Thursday, November 18, 2010

On Blair Thomas, Greg Oden, and Level of Bustitude

He stopped short, dropping his arms. "I..." he said, gasping a little, though his condition was fine and the run hadn't winded him. "I--once I played here."
--Irwin Shaw, The Eighty Yard Run

In my mind, Blair Thomas is not a punchline. In my mind, Blair Thomas is not a bust. In my mind, Blair Thomas is the running back in this video, the running back who, at the 6:25 mark, propels himself through the Syracuse defensive line and then bursts past five defenders for one of the most picturesque 92-yard runs you will ever see. In my mind, Blair Thomas is the running back who took his next carry forty yards for another touchdown, and finished the day with144 yards on three carries, announcing his presence in a way I've never seen a young running back do before or since. In my mind, Blair Thomas was a first-tier talent who tore up his knee before his senior season and never regained the same burst; I was a teenager who never played football and even I recognized that the Blair Thomas of 1989 was not the Blair Thomas of 1986. It is not his fault that the Jets were too inept to realize this; it is not his fault that the Jets overvalued him.

I bring this up for a couple of reasons: First, Jeff Pearlman, in compiling a list of the 100 Worst Players in NFL history on Deadspin, cited Thomas in his introduction. Not as one of the worst players in the NFL history, but as a "larger-than-large bust." Now, let's leave aside the fact that I can find no citation of Joe Paterno actually calling Thomas "the best player I've ever coached" (he did call Thomas the best all-around running back he'd coached, a relatively major distinction given the defensive stars who have come through Penn State's program); let's just ask the larger existential question that hovers over Pearlman's rankings (which are generally a goofy and well-rendered conceit): What is a bust? How do we determine a bust? Shouldn't mitigating circumstances be factored in?

Now, it is true that Blair Thomas did not live up to expectations. And so perhaps, at some level, at least in the minds of Jets fans, this makes him a colossal bust. In my mind, if you had to measure Level of Bustitude*, it is fair to rank Thomas higher on the scale than, say, poor Ki-Jana Carter, who may have actually been the greatest running back of the Paterno era but never could stay healthy when he reached the NFL. (Thomas might be 7; Carter is probably a 2 or 3.) The problem is, we don't make these distinctions. The problem is that there is no nuance in the classification of a bust; there is no measure of injuries and the mental burden of fame and the attendant pressure that may affect certain personalities in different ways than others.  And that brings us to Greg Oden.

Oden's career, of course, has been a story of failure. His body is flawed; his body has betrayed him, over and over again. This happens, but when it happens to an athlete like Oden, it somehow becomes his fault. In a matter of time, Oden will be inexorably connected to Ryan Leaf, even though the individual circumstances of their Bustitude could not be more different. This is not fair, but this is sports, and in sports, we never really consider the notion that the human body is a fickle and undependable instrument. Failure is failure, and Greg Oden is not possessed of the health and/or talent of Kevin Durant, with whom he will forever be compared (see Leaf: Manning). The circumstances are irrelevant, and the past matters to no one but ourselves.


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