO of United Federal Savings, and Ted Sarniak, owner of Jeannette Specialty Glass.
Some in the community said those affiliations had their effect on Pryor.
"He was a young kid ... and he got influenced by too many people that have money in this town," said Tom Kowalski, owner of Punch & Jr's pub on Clay Street in Jeannette.
One coach from another college whose team recruited Pryor disputed the idea that there were a lot of people acting on his behalf.
"Really the only person we dealt with was Reitz," said the coach.
A source said DeNunzio tried to help Pryor in high school because he bounced from household to household. The source said DeNunzio wanted him to go to Penn State, thinking it would be a better environment for him.
But the source said Pryor gravitated more toward Sarniak because he was younger and more energetic and took him to more exciting places. Sarniak hired him at his business after he graduated from Jeannette.
During the recruiting process, a few college coaches said privately that they thought Sarniak was the one steering Pryor to Ohio State. Reitz said Sarniak drove Pryor to Ohio State a "few times" for visits.
"But Teddy wasn't around our program. It wasn't like he was on our sidelines," Reitz said. "I didn't want those guys around. I like Teddy. What [Sarniak] did once practice or games were over, I don't know. He did a lot of good things for kids and Terrelle.
"As far as did he give kids anything? I can't say that. I know he let Terrelle drive his car once in a while. But I let kids drive my car once in a while, too. The thing is, no one wants to drive my car," Reitz said, laughing.
Sarniak could not be reached for comment for this story. A young man who answered the door at Sarniak's home just outside Jeannette's city limits said "no," and closed the front door when a visitor identified himself as a reporter.
At Jeannette Specialty Glass, a woman leaving the office said neither Sarniak nor his wife, Kathleen, the company's president, wanted to talk to the media. Pryor's relationship with Sarniak has been highly scrutinized, initially by opposing fans but most recently by the NCAA, which in April asked Ohio State to explain their connection.
In December 2010, rumors started to trickle out of Columbus that some Ohio State players traded autographs and memorabilia for tattoos and money.
Pryor quickly took to Twitter to proclaim innocence.
"I paid for my tattoos. GoBucks," he wrote in a December tweet.
But that Twitter denial quickly unraveled as details emerged.
Pryor was one of five Buckeyes implicated in the scandal, a violation of NCAA rules. He was suspended for five games by the university.
When Tressel first learned of the allegations -- he was tipped by a U.S. Justice Department attorney in early 2010 -- he passed along the information via email to Sarniak, and no one else. The former coach did not discuss it with Ohio State administration officials until the news broke late last year, and his resignation after 10 seasons followed intensifying scrutiny.
Sports Illustrated reported last week that at least 28 former and current Buckeyes traded merchandise for money or tattoos, and the practice started in 2002 -- five years before Pryor first wore the scarlet and gray.
The NCAA is now investigating claims that a Columbus-area car dealer gave special deals to Ohio State players. It has focused its investigation on Pryor, who according to the Columbus Dispatch was pulled over three times since 2008 while driving cars that were owned by a car salesman or a car lot where the salesman worked.
Pryor's attorney said his client has driven a number of loaner cars while his personal car was in for repairs.
"The damage is done. Right now, he's guilty until he proves himself innocent," Reitz said. "The thing that worries you is this whole thing follows him forever."
In Jeannette, the community has rallied around its one-time prep star.
"You've got to stick up for your own man," said lifelong Jeannette resident Eugene Myers, 61, between sips of a soft drink at Punch & Jr's.
Current Jeannette football coach Roy Hall, who was an assistant coach when Pryor played in Jeannette, said people remember what the quarterback did in high school.
"He helped put Jeannette on the map," said Hall. "I think a lot of people here in Jeannette feel like, 'Hey, he made a mistake. But it's not like he was drinking and driving, or he beat someone up or he assaulted somebody.' "
"I don't blame him," said James Derry, a former teammate, now 20. "If I was him, I would try to do the same thing."
The attention has taken its toll on the Pryor family.
Pryor's brother, Tyrone Baughman, is working a construction job in Jeannette. But he is exhausted by the scrutiny and did not want to talk about his brother.
"People have been following me, my mom and my brother around," Baughman said.
Pryor's mother, Toni, who lives in Columbus, has scolded reporters for invading her privacy.
But as much as he is supported in Jeannette, he is a pariah in Columbus.
In many discussions around campus, Pryor is painted as the villain in this scandal.
The main issue isn't that Pryor and his teammates got in trouble for selling memorabilia. It is that he has made poor choices since.
Tressel, on the other hand, is viewed as more of a sympathetic figure, viewed as the man who had to take the fall for his players' bad acts.
"If you think about it, all [Tressel] did was stand up for his players and try to protect them," said one patron at Tecks Barber Shop in Columbus.
"Pryor should have known better," added another, "and honestly, after the way he has acted with the cars and stuff, it is time for him to leave."
Most people around campus seem to share that opinion.
"I just can't believe how fast people have turned on him," Reitz said. "Two years ago, they wanted to give him a key to the city up there. Now they want to hang the kid."
Pryor's future is uncertain.
Before Tressel's resignation, the senior-to-be affirmed his commitment to Ohio State.
But as the NCAA continues its probe and as Buckeyes fans grow more vitriolic, some wonder whether Pryor will ever again play in Ohio Stadium.
He could entertain a move to the National Football League through a supplemental draft.
Reitz said over the past few days he has received phone calls from people claiming to be attorneys from Washington, D.C.
"They say they're attorneys, and I think, 'I don't have any money. I didn't do anything wrong,' " Reitz said with a laugh. "But they want to talk about the supplemental draft."
But the NFL is mired in a labor dispute, and league officials are uncertain if they will hold a supplemental draft this year.
"It's unclear whether the NFL will even entertain the possibility of conducting a supplemental draft in the absence of a new [collective bargaining agreement]," Corry Rush, an NFL spokesman, wrote in an email.
Another NFL spokesman, Greg Aiello, told Pro Football Talk by email that there have been no applicants for a supplemental draft, and if any emerge, they would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Reitz does not believe Pryor would opt to leave Ohio State.
"I think he still wants to come back to Ohio State because I think he's loyal to the kids at Ohio State," he said. He doesn't think the blowback will change that.
"You tell him that he can't do something, he will do his darnedest to prove you wrong," Reitz said. "Not only is he a tremendous athlete, but he has that drive most people don't have."
First Published June 5, 2011 12:00 am