By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Once upon a time, when television was young and newspapers still were the major source of news in the world, there was really only one All-America team that mattered, and that was The Associated Press All-America team.
Even today, in this Internet, Facebook, Twitter world in which we live, that remains the same.
The AP All-America team is what the Academy Awards are to movies, what the Grammys are to music, what the Pulitzer Prize is to authors.
You win this, you are at the top of the heap ... and Tavon Austin is now an Associated Press All-American.
True, he doesn’t have a position, which may be a compliment, for he was named as all-purpose performer ... which means the combination of his skills as a wide receiver, as a running back, as a punt returner and as a kickoff returner rises to the same level as Johnny Manziel had at quarterback or Manti Te’o at linebacker.
That his running mate at wide receiver, Stedman Bailey, fell short of first team selection, landing behind Terrance Williams of Baylor and Marqise Lee of USC, his selection to second team may well be considered the equivalent of earning an Oscar for best supporting actor.
The problem we are faced with here in discussing Austin’s accomplishment is to try and find something new to say about him. Certainly, others have spoken over the course of the year and they came close to saying it all.
Former WVU coach Don Nehlen, for example, has been around football since those early days of television and around West Virginia football since 1980.
“Tavon is the best I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of football since I first came to Morgantown in December 1979,” Nehlen said recently.
Then there was Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads’ characterization of what he saw in the game film of Austin’s 344-yard rushing and 572-total-yard performance against Oklahoma.
“When we got back we put the tape on, saw where he was lining up, saw how he gained all those yards ...” Rhoads said.
And then ...
“Soon after that I vomited,” Rhoads said.
It is only truly great players, actually the greatest, who draw quotes like that out of media and opponents.
Take Willie Mays.
“They invented the All-Star game for Willie Mays,” Ted Williams once said of him.
And after Mays hit a triple into deep right-centerfield in Candlestick Park, San Francisco sports writer Bob Stevens proclaimed, “The only man who could have caught that hit it.”
Or take what Magic Johnson once said about Michael Jordan.
“Once Michael gets up there he says, ‘Well, maybe I’ll just hang up here in the air for a while, just sit back.’ Then all of a sudden, he says, ‘Well, maybe I’ll 360. No, I changed my mind. I’ll go up on the other side.’ He’s just incredible.”
You can almost see Austin’s mind working like that when he begins to shake and bake.
He takes a football and puts it under his arm and starts
upfield, not going very fast, looking, thinking.
Oh, to be inside his mind as he scans the field, spots a weakness, sets up block with a stutter step, hits the hole, cuts inside then out, defenders grabbed as futilely as if they were trying to catch a fluttering butterfly.
If Jordan did his 360s in the air, Austin does them on terra firma, a pirouette that Nureyev would be proud to claim as his own. They say great players can stop on a dime; Austin can dance on one ... and give you change.
You know the NFL is drooling to get their hands on him
“That kid will be a No. 1 draft pick. He’s a dynamic football player. He’s the best I’ve seen around here or anywhere with his talent and speed,” he said this season.
True, he is undersized for that league, and true, there will be some players discovered along the way in draft workouts, players who stand 6-3 and run 4.3 playing at some school no one has ever heard of, and there are scouts who will put this physical freak ahead of Austin and, for that matter, Bailey.
But when they get past the computer readouts, when they put the football in the air or under his arm, when the NFL linebackers and special team players try to capture the wind and put it in a bottle, they will learn that this is a once-in-a-lifetime player.
And he has only one more game as a West Virginia Mountaineer, a game on a small stage called the Pinstripe Bowl but in the city that knows and loves the great ones, New York.
That’s where he really must prove himself ... not in the game against Syracuse, for that’s the easy part of it.
If he can cross Seventh Avenue at rush hour without being taken out by a taxi cab, then you’ll know he’s the real deal.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.