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How I learned to stop worrying and love LaVar

He had me at hello.

Okay, maybe not that quickly, but certainly at goodbye.

Just minutes after discovering via cell phone that the Washington Redskins were investing a mighty chunk of their future in him, wildly-athletic, often hyperactive Penn State linebacker LaVar Arrington stepped behind a Madison Square Garden podium and faced the media for the first time as a professional.

As Arrington proudly sauntered to the front of the room, I stood close enough to the man to take his pulse. Yet only one word crossed my mind: punk.

For as long as I can remember, Arrington seemed to embody petulance and exemplify arrogance.

I heard the mumblings that he was uncoachable. I read accounts about a notorious rebellious streak that flares up far too frequently. I even saw that rumored animalism in action, when the Butkus Award Winner steamrolled a hapless Purdue punter like rioters storming through police barricades outside the World Bank.

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    So as Arrington confidently ascended to the pedestal, visions of pampered children like Keyshawn "give me the damn ball" Johnson and Steve "anywhere but Vancouver" Francis danced in my head.

    Then, clad Jimmy Hoffa-style in a black suit trimmed with slender white pinstripes, sporting a diamond stud in his left ear and a capacious smile that dwarfed even the goofiest Dan Bonner grin, Arrington spoke.

    And I thought, "Oh God, here we go."

    Maybe he'd rip into that poor punter like Hannibal Lecter. Maybe he'd call forth his agents, the Poston brothers, and declare himself an instant holdout. Perhaps even he'd commit unthinkable sacrilege and debase Penn State coach Joe Paterno, a virtual deity in college football.

    Instead, Arrington dazzled.

    He exchanged witty quips with writers desperately angling for the ever-elusive original opening to their soon-to-be-inked Arrington odes.

    He thanked his mom and his dad. He thanked "grams" and "gramps," uncles and aunts. He even tipped his brand new Redskins cap to his barber - who was also in attendance - unveiling a cleanly shaved head.

    "This man is family," Arrington proclaimed. "Nobody, and I mean nobody, touches my hair but him."

    When asked what players he emulated, Arrington replied without hesitation: Lawrence Taylor. Yet he was in no rush to place himself in the same zip code as LT.

    "I'm not good enough to put myself in his league," he reasoned. "I may never be."

    It's amazing what an open mind can do. In a matter of minutes, it transformed me from bitter Arrington detractor to outright LaVar lover - all because I decided to stop buying into secondhand whispers and start listening to the man himself.

    As a newly-converted Arrington advocate, I decided to do a little background research on the rookie who has an entire league captivated by his combination of passion and charm.

    Between the lines, Arrington is a once-in-a-lifetime prodigy. He scored 73 touchdowns as a high school running back, was recruited by North Carolina and UMass in basketball and has built his legend with a pair of breathtaking "LaVar leaps" that some shoe company will surely exhaust as a marketing ploy.

    The fact that Arrington is good on the field was established in middle school. That he is equally enchanting off the field often goes unnoticed.

    Though arrogance overtakes him at times, he doesn't run or leap or tackle for himself. He does so for his father, whose legs were blown off in a tank trap in Vietnam. LaVar may glance at himself in the mirror from time to time, but he doesn't admire himself. He reveres his mother, who counsels underprivileged children in the family's hometown of Pittsburgh.

    His charisma is second to none. At a pre-draft taping for ESPN, a starry-eyed Arrington gazed at the technical equipment lining the truck and ribbed, "I can do that." He even offered to fly down to Redskin Park Saturday afternoon after getting picked to meet with Daniel Snyder and the rest of the Washington brass, then jet back up to New York to co-host the second day of the draft with ESPN's Mike Tirico and Mel Kiper Jr.

    I once firmly believed LaVar Arrington was exactly what the NFL needed least: another self-interested wild child with a dangerous off-field temperament capable of overshadowing his boundless on-field brilliance. What a difference 10 minutes makes.

    In a time of extreme tumult in the NFL, LaVar Arrington may be just what the league desperately seeks. He's a world-beater between the stripes. Outside them, family (including the barber) comes first. And in his spare time, he'll even do a little television.

    Somewhere Paul Tagliabue is smiling.

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