This year the West Virginia Mountaineers add a player with limitless potential for excitement: 5'8", 175-pound running back Noel Devine. This Internet megastar boasts a set of football skills which made my jaw drop when I recently killed an evening watching his highlights on YouTube. I am a convert to the church of Devine.
He is preternaturally balanced, more agile and strong than you might expect. When not running past defenders, which he often does, he runs through them.
But Devine comes with baggage.
By any standard, he's had a hard life. He is an orphan and the father of two. He witnessed a friend's shooting death and was once suspended from a high school game for an off-field incident. He has also struggled with academics.
And now, with extraordinary gifts and promise, Devine has entered an even more dangerous minefield: the world of big-time college sports. These headlines, for example, greeted me at just one sports Web site, on just one afternoon:
Alabama Crimson Tide cornerback arrested on disorderly conduct
Duke reinstates LB Tauiliili after suspension, arrest
Two Iowa Wideouts suspended after arrest
Two Mountaineers charged in case involving alleged stolen computer.
Devine's prospects aren't helped by WVU's less-than-stellar track record. The Princeton Review just ranked WVU as the top party school in the nation -- again. Former Mountaineers Adam "Pac Man" Jones and Chris Henry, meanwhile, are on probation from the NFL, and on Commissioner Roger Goodell's most-wanted list for off-field transgressions.
There may not be a set of circumstances more "at risk" than Devine's.
Because of his awe-inspiring football talent, he gets a chance most at-risk youths will never have. It's up to him to reach his potential ... but he's going to need help.
Devine is essentially alone in the world. And it's not clear who will care about him off the field -- when he's not "working for the university," as Ed Etzel, a staff psychologist at WVU, put it to me recently in a phone conversation.
Even a player as notorious as Jones might have been helped had his college experience played out differently.
Maybe Jones is incapable of accepting personal responsibility or exercising good judgment. Perhaps he's simply a bad seed. Then again, perhaps he could have been reached after an early sign of trouble during his freshman year, when he allegedly beat another student with a pool cue in a bar fight. Supremely talented and deeply troubled, he now has more arrests than I have room to list here.
Jones had a hard life, too. At one point, he was just a young guy with an athletic gift, largely alone in the world. I don't feel sorry for him now, but did we have sympathy for him when he was 18? When he was 22? Before the most recent arrest? The arrest before that? At what point does an athlete cross the line from at-risk youth and become a criminal to be given up on?
I'm not in the habit of handing out "get out of jail free" cards, but it's not enough to say athletes shouldn't do this or that. We need more than just condemnation. WVU coach Rich Rodriguez has done the right thing in suspending the two players accused of the theft charges; everybody has to learn about personal responsibility and consequences. But now what?
Noel Devine is still a kid. He could be a huge success, helping WVU get a shot at the national title. Or he could become another athlete lacking a moral center, with a criminal record sure to follow. The violent and reckless behavior that turned Jones from NFL cornerback to wrassler should be a cautionary tale for Devine, unless he too wants to become a national punchline.
It's depressing to see so many talented young men waste their gifts. And when they are black, as both Devine and Jones are, it makes this nation's racial divide even more demoralizing.
Etzel points out that there are counseling and freshman-initiation programs available to all athletes, and the football program is also ushering in a new mentoring program. I hope somebody at WVU dares to be bold in trying to reach him. And I hope he makes the most of the help he gets. Because anybody who loves sports will love watching Noel Devine's magical gifts on the field of play.