The Ray Small situation is sad.
It really is. Most of us are born with certain gifts or natural abilities to do certain things well, but most of the time it's something completely useless like tying a cherry stem into a knot in your mouth or making cool train noises with your hands or developing a perfect internal clock that you'll never shut up about ever.
Ray Small, on the other hand, won the genetic lottery and was blessed with athletic abilities that could've potentially netted him millions of dollars over the course of his football playing career. He attended one of the most high profile football programs in the country, was led by one of the best football head coaches of the last 25 years, and played in a system where all he'd really need to do to realistically get a shot at playing time is to run really fast and not be a complete jackass.
Unfortunately for Ray Small, that last little stipulation proved to be the hardest to pull off. As a result he found himself repeatedly in Jim Tressel's bad graces, emerging every Spring Game like some kind of bewildered groundhog that would then see its shadow, fail a drug test (or miss a team meeting or skip classes or whatever), and then run back from whatever hole from whence he came.
That alone isn't sad. It's dumb, and gave us probably my all time favorite nickname for an Ohio State football player, but it isn't sad. What also isn't sad is the sequence of events that took place in late 2009 and beyond, from when college senior Ray Small was about to participate in his final regular season game as an Ohio State Buckeye as a captain elected by his teammates to now, a day after 24 year old Ray Small was arrested for posession of narcotics by way of pills, herion, and weed.
In 2009 much had been written about Ray Small's "redemption," partly because he had managed to somehow keep himself from Tressel's doghouse (likely through some combination of voodoo and boxed wine), and also partly because everyone loves a redemption story. The Brothers Karamazov, Les Miserables, Mean Girls; we're drawn to these stories because something in us badly wants to see people overcome their baser natures and do good, and I think it's something that Jim Tressel believes in strongly.
And it was perfectly set up, too! Ray Small, after years of inconsistency and disappointment, shows up ready to play the week before the Michigan game. He's elected to be one of four team captains by his peers, proceeds to catch 15 passes for 175 yards (including the game winning touchdown with .5 seconds left), becomes a first round draft pick, plays 8 mediocre-to-good seasons in the NFL, retires, gains 250 pounds, starts 3 semi-successful big and tall leather jacket stores, and dies happily in his sleep of diabetic shock at the age of 67.
But Ray Small didn't do any of those things. He didn't even have a good Michigan game in 2009, catching no passes and returning a total of four kicks, only one of which was significant in any way. Shortly after, he managed to get himself suspended for the Rose Bowl. And then, like he had so many times after various spring games throughout his career, he disappeared.
...for 18 months, when he returned to render his own personal verdict on the NCAA violation situation at Ohio State. In his interview with the Lantern, Small made several claims; that he sold memorabilia, that "everybody was doing it," that players were getting favorable deals on cars. It angered his former teammates, who felt that he had broken a bond with them, but the person he had to have hurt the most was Tressel.
In the second part of his terrific two part essay for Grantland, Maurice Clarett spelled out exactly what Jim Tressel tried to do for him as a freshman.
The first person to try to pull the reins and give me some advice on how to handle my success was Coach Tress. He called me into his office the following Monday and laid out 13 issues that I would face throughout the year, and lord knows that was my sign to avoid all the pitfalls I fell inside. His topics ranged from leadership to teamwork to friends to scheduling time to women, etc., etc., etc.
I don't think this was unusual. Hell, Tressel wrote an entire book about these concepts, and I'm sure over the course of his career Ray Small found himself at the receiving end of multiple lectures on those subjects. But for Clarett and Small, it didn't seem to matter. Neither listened. Ray Small the star was more important than Ray Small the competent human being, and in the end, that's what has led to the situation that he currently finds himself in.
As a high school teacher, situations like these are the hardest for me to internalize. I know exactly the angst that Jim Tressel must have felt after having bent over backward for this kid time and time again, only to have it thrown it back in his face. And I know the anxiety he must still feel as he watches Small's drama unfold, helpless to help his former player out.
Luckily Clarett was able to turn his life around. His prison blog was both both weird and enlightening, and it signaled a person who was ready to change who they were fundamentally. Now, years away from his mistakes, Clarett is a happier and more content person than he was when he was chasing his own image, and like the man says:
Everyone wishes things would have played out differently, but they didn't, and I can live with that. I'm back to being friends with all of my old teammates and coaches, and I'm back to being a responsible father.
I'll graduate in due time, and I'll continue to read, write, speak publicly, and be a positive force in any community I reside in. Stay tuned.
That's something Ray Small can learn from and change from, and I know that the person who wants this to happen more than anyone is his former college football coach. Because that's what's actually sad about all of this. Not that Ray Small wasted his potential, or that he ended up turning on his former teammates (although that is incredibly irritating). It's that someone repeatedly gave him a chance to do the right thing, and he ignored those chances right up to his final day as a Buckeye.
Ray Small had the opportunity not just to become a great football player, but to be a good person. He still can be, but he needs to start making the choices Clarett did at this point in his life and understand that he is literally and figuratively a small man; not a star or a celebrity, but a small man caught in huge trouble that he must now face punishment for.
Before the USC game in 2009, Ray Small had this to say to Adam Rittenberg at ESPN, in reference to the differences between USC and Ohio State: "Here at Ohio State, they teach you to be a better man."
Well, they tried to, anyway.