Rian “Goo” Wallace was embarrassed. The type of embarrassment you feel after someone waves at you, and you wave back, only to realize they were waving at someone else.
Wallace, a linebacker for the Temple Owls, earned first-team All Big East honors last year with 101 tackles, second best in the conference. He decided to forgo his senior year for a shot at the NFL, and he’s been working out at Temple during the spring semester, making sure the scouts see the best of “Goo” there is to see.
He was going through his routine one day and this kid – one he’d never seen before – was running circles around him. Was he a junior college player? Maybe an undrafted player from last year? Wallace just couldn’t figure it out.
“What NFL team are you trying out for?” Wallace made the mistake of asking.
Lamar McPherson, the subject of Wallace’s inquiry, smiled.
“I’m going to be a freshman at Syracuse,” McPherson says.
There’s a moment of reflection after McPherson says that. He knows how hard he’s had to work to get back to this point, to be able to be confused for an NFL-type player. He’s finally feeling 100 percent with no lag from the injury that nearly cost him his college career.
Two years ago, McPherson was a junior standout at Wyncote Bishop McDevitt High School in Pennsylvania. In his sophomore year, McPherson had rushed for 706 yards, catching the eyes of numerous college scouts from around the country. The legend of McPherson was just beginning to hit its peak.
“I was the only freshman to play on varsity,” McPherson says. “The only sophomore to play on varsity.”
For anyone who hadn’t caught wind of the legend, they only needed to hear his statistics of the third game of his junior year. In McDevitt’s game against rival Cardinal Dougherty on Oct. 4, 2003, McPherson had tallied 106 yards rushing and three touchdowns – in the first half.
“He actually got stronger as the game went on,” McDevitt coach Pat Manzi says. “He was better in the fourth quarter than in the first.”
Scouts were lining up at this point.Maryland and Penn State were highly interested.Michigan State and North Carolina weren’t far behind. McPherson says he got at least three or four calls a week from coaches, just to let McPherson know that they were interested.
And then it happened.
It was as routine a play as there is in football. McPherson took a handoff and jetted up the middle and was stopped at the line of scrimmage. But in the mess of twisted bodies, something caught McPherson’s left leg and then he heard a pop.
Out of McPherson’s mouth came a scream at a pitch he didn’t know he could reach. This wasn’t a garden-variety twisted ankle and it wasn’t something he could just walk off.
As he was loaded in the ambulance, all McPherson could do was think about what his mother had told him, and how he had ignored what she said.
“I’ve always told him to have a backup plan in case football didn’t work out,” his mother, Shevelle, always told him.
The prognosis was a broken fibula, the same injury suffered by Terrell Owens, a wide receiver for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. McPherson’s season was done and his college career was in jeopardy.
A thick cast would immobilize McPherson for at least eight weeks. It would take twice as much time as that to be able to take a snap on the football field again at full speed.
That’s when the phone calls stopped. Instead, it was McPherson making the calls to the coaches, always with the same response.
“As soon as I got hurt, (colleges) said, ‘Come to camp and we’ll see,'” McPherson says. “They weren’t loyal to me.”
Once on top of the world, it took just months for McPherson to experience life as the forgotten man.
For weeks, McPherson would limp home from school, throw his crutches on the nearest available flat surface and wander up the stairs. He’d shut his door and thumps from the ceiling – generated by the beat from a hip-hop song – would be all Shevelle would hear.
She was concerned that he was feeling sorry for himself, that he was wallowing in his misery. But it didn’t last for long after McPherson started to get his academic life in order.
Not to say that McPherson was failing his classes, but if he got a C “or something like that, I wouldn’t mind,” McPherson says.
That all changed after the injury.
“He finally realized that he wasn’t invincible,” Shevelle says. “After he got hurt, he took his academics much more seriously.”
To make things better, all wasn’t lost with college recruiting.
Though most colleges had been scared off by his injury,Syracuse recruiting coordinator Chris White saw something different – a player with limitless potential, someone who could carry on the tradition of great tailbacks at Syracuse.
“He loves football,” White says. “He wears a big smile on his face. He wants to be a great football player.”
White worked with McPherson not only on football, but also to help him get academically qualified by NCAA standards. McPherson had been missing many of the required courses that would be necessary for him to attend Syracuse.
“Sometimes it happens at a Catholic school, you have to take so many religion classes,” White says. “No one really told him what he needed to get done.”
White’s show of loyalty was not lost on McPherson.
When all the other schools had run away,Syracuse– a school that McPherson didn’t even consider before – had welcomed him with open arms. When the Orange made its offer in April, McPherson jumped on the opportunity.
“After that, how could I go to another school?” he says.
Eventually, McPherson made his way back to the playing field for his senior season last fall after spending an entire year rehabbing.
Unable to do some of the cutting necessary for tailbacks, Manzi shifted McPherson to the secondary – and he excelled.
McPherson was named to The Associated Press Pennsylvania Class AAAA All-State high school football team as a defensive back. It was a triumphant return for a player who wanted to show other schools what they missed out on.
“A lot of kids wouldn’t have been able to do that,” White says. “He wasn’t 100 percent until the end of this year. But now he’s full-go.”
It was a transition from tailback to defensive back much like what Diamond Ferri did forSyracuse. The more White thinks about it, the more he sees the similarities between the two.
“It’s scary,” White says. “The build, the running style, we kept comparing the two of them. They’re both aggressive. Both of them like to hit people.”
Still, there was one more obstacle to clear before McPherson could officially sign off on Syracuse. On Dec. 29, after 14 years as head coach of the Orange, Paul Pasqualoni was fired by Syracuse.
The firing sent a shockwave through the recruiting class. Some recruits bolted, but for McPherson, it was a question of loyalty, and when it came to loyalty, he had learned his lesson.
“He just said to me, coach, ‘You’re staying, I’m staying. You’re going. I’m going.’ That meant a lot to me personally,” says White, who was retained by new head coach Greg Robinson.
After a long journey filled with numerous detours, McPherson finally signed his letter of intent on Feb. 2, hardly able to contain his excitement.
“It’s all he ever talks about,” Manzi says.
The coaches are excited to have him, too.
“I like him in the back end of that secondary because he has a feel for the game and he’s not shy,” Robinson says. “He’s aggressive. That’s the word I’m going to use.”
These days, McPherson continues to work out at Temple, and continues to fool his cohorts into thinking he’s an NFL prospect. In a few years, that may be true. Until then, McPherson’s just enjoying everything he has.
“He appreciates things more,” Manzi says. “Sometimes, you take things for granted. But after he got hurt, he was appreciative of his God-given ability. That’s why he’s trying so hard. He realizes that a football career can end at any moment.”