Interview: DeAnthony Arnett
SAN ANTONIO - For understandable and previously unknown reasons, pulses were racing on both sides of the desk.
At one end was Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. He had just watched his team execute one of gutsiest calls of the 2010 season, a fake field goal that ultimately turned into a game-winning, walk-off touchdown against Notre Dame.
On the other end were the Arnett boys from Saginaw, Mich.: Eric, Ralph and DeAnthony, each born seven years apart.
DeAnthony had questions, lots of them. If the four-star wide receiver received the appropriate answers on this night, a season-defining moment for the co-Big Ten champion Spartans, he would have committed to the same school as one of his hometown's most famous athletes, Charles Rogers.
He never got them.
Already breathing heavily, Dantonio tugged at his collar as DeAnthony peppered him with question after question. Sweat now pouring over his face, Dantonio took off his jacket before he eventually told the brothers he would have to reschedule.
"He just pats (DeAnthony) on the back and said 'I've got to go do these interviews,' " Ralph recalled Friday.
"One hour later, we got a call from Coach (Harlon) Barnett,and he's like, 'Coach D had a heart attack while he was in there talking to you guys.' "
The startling news gave DeAnthony mild relief that he hadn't been completely blown off by the coach he was ready to commit to, but it also opened his mind to how everything can change in an instant.
"He was caught up in the wins and losses," Ralph said. "That happened and that gave him a chance to say 'Let me analyze this the right way. Let me look at this a little longer.' "
Fifty-three days later, DeAnthony stood behind a dais in his high school's media center for his commitment announcement, bent to the ground and pulled out a homemade Tennessee hat. With a simple "I'm going to Tennessee," he gave the Vols' class of 2011 instant credibility and still stands as their most-decorated commitment less than four weeks until National Signing Day.
Much like a heart attack can prompt a thorough evaluation of one's entire cardiovascular system, DeAnthony, who saw action in Saturday's U.S. Army All-American Bowl, ultimately arrived at his final decision after a thorough evaluation that eventually bucked what his brothers called an "obligated decision."
"He looked at the potential those schools had," Ralph said. "D's big on playing early, so he looked at where could he play real early.
"If he went and worked hard, Tennessee was obviously the best choice."
Virginia Arnett never thought it would be this way.
Her baby boy who grew up with the sports page in front of his face as soon as he could read was born to play basketball. It didn't matter that the brother whom he looks up to as a father, Ralph, had played alongside future NFL Pro Bowler Lamarr Woodley, or that Ralph remained best friends with one of Saginaw's top football talents, former Michigan running back Jerome Jackson.
DeAnthony was going to do his own thing. That's the way it had always been.
"He was one of the kids when if the game was on, he'd rather be at the house watching the game," Virginia Arnett said. "He had no problem doing it by himself."
That independent personality ultimately played a hand in short-circuiting his basketball career.
The individual impact one player can have on the game filled DeAnthony with tension. The burden he felt, especially after his team lost, carried over to his sleep and into the next day, his mother said.
"Sometimes in basketball he didn't even want to go to practice, but he'd go even though he was frustrated," she said. "He was relaxed when he played football."
Never was his will tested more than his senior season, when his Trojans won just once. Instead of focusing on his statistics, DeAnthony devoted his time to leadership, which ranged from teaching someone how to kick or throw a football all the way down to making sure enough players would show up to go 11-on-11 at practice.
"He did everything but be a lineman," Virginia said. "I don't know if I could have did what he did this year.
"He became such a humble person playing the sport."
A memorable trip
There are two things that shoot to the top of Ralph's mind when he remembers his and DeAnthony's first trip to Knoxville: the Dodge Caravan, packed to the brim with family members, and the bagged sandwiches.
"I wasn't going to spend my whole income tax check on Knoxville," Ralph said.
It was June 2009 and DeAnthony was a rising junior. Because he pushed Ralph to take him to every possible camp - even once forcing him to drive to Ann Arbor so he could match up with a cornerback who talked smack to him on Facebook - it was a no-brainer for DeAnthony to test his skills against some of the Southeast's most talented rising seniors.
DeAnthony wasn't concerned. Ralph and Eric were.
"I didn't think D was that good," Ralph said. "I didn't think he could compete with kids in this area. I was scared."
A few hours later, the Arnett family was "the loudest people in Knoxville."
"We were crazy," Ralph said. "He didn't drop the ball. He was dusting guys left and right."
At one point, then-UT coach Lane Kiffin grabbed DeAnthony by the collar and lined him up against Shareece Wright, who just finished his freshman season at Southern Cal. The call was a fade route, and DeAnthony, even smaller than his current 6-foot, 167-pound frame, created enough separation to haul in the pass with ease.
That's when Eric and Ralph both realized they had something special on their hands.
'D studies everything'
Virginia needs to use her hands to describe just how many letters DeAnthony has received from schools over the past two years.
She's kept them all in eight large storage containers as graphic representations of just how crazy this recruiting process has been.
"I had heard how recruiting would be, but to be in it, it was like, 'Wow,' " Virginia said. "I felt like I handled it pretty good. DeAnthony did very well, I think because his brothers kind of got involved."
DeAnthony's father "never knew how to be a father," Ralph said, so Virginia relied on her sons to serve as de facto father figures for one another. Ralph looked up to Eric as a father and DeAnthony does the same with Ralph.
"He listens to me," Ralph said. "It's good to be able to give good advice and know that the kid is listening."
Ralph has served as DeAnthony's public relations agent of sorts, a role that, among other things, has allowed DeAnthony to keep the same cell phone number throughout his recruitment - a rare feat these days.
"He makes sure the right people are calling me and keeps me away from the bad stuff," DeAnthony said. "It's been real cool having him around."
Ralph's advice throughout the undecided times was simple: Don't be afraid to leave.
The rest of the meticulous research was handled by Arnett after the eye-opening experience in Dantonio's office.
After he visited Southern Cal in October, Arnett returned home after his five-hour flight and immediately queued up the game he had just seen. He did that with all of his teams of interest, as he searched for the place where he would have the best chance to help immediately.
The research went even deeper than that. He broke down the depth charts on rosters such as Alabama, Michigan State and Southern Cal and noticed that the majority of players hailed from the schools' respective states.
Even though he would have been in the majority with the Spartans, DeAnthony didn't like that. He preferred the eclectic mix at UT.
"That's something I would have never thought of," Ralph said. "D studies everything."
Perhaps that's what prompted his sociological experiment of sorts one night before his announcement, when he committed to six different schools within an hour of each other on live-streamed videos over the Internet. Fans of each schools grimaced and rejoiced through each of the fake announcements, which only further helped DeAnthony prove the point he was trying to make.
"The whole recruiting process, you're supposed to have fun," DeAnthony said. "That's what it is."
Behind the levity, though, there is some serious confidence.
This decision wasn't made overnight.
"With my ability to get open and catch the ball and make plays, I'm a deep threat," DeAnthony said. "I can play the slot guy, outside guy, pretty much anything.
"I expect to be on the field next year. Nothing less."