Thursday, April 16, 2009

Greg Paulus is Trying Really Hard to Make My Blog

Alright, I suppose it's time to deal with this...

By now, you all probably know that Greg Paulus is "exploring" his football options. He worked out for the Green Bay Packers, and then visited the University of Michigan, where there are murmurings he could play next year. In a mind-boggling (but very funny) move, Duke football coach David Cutcliffe offered him a chance to join the a wide receiver.

The whole development is bizarre, but more than that it's just tiring. You know the feeling when you come across a piece of supposedly 'stunning' news, but instead of piquing your interest, it induces that weary, over-stimulated sensation? I've been lazily watching the development of this Paulus stuff for three days, and all I want to do is turn away from the computer and curl into a ball. Even typing this post is painful; I have phantom arthritic pains shooting up and down my arms and hands, and they won't go away until I'm done.

Because here's the thing: Greg Paulus is not going to play football. Michigan will eventually realize they don't want to invest too much time in a guy with one year of eligibility, and they'll move on. There are no more NFL minor leagues, so that avenue is shut. The most he can do is transfer to a lesser school, or go play in Canada or something. But that won't happen. Even his coach from Syracuse CBA high school, where Paulus was a phenom, is sounding a cautionary tone:

"To play at the NFL level he might have to add 30 pounds," Christian Brothers football coach Joe Casamento told ESPN's Joe Schad. "He could always throw it accurately and he's a smart winner and a leader, but where now is the arm strength?"

This 'passing' fancy (don't worry, I hate myself too) will run its course, and Paulus will become a basketball coach.

The whole episode reminds me of the incessant Brett Favre coverage during the last offseason. You ended up sick of him, sick of sportswriters who said they were sick of him, and sick of yourself for thinking about it. I'm convinced that his miserable performance for the Jets was the sweet, rewarding boomerang of all that negative karma.

Maybe I'm prejudiced, because I'll admit that Greg Paulus isn't my favorite athlete. I respect him, a lot, but I don't like him.

The respect comes because, in a very, very small way, I can empathize with what he went through at Duke. My senior year in high school, I was a starter on the basketball team. I worked hard, and made myself into a decent player, but I was light years away from even being considered 'good.' On the depth chart, I was clearly number five. I averaged about seven points a game, grabbed a few rebounds, and tried to play solid defense. That's as far as it went; I was just happy to be on the court.

One game, midway through the season, we traveled to the town where I grew up, and where my dad still lived. He and his brother had been stars at the high school, and basketball was a big priority in the community. During the bus ride, my coach called me to his seat in the front- a move that did not bode well. I sat down on the crinkled green leathery material (which you never see anywhere but a school bus) and prepared for the worst.

He told me I wouldn't be starting. Instead, they were giving a shot to a junior who they hoped would be more dynamic. I felt a gigantic knot in my stomach when I heard the words, and for a second I thought I might vomit. I staggered back to my seat, stared out the window, watched the landscape pass, and felt sorry for myself.

The truth is, nobody was going to judge me. My dad certainly wouldn't care, and being the sixth man for one game wouldn't be a big deal. But to my narcissistic high school mind, riding the pine in my dad's home town would be an unforgettable embarrassment. And there was also the personal failure that the change implied. Despite all my effort, I wasn't good enough, and at some point during the season I'd disappointed the coaches. The news left me distraught. During the JV game, and all through the pre-game workout, I sulked. When the coach spoke to me, I looked off to the side and gave one-word answers. I didn't engage my team, and I went through warm-ups halfheartedly. I wanted everyone to see my pain.

Before we took the court, my coach pulled me aside in the locker room. "What's your problem?" he asked. Again, I turned away, but the harsh reaction and all the emotions of the situation brought tears to my eyes. I tried not to let him see. "I know you're not happy about sitting," he said, "but you need to grow the fuck up."

And then he left, and I sat down on the bench and considered leaving the gym. Instead, I let his words sink in, and I grew the fuck up. It ended up being the only game I didn't start all year, but I took my medicine and had a decent game off the bench.

It wasn't easy, though. I certainly didn't acquit myself well along the way. And that one-game demotion I experienced, in my small town, was a drop of rain in the ocean of Greg Paulus' tribulations. His downward trajectory was not only more permanent, but also very public.

When Paulus first came to Duke, a lot of people were excited. Comparisons to Bobby Hurley abounded, and the big talking point was that Duke had founds it next workmanlike point guard. He might not be Jason Williams, but who's to say the team wouldn't have even more success under his tenure?

It became clear about halfway through his freshman season that such prognostications were grossly, and falsely, optimistic. In what would turn out to be his best year, he exposed himself as a defensive liability. Worse, he lacked the burst of quickness to be a true offensive threat. His absolute ceiling was a colorless competence, and even that never came to pass.

Over four years, the tide of public opinion swung against the plucky guard. People outside the Duke fan circle saw him as another undeserving, 'scrappy' white guy who they were supposed to love for vague assets like work ethic, hustle, and stoicism. To say that Greg felt a lot of hatred on the road is a massive understatement. But even supporters grew disenchanted with his skill set, and began to despair at Duke's future. And it's impossible to ignore the awkward sense that, to the team's detriment, Coach K had recruited someone in his own image.

For many, Paulus personified Duke's fall from prestige. He came to symbolize the recruitment failures, the athletic drop-off, and the diminishing NCAA returns. I'll admit that he became my scapegoat, too. Watching him run the point was an exercise in perpetual frustration. Whenever I formed an argument attempting to explain the reversal of fortune in Durham, Paulus was inevitably Exhibit A. Finally, even the coaches themselves were forced to recognize the sorry state of affairs. His role began to dwindle, slowly but surely. Things got so bad that this year, his senior season, he didn't even average half a game of playing time. In the second-round nailbiter against Texas, he played for all of two minutes.

In the end, Paulus had very few supporters. So it's even more remarkable that he handled his situation with such grace. In fact, it's almost annoying. A little bit of acting out might have shed some light on his character, and maybe even made him relatable. But you have to admire his businesslike attitude. Despite the inner turmoil and heartache he surely experienced, he never complained to the press or let his displeasure manifest itself outwardly. There wasn't a bigger cheerleader on the bench. He contributed what he could, and deferred willingly when it was necessary. Nobody can accuse him of disloyalty; he was a faithful soldier in Coach K's faltering army. Even when the season ended, his quotes reflected an apparent serenity with the arc of his career.

"I wanted to play point guard, and I got a chance to do that and to play for Duke and Coach K," Paulus told the newspaper. "I wouldn't change a thing."

But it's all a little too contrived, a little too decorous. Very few of us have been through something of that magnitude, but we've all known the minor humbling failures life inevitably delivers. It's never fun, and we certainly don't view the outcome with detachment. It's not human. And that's why his accepting stance should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. Personally, I don't believe it for a second.

So maybe this football business is how Greg Paulus 'acts out.' And even though we're already sick of it, and never really liked him in the first place, we should probably hold our bile and let this adventure unfold. For four years, he had to internalize the emotional distress of a slow, public failure. He suppressed his character for the good of the team. If this is the beginning of his re-emergence, his declaration of independence from a Duke system that chewed him up and spit him out, then what can you say except "cheers"? Maybe the gridiron is the savior he needs.


  1. As a UNC fan, I wish Paulus the best of luck. Unless he ends up playing football at Duke, then I still have to root against him. :)

  2. Greg Paulus and I are sexual competitors

  3. Hello sir,
    Even as a UNC fan I have to give you props on your writing. I really enjoy reading these entries. Now all thats left is to join the winning side :]