The Weight of Expectations: Players Don't 'Star' Themselves

By Michael Citro on July 17, 2014 at 1:00p
Curtis Grant arrived at Ohio State as a five-star prospect.

In the last 20 years, I can count on one hand the truly memorable gifts I’ve received for birthdays and holidays. Of those I can remember, one stands out above all the others.

I opened the package on Christmas Day, 2006. To my surprise, there it was—a beautiful, black, shiny new iPod. My wife had stunned me. Money was tight that year and we had decided to focus on giving our daughter a good Christmas and keeping each other’s gifts under a specific budget.

I was unaware Apple’s website extended credit on iPod purchases, but she wasn't, thus she was able to sneak in under budget and get me this wonderful gadget. On the back was engraved “Follow You, Follow Me,” the title of ‘our song.’

It’s a cool little gizmo that I still use on a daily basis, even though its 80 gigs of storage holds only about a quarter of my morbidly obese music collection. But at heart it’s only a hunk of metal, plastic and wires. It’s not terribly special in any way and truthfully it is outdated technology.

What makes it such a memorable and valued gift is that it was completely unexpected. Most years, I just tell my loved ones what I want and most of those items not-so-magically appear on my birthday or at Christmas time. That year, my list didn’t include anything that cost more than 25 bucks.

Boom. iPod. Sweet.

Unexpected pleasant things have a way of surprising like that. Just like what was inside that small package I opened in 2006, none of us knew what we were getting on National Signing Days past, when autographed faxes rolled in from the likes of Kenny Guiton, Malcolm Jenkins, Dane Sanzenbacher or James Laurinitis.

If Ohio State recruited them, we probably reasoned, they must be pretty good. But these were not the most heralded guys in their classes. Like me, with my Genesis-lyric inscribed iPod, we had no idea what we were getting. So when they displayed their abundant talents on the football field over the course of their OSU careers, we were unexpectedly delighted.

Some of our favorite players are the underdogs—guys who seemingly came out of nowhere to steal our hearts and take wins away from Ohio State’s opponents. Those four players above, and others like them, are memorable because we expected little from them and they gave so much.

But the bastard sword of expectations slices both ways.

Ohio State recruiting is nationally ranked among the very best on an annual basis. As such, many very highly ranked players fax their letters to Columbus on National Signing Day.

And we expect a lot from these young men. So it displeases us when they don’t perform to levels of which we believe they are capable.

What leads us to believe they are capable of anything other than sending in a fax (or getting someone else to do it for them)?

The proliferation of recruiting websites, media coverage and scouting reports has created this atmosphere. As rabid fans of our team, we eat up recruiting stories in the off-season because we need something to feed our addiction in the 24/7/365 news cycle. Recruiting is all we have for parts of the year. And it's all some reporters have to do, too.

Miss you, Sanzo.
Sanzenbacher: the most pleasant of surprises.

So we read. We find out about some kid in Georgia or Virginia or Texas or some small town in Ohio who is very good at football. High school football.

People scrutinize his strengths and weaknesses, watch him play against other high school kids and a consensus is reached on what his worth will be as a collegiate football player. Sometimes one group and another group reach a different consensus. But the kid is “rated” by one service after another until we as fans have some idea of what kind of college player they should be.

Each group’s consensus is represented by a number of stars. Linebacker Curtis Grant out of Hermitage, Va., received five of these from multiple recruiting services. The "experts" thought he was a can't-miss prospect.

Curtis Grant did not give himself five stars.

As fans, we often forget that. He did not proclaim himself to be the 14th best inside linebacker out of 154, or any number of other things written by recruiting consortiums. Here’s a player Rivals says “reminds us of Ray Lewis.” (No pressure or anything, Curtis!)

All he did was play football against other kids in his age group. Other people assigned him those stars.

And we bought it.

Fans think of other prize recruits—guys like Braxton Miller, Terrelle Pryor, Ted Ginn Jr., and on back to Chris Spielman—and we expect things. We look for them to get in the lineup early, dominate, and possibly leave for the NFL before their senior year.

But it doesn’t always work that way.

And when it doesn’t, those players not meeting the expectations we heap upon them end up in stories like this, and we as fans tend to look down them or make them our whipping boys when the team, or one of its units, isn’t performing well. It’s probably the most unfair thing that we do as college football fans.

For a number of reasons, players don’t work out like we think they will, starting with the fact that we’re basing our expectations on predictive data supplied by collectives of complete strangers and maybe a few highlight reels of the kid going HAM all over other kids who are likely either physically or genetically inferior (or both).

Other factors include the kid’s maturity level and how he deals with new variables in his life: the adjustment from adolescence into adulthood, first-time freedom from his parents’ direct supervision, juggling college coursework and a near-NFL level of football preparation, new social dynamics outside the fishbowl we call high school, homesickness, and so on.

Sometimes a kid will get by on athletic ability and physical superiority in high school, only to find that they lack the more cerebral aspects of the game required at the college level, where almost everyone is a freak athlete, thus leveling the playing field. Or maybe the coaching staff isn’t using the player in a way to maximize their strengths.

And we see the same kinds of things happen when college stars don’t make it in the NFL (see: Mike Vrabel’s time with the Steelers).

None of these make someone a bad kid.

Still, many of us are quick to jump on our computers and use our keyboards to eviscerate 18-to-22-year-old young men on the internet out of frustration because of a missed tackle or a botched assignment. The higher a recruit’s ranking, the more they feel our wrath when they don’t perform like we expect them to.

Curtis Grant did not give himself five stars.

Whatever happens, what we expect will have nothing to do with it.

He’s a kid playing football for the team representing the university we love. Despite his number of stars, he didn’t earn a starting spot until his junior season. He played OK. As Ohio State fans, we are not OK with “OK.” And I’m not suggesting we should be. But that’s our own problem, not Grant’s.

Now he enters his senior year.

Grant is on the Butkus Award watch list, which means absolutely nothing other than he is an athlete starting on a team that is expected (there’s that word again) to do well this season.

Ohio State fans have been largely cold on Grant through his career so far. He has one season left to make an indelible impression. He’s a big, strong kid who is working hard to do his best for himself and his teammates. He's trying to succeed and help his team do the same.

He might come through, playing well enough to actually win the Butkus Award, and possibly restoring Ohio State’s defense to its former glory.

Or, he may not. Whatever happens, what we expect will have nothing to do with it.

Curtis Grant did not give himself five stars. But he can still earn them himself with a stellar final campaign.

And maybe we should watch and appreciate him (and others like him) for whatever contributions he makes to the tapestry called Ohio State football; and not try to hold him up to standards we arbitrarily assigned to him based on recruiting rankings.


Comments Show All Comments

DaveStephens's picture

Regardless of how he performs on the field, his duty as a Senior is to mentor those who will replace him, whether that's this year or next.  I think that is a reasonable expectation.

The Dude abides.

-1 HS
fear_the_nut70's picture

I am from the school of thought that most recruiting rankings are about right (rarely does a five star guy really only have 2 star talent). Not exact, but close.  To me, what makes the difference between expectations met and those that are not are two things, equally important: 1) the quality of the coach instructing them; 2) the amount of work the athlete puts into it.  For the latter, if you believe you are a five star kid and thus can just show up and dominate, there is a good chance "bust" will be attached to your name.

+3 HS
BGSUBucksFan's picture

Well said.  There's a reason we haven't heard much from that other Georgia LB who was a huge recruiting win (Trey Johnson).  Reports and interviews with coaches seem to indicate the work ethic just isn't there.

buckeyedude's picture

Damn i miss Dane playing for the Buckeyes. THERE is a young man that i think maximized his potential and went way beyond the expectations.



+3 HS
BGSUBucksFan's picture

Says the outlet that just wrote an article titled "Katzenmoyer 2.0?" earlier today.  I kid, I kid.  I realize it's part of the business.  You bet your ass I'm opening that Raekwon article before this one; I'm just as guilty as the rest of us greedy fans of placing these expectations on the highly rated recruits.  That's what makes success stories like Bradley Roby, Big Hank, Darron Lee, and Tyvis Powell such a great thing.

+4 HS
luckynutz's picture

Well written piece and spot on. I for one believe curtis grant can get this thing right. Afyer everything hes gone through in his time here, the fact he is even still here is a feat in itself. I remember reading that he was ready to quit football altogether after his freshman year. He was overweight, depressed and disenchanted with the whole thing. But he stuck it out.

Was his performance last year stellar? No...but it was serviceable. And he put everything he had into every snap. And has taken on that leadership role within the LB group. Hes in these guys ears about not eating up your own hype, putting in the wok on the practice field and film room and being prepared. He knows Kwon is gunning for his spot, but it hasnt stopped him from taking him in and helping him prepare and adjust to this level of football. He knows he has one year left...and he is giving it his all. Hope for his sake he can finally realize his full potential. It will be good not only for him, but for the younger guys to see how hard hes worked to get there.

+1 HS
macbraddy's picture

Fantastic piece Michael! We sometimes act as if these kids don't want to be Buckeye Legends that go make millions in the NFL during a Hall of Fame career. That is what we as fans want and I think they have a more vested interest in their future than we do!  The ones that lack toughness and effort weed themselves out but that doesn't make them bad people. Of course, that doesn't stop me from yelling like an idiot during the games and saying so ridiculous things at my TV. Passion and emotion are tough to control but I think all Buckeye fans want the best for the players and coaches that represent our university. Very cool open with your iPod story!

Go Bucks!!!

+1 HS
YTOWNBUCKI's picture

Great write up.  A major piece I think should be taken from this is that grown men are belittling 20 year old kids publicly.  Let's, you know, not do that.  Would you want the entire world reading a rant from one of your co-workers about how terrible you are at your job?  Let's have class.  Let's support these kids so that they not only have stellar college football careers, they have success in life.  

CJDPHoS Board of Directors

Go get your shine box, Gumar!

+2 HS
Hovenaut's picture

I've never followed recruiting as much as I have before joining 11W - obviously there's a connection with how well the staff does there thing there - but it isn't easy looking past the hype.

I'm still rooting for Curtis Grant - Rod Smith on the other side of the ball - to make his mark in his last season. I'm fine with the young talent coming in, also fine if they make the incumbents rise up, rather than they take over themselves from day one. However the competition shakes out, may the better/deserving player earn the playing time.

Btw, great intro Michael - have spent similar holidays with the Mrs., those are the ones that we seem to remember the most.

+1 HS
Boxley's picture

Bravo, Mr. Citro, Bravo!

This is an excellently written piece. Ramzy's don't be an a*shole piece and this should be mandatory reading prior to anyone getting posting privleges.

If it was our son being hammered on these types of sites by obsessive and/or insenstive "fans" none of us would be....... happy.

So easy to criticise from behind the keyboard. Never seeing the harm it brings to a person, who most likely has worked harder than any one of us ever did to make the field playing for the team of our dreams.

"...the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic-the man who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the man who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done." President T. Roosevelt

+2 HS
ECSAGESTER's picture

I hate to seem petty, and someone please tell me if I am, but this is awfully similar to something I wrote on this site in December after Raekwon and Johnnie Dixon committed. I was reading this and felt like I was reading my old post. 

Michael Citro's picture

I can assure you I have not seen your post, but I will make sure to read it.

ECSAGESTER's picture

That's perfectly fair. I don't even expect you to read it, just felt awfully similar and was hoping to get some confirmation it was a coincidence. It was actually nice to think that somebody might have read it. 

+1 HS
Michael Citro's picture

And now somebody has. :)

Obviously I agree with a lot of what you wrote there.

ECSAGESTER's picture

Loved this article by the way, has opinions that I share and made similar opinions a lot more enjoyable to read. That's why you work for 11W and I hope someone reads whatever I post. Great write-up Michael.  

+1 HS
ScarletNGrey01's picture

Michael, I would appreciate it if you would read through all of my posts prior to publishing any new content.

The will to win is not as important as the will to prepare to win. -- Woody Hayes

+3 HS
OSUBias's picture

Um, you seem petty.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

-1 HS
AndyVance's picture

I hate to seem petty, and someone please tell me if I am, but this is awfully similar to something I wrote on this site in December after Raekwon and Johnnie Dixon committed. I was reading this and felt like I was reading my old post. 

Biddle, is that you?

+1 HS
ECSAGESTER's picture

Am I turning into Biddle? What is wrong with me? Thanks for the intervention guys, any time I get compared to Biddle, I have to take a long look in the mirror. 

+1 HS
AndyVance's picture

All good, amigo. I meant to deploy sarcasm don't so you knew I was just yankin' your chain.

+1 HS
BroJim's picture

I'm not sure if Grant would appreciate this piece. 

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 

I season my simple food with hunger

Tom57's picture

School of thought???? try this. Read the DAMN article, which was well written. Recruiting services miss.... a lot. No knock on them. There are 1000's of HS FB players and the talent range from state/division to state/division is HUGE.

Some kids are flat out ballers who don't run around cones very fast, or jump over stationary objects very well. But they can make plays. See Chris Borland.

Some are late bloomers who play in woebegone conferences, see JL or MJ.

Some are absolute studs who may be mature in many ways not having to do with their athletic ability, see Mike Mitchell, or they get injured in a sport where the public isn't always told how badly they are hurt, or they get brain cramps when the lights go on.

Specifically, neither item in your school of thought apply to this case. His coach is excellent, and the kid has worked his ass off by all accounts.

The issue is one that is VERY typical. Curtis should have been moved to WDE. This is what Heacock was going to do with him. But Jim left, and we had a rash of injuries and off field issues with a number oft he other LB recruits so Curtis stayed at his original position. Curtis is built like an armored car and he is FAST. He has grown into a SOLID run stuffing MLB. He struggled last season in pass coverage. He doesn't have the hips for it = plays stiff. Some of that may have been uncertainty in coverage.... he wasn't alone.

I'm one for being solidly in this kid's corner all the way through. I hope he gets a huge ovation on senior day!

+3 HS
bucndc's picture

I think part of C Grants problem has been the scheme. It seems our nose guard and tackles shoot gaps leaving the middle linebacker to take on the interior lineman untouched. I think its part of the reason C has been beat up over the last 2 years. You have a beast of a linebacker, about 245 lbs, consistently taking on 300 lb plus lineman. He did a nice job taking on the lineman so Shazier could swoop in and make the tackle. Problem with that scheme is, Shazier's tackle is 5 yards down field. If you have seen C Grants build you would realize he was the only LB bad-ass enough to fill that role. Kwon is going to be bad-ass also. With the scheme OSU had been using on defense, that middle LB position is probably the tuffest position on the defense.

OSUBias's picture

I've always thought Curtis did a really good job dealing with the situation. He is probably more disappointed than anyone that he's not been an All-American already. But he speaks glowingly of some of the young LB's, seems to be embracing the elder statesman role as an upperclassman, and really seems to be in a better place personally. Hopefully in the simplified scheme he can turn his brain off and use that god given size, speed, and talent to have an outstanding year. He deserves it.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

+1 HS
tussey's picture

Great article!

chirobuck's picture

that's a good read....I am only hard on a kid if he isn't meeting expectations due to lack of effort or just not taking the opportunity hes given seriously, Grant seems like a good kid, and I think he plays hard when he is out there, you can tell he really gets excited when he makes a play and watching him especially on blitzes he really seems to go out and give it 100%......I hope the game slows down for him and he has a good senior year


^ best post ever ^

Buckeyeneer's picture

I think my favorite gift was the GI Joe aircraft carrier. It was bigger than me.

When I die, perhaps my last words will be, "USS Flagg". . . . it doesn't quite roll off the tongue, like, say, "Rosebud".

This, and a few other things are why my life story will never be made into an academy award winning movie.

"Because the rules won't let you go for three." - Woody Hayes

THE Ohio State University

+2 HS
Knarcisi's picture

Nice piece, Michael.  

irishfury's picture

I have this feeling that Curtis is going to live up to his 5 stars this year.  I thought at time last year he was stellar and I think this is the year he blows up.

D-Day0043's picture

Curtis is a good player. Due to circumstance I don't think he has been used right and he has been forced to do things he is not necessarily good at with the team being thin at the line-backing corps. He's a run-stuffing specialist that struggles in pass coverage. He's a two-down linebacker that needs to come off of the field on 3rd down.

Honestly I think he would be better suited playing in a 3-4 just rushing the passer and stopping the run. I don't think he fits a 4-3 scheme. We'll see what Ash can do with him. 

I am D-Day0043 and I approve this message.

+1 HS
GVerrilli92's picture

With Grant, I don't think we expected him to be good as much as we NEEDED him to be good. 

With the total whiff of Storm Klein and Sabino panning out to be only OK, Buckeye nation was craving the next great MLB. As the article states, it's more of a problem with the fanbase being so damn spoiled over the last decade. However, it's just as much Grant's problem now, because if we don't like him there's this guy named Raekwon McMillan. And if Grant doesn't produce immediately, McMillan will see the field. Nobody likes to watch the same guy fail in the same way over and over, year after year. At a certain point you just have to cut your losses.

We are nowhere near that point, but come conference play if Grant isn't at least a top 4 tackler you gotta give the young guy a chance.

I got a gray kitty, white kitty, tabby too, and a little orange guy who puts snakes in my shoes. Got mad MC skills, that leave ya struck, and I roll with my kitties and I'm hard as f*ck.

+1 HS
cinserious's picture

Great article by the way. We as fans should remember how it applies to past present and future 5* (and high end 4*) players. We can't be selfish and get all uppity when the staff finds a 'gem' or a 'diamond in the rough' when a 3* turns out to be a beast or AA type player, then turn around and scorn a 5* when he doesn't pan out. Sure, when he goofs up and makes plenty of off the field mistakes then he probably deserves some flak (Jamaal Berry, Ray Small). However those like Grant who we have no reason to believe hasn't tried his best and done a good job in the classroom and represent OSU proudly, we need to let it go and move on.

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

cinserious's picture

As far as Grant winning the Butkus in 2014 or him having an outstanding season? Probably not. Nothing against the young man but here's my take when it comes to on-the-field prowess: If he was a dawg, he would've shown out his first year or maybe second. After 3 years of not really doing squat, don't expect much his Sr. year. If he's a serviceable starter in '14 that's great but most likely Raekwon McMillan will stay on his Spring Game trajectory and supplant Grant.

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

BeijingBucks's picture

I'm on board with this too.  gradual growth is nice and all but I sadly remain pessimistic he will suddenly become an all round world beater over night.

I still remember the first time I saw AJ Hawk on the field as a freshman, I had to sit up and take notice as he scraped along behind the blockers as the ball carrier tried to get outside and suddenly dashed through the line and took his man down with alacrity.  it was glorious.  Never knew how many stars he had before that... didn't care.  Knew that kid was going to be amazing first time I 'saw' him.

Haven't 'seen' Grant yet make a 'sit up and take notice' play yet.  Then again he was a little bit Shazier's shadow

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

+1 HS
tracyre's picture

Great article...couldn't agree more.  If a kid does it all half assed that's one thing, but most of these kids work their asses off and deserve respect regardless of what they ultimately do on the field.  Call me crazy...

Larryp713's picture

There is a huge difference between the 43 year-old me and the 20 year-old me. The 20 year-old me put too much faith in experts who evaluate people, and never considered the pressure put on an 18 year-old athlete, who must also leave his friends and family and become a successful college student as well as raise his playing level 1000%. 

The 43 year-old me understands all that much better. But the opposite of putting too much weight on recruiting stars is too not trust any of it. I am not a pessimist, so this is hard for me. I love reading the over-the-top recruiting expectations and imagining the next Ray Lewis (or Chris Spielman) is lining up 5  yards off the ball, eyes glaring at the poor joker about to take the snap. If I feel let down now, though, I usually blame coach Fickell and not the kid. I have matured so much!