Saturday, September 12, 2009
At the moment — based on clues such as the above photo and headline — you are likely of the impression that this is a story about Todd Reesing.
You would be correct in that assumption, though only to a certain extent. Certainly, you will find this story to contain a great deal of information on Kansas University’s senior quarterback —thoughts from friends and family members, historical context, a collection of anecdotal tidbits.
While Todd Reesing is technically the entity which propels the narrative forward, however, it is also a story about status and celebrity and the manner in which a community embraces its heroes. It is about what it means to be the starting quarterback in a Midwestern college town and about what happens when you become — for the moment, anyway — the face of a team and a campus and a city.
At its core, it is a window to an unexplored world. A look behind the curtain, so to speak. A peek — from various angles — into the everyday life of Lawrence’s most famed resident. An answer to the question: What, exactly, is it like being Todd Reesing?
• • •
One day, a rapper from Louisiana watches a college football game and gets an idea. Or maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he watches highlights of a college football game and gets an idea. Or maybe his song-writers watch highlights of a college football game and get an idea. Anyway, the rapper eventually puts out a song. In it, between references to “Cali weed” and Seagram’s liquor, he mentions — of all things — a quarterback from Kansas University.
• • •
That's what Kevin Ashmos and Pat Sanguily want to talk about.
Kevin and Pat are two of Reesing’s oldest friends. Grew up playing Little League and wandering the mall with him. Used to make fun of his fondness for bad action movies and habit of making sure his undershirt always matched the horse on his Polo.
So their buddy’s ascension to national prominence, they’ll tell you, has taken some getting used to.
The first time Kevin came to a game in Lawrence, back in 2007, Reesing threw for 354 yards and six touchdowns, and Kansas beat Nebraska for just the second time since 1968. Afterward, when the two met up outside the stadium, it took them nearly an hour to make the one-block walk to Todd’s place on Alabama Street, so often was the quarterback bombarded with backslaps and autograph requests and the sloppy salutations of undergrads who, beer in tow, would hop off their porches to wander over and say hello.
“He’s signing autographs for 6-year-old kids,” says Kevin, a senior at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “And we’re just like, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
Since then, things have only gotten wilder. There was the middle-aged guy in Miami who wanted to introduce Reesing to his daughter. And the time they were waiting to get into a new club in Austin, Texas, when the bouncer recognized Reesing and promptly ushered the group in. And the buckets of attention heaped upon him any time he’s out and about in Lawrence — much of it, his buddies point out, coming courtesy of shapely coeds (“It’s like he’s fishing with dynamite,” says Kevin, sighing.)
Not that his buddies are complaining. Thanks to Reesing, Kevin and Pat have been to Miami for the Orange Bowl, Arizona for the Insight Bowl and have enjoyed a front-row seat to Reesing’s unlikely rise — which has provided a formidable platform from which to air out their displeasure with perceived slights against their friend. The day after last December’s victory over Minnesota, for instance, the three were sitting at a Chili’s at the Phoenix airport, waiting for a flight to Vegas, when the quarterback was approached by a commentator from the NFL Network, who’d called the Insight Bowl the night before. Halfway through the conversation, Kevin — whose dad has taken to calling him “Turtle” after Vincent Chase’s running mate in “Entourage” — looked up and said bluntly, “Hey, why didn’t you pick our boy Todd for the MVP?”
Says Pat, “Todd was just like, ‘Oh … my … God.’”
Of course, right about the time they think things can’t get any more crazy, they usually do. One night this summer, Pat — a senior at TCU — and a couple of friends were having dinner at a sushi place in Dallas when they got a call from Reesing, who had just learned that his name had been used in a new song by Grammy-winning rapper Lil’ Wayne.
The friends, huge Lil’ Wayne fans, weren’t quite sure what to make of this new piece of information.
“Dude,” said Reesing, “just go listen to it; it’s tight.”
So the buddies went straight home — even though they had previous plans to attend a birthday party — pulled up a video for the song on YouTube, and there it was, at the 2:17 mark: “I can make a quarter come back like Reesing.”
They just about lost it.
• • •
A local newspaper reporter goes out one day to do a “man on the street” story. You know the kind. Pick a question, pose it to a few strangers, print the answers in the paper. Today, the reporter has decided that — because of an uncharacteristic KU football loss the previous weekend — the question will be whether fans have grown skeptical about the team. Before long, the reporter comes across a nondescript college kid standing alone outside a storefront on Mass Street. The reporter asks if he can do a quick question-and-answer with him for the paper. Sure, says the college kid.
“Has the KU football team’s recent loss shaken your faith in the team?” the reporter asks.
“I sure hope not,” says the kid.
“Why’s that?” asks the reporter.
• • •
Liam Kirby would like you to know that, if his face wasn’t perpetually pasted on magazine covers and sports pages and billboards — and if he didn’t make regular cameos on SportsCenter’s Top 10 — you’d never guess that Todd Reesing was one of the best college quarterbacks in America.
Liam is Reesing’s roommate, known him since they met through a mutual friend during Reesing’s first semester on campus, and if you ask him, he’ll tell you about the two-story house the two shared last year on Alabama St., just a block from Memorial Stadium. Over the years, the house had been passed down from football player to football player, which was not exactly difficult to tell by looking at it.
The floors were wooden, and they creaked constantly. The washer and dryer were so unappealing that the two usually took their laundry elsewhere. Beneath the refrigerator, a mouse had taken up residence. When it scurried across the room, they’d throw CDs at it.
They lived the quintessential college lifestyle. They played darts and watched Sunday night HBO and subsisted primarily on fruit snacks and hummus and Gatorade. They let dirty dishes pile up and blasted techno music from the house’s speaker system and on rare free weekends would head to the Lake of the Ozarks — where, Liam would like you to know, a couple of clueless Missouri alumni once spent 20 minutes bashing the Jayhawks and their undersized quarterback without realizing that the undersized quarterback was sitting five feet away.
“It’s weird,” says Liam, a senior at KU, “you just wouldn’t assume that, in Lawrence, Kan., this is ‘The Kid.’”
In fact, about the only hint that Reesing is anything but — as Liam puts it — “your average college frat boy” comes on Saturday mornings in the fall. That’s when the quarterback rolls out of bed — sometimes after shuffling downstairs in the middle of the night to unplug the stereo his roommate decided to blast — gets dressed, and makes the short jaunt over to Memorial Stadium, where he has done nothing but lead the Jayhawks to 20 victories over the past two seasons, break every conceivable school passing record and pull a once-dormant program by the collar into the national consciousness.
Of course, an hour or two after dissecting the defenses of Colorado or Kansas State or Nebraska, he usually can be found posted up in a booth at a local watering hole, celebrating the Jayhawks’ most recent victory right along with the fans who witnessed it.
After Kansas capped an unthinkable 12-1 season by topping Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl two years ago, for instance, Reesing marked this historic achievement by flying home to Texas, heading to the SMU campus and spending two days slummin’ it with Kevin and his frat buddies.
“He’s got his shirt off, with no shoes, playing pool at 10 o’clock in the morning at the Phi-Delt house three days after the biggest win in Kansas history,” says Kevin. “But he’s just a normal guy, having fun.”
• • •
A youth football team made up of 3- and 4-year-olds is running through a practice one day when Todd Reesing stops by to help coach. Recently, the youngsters have been learning “alligator hands” — that is, the clapping of two hands together to catch a football. They’ve gotten pretty good at it, too, which is why when their high-profile visitor — apparently unschooled in the art of the alligator hands — proceeds to take a snap in an alternate manner, a dozen pint-sized footballers roll their eyes in exasperation.
“Uhhh … ” says one boy, clearly nonplussed with this blatant disregard for fundamental football technique. “You’re not holding your hands right, Todd. They’re supposed to be like this...”
• • •
Lisa Bergeron? She’ll tell you about Todd Reesing’s biggest fan.
His name is Mikey, and he’s Bergeron’s blond-haired, soft-spoken 4-year-old son. The two met last year, when Reesing was taking an independent-study course with Bergeron — a professor in the KU School of Business — and Mikey sometimes would hang around his mom’s office. Before long, Mikey was padding around town in a No. 5 Reesing jersey. Not long after that, he and Reesing were wreaking havoc together on a weekly basis — the quarterback pushing Mikey through Summerfield Hall in a mail basket or hopping onto the kid’s scooter and weaving his way through campus, with Mikey chasing after him, giggling.
For Mikey, it couldn’t be cooler. In Reesing, he has a friend who’ll go to lunch and sing along to Katy Perry songs with him. A pal who, when Bergeron’s classes ran late last semester, would pick him up from preschool at Hilltop on campus, gather his blankies and walk him out — leaving a trail of presumably flustered preschool girls in their wake.
Two weeks ago, Mikey had his first day of preschool. It was a tough morning. Lot of tears. But then Reesing stopped by before class with a smile and a few encouraging words, and, well, things didn’t seem quite so bad after that.
At the same time, being Mikey’s hero comes with a certain level of responsibility. Once, when Reesing forgot to collect one of Mikey’s blankets from school — “Ovie” and “Dovie”, they’re called — he had to return to the school to pick them up. And after the youngster showed up for a KU football practice last spring and spent most of the evening clamoring — unsuccessfully — for Reesing’s attention from the stands, he marched right up to the quarterback the next time he saw him and demanded an explanation.
“I mean, he read him the riot act,” says Bergeron. “… I don’t think he realizes, to a certain degree, that (Todd) is there to play football and not to fraternize with a 4-year-old.”
This fall, for the second straight semester, Reesing will work as a teaching assistant for Bergeron, which means that, when he’s not attempting to steer the Kansas football team to its first Big 12 championship in program history, the school’s most high-profile student will be grading papers and teaching classes and helping slack-jawed students with their finance homework (“We’ve seen a little more traffic,” Bergeron said of office hours visits. “With females, particularly.”)
More importantly, it means that Mikey — who reportedly has been stomping around his pee-wee football field lately imitating a certain celebratory fist-pump/hip-thrust — has another few months to pal around with Reesing.
On a recent afternoon in Bergeron’s office, while Mikey was busy snacking on potato chips and happily demonstrating the aforementioned fist-pump, his mom was detailing Mikey’s excitement for the upcoming Kansas football season. He’d just gotten a new Reesing jersey, she was saying, and for the second straight year, the Bergerons will have season tickets.
This led to the following exchange:
Visitor: “Mikey, what are you looking forward to most about going to Kansas games this fall?”
Mikey (after some thought): “Funnel cakes.”
Visitor: “Anything else?”
Mikey (after a little more thought): “Funnel cakes. And Todd.”
• • •
A local business puts out a line of T-shirts devoted to the Kansas football team and its starting quarterback. They are blue and they are witty — "Thank God for Todd"; "Reesing is a HILF" — and on game days, they can be found on a significant number of torsos.
Before one trip home to Austin, Reesing picked one up for his mom, Debi. "The Future Mrs. Reesing," it read.
He figured the current one might like it.
• • •
Steve Reesing's on the phone, and he's telling you about The Question — and, more precisely, the frequency with which it is delivered.
Steve is Todd’s dad — the one who loaded his son into a rental car and took him to meet Kansas coach Mark Mangino when college recruiters weren’t exactly beating down the door to recruit a 5-foot-10 prep quarterback – and ever since his youngest son started lobbing touchdown passes at a record-setting clip a couple years back, he can’t seem to leave the house without getting it.
He’ll be at the grocery store or the barbershop or a business gathering and a stranger will overhear his last name or take notice of his Kansas T-shirt and politely inquire, “You’re not related to Todd by any chance, are you?”
Happens all the time, and not just in Austin. California. Georgia. New York. Doesn’t seem to matter. Once, when Steve — a senior vice president for an Austin-based financial service company — was hosting some out-of-town business associates, the visitors made the Todd connection during a meeting and proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes talking college football before getting back to the business at hand.
“As my friends tell me, I’m no longer Steve Reesing,” he says. “I’m just The Father of Todd Reesing.”
Being the father of one of college football’s most well-known quarterbacks, however, has its perks. Not long ago, Steve was at a golf tournament in Lake Travis, a slant route from Todd’s old high school, when he ran into Doug Flutie, the quarterback to whom his son is most often compared. Steve introduced himself, and the two talked football and golf and Todd, and before they parted ways, Flutie gave Steve his cell number. Told him to have Todd call anytime.
There are other things, too. Like Willie, who owns a family restaurant in the Austin area and has been asking for a signed photo of Reesing to hang in the restaurant’s dining room.
And the lady in Steve’s office – the one from accounting — who e-mailed Steve to tell him that, while she’s never been able to sit through a football game before, she can’t seem to pull herself away from the screen when she’s watching Todd run that fancy Kansas offense.
A few weeks ago, meanwhile, Reesing’s older brother, Kyle, was walking down Third Avenue in Manhattan, where he works as an analyst for a financial company, when something caught his eye from a nearby newsstand. Staring back at him from the cover of USA Today’s college football preview magazine was the kid he used to bully during backyard basketball games.
“I wouldn’t say it’s weird,” Kyle says of seeing his brother in the national spotlight. “It’s more cool. More that word. ... To see him getting some national publicity, and to not have everything going to the stereotypical guys you’d think it would be going to — that’s pretty cool.”
• • •
Carl’s people are on the phone.
It’s November 2007, and Carl Edwards — NASCAR sensation, Subway pitchman, former beau to Olympic swimmer/Playboy model Amanda Beard — is looking for a sideline pass to an upcoming Kansas football game. Apparently, he’s heard the noise the Jayhawks and their sophomore quarterback have been making nationally and wants to see for himself.
Thing is, the Kansas media-relations people are out of passes. Have been for close to two weeks.
So they have to say no. To Carl Edwards.
• • •
Stop by his office during a lazy August afternoon, and Mike Strauss will tell you that Reesing is scheduled to do an interview with ESPN’s “College Football Live” next Wednesday. Or at least he thinks it’s “College Football Live.”
“That’s the one on ESPN, right?” he asks, shuffling through some papers on a recent morning.
It’s hard to keep track these days.
Strauss is the third-year sports information director for the Kansas football team, which means it’s his job to accommodate the constant stream of media requests that come pouring in each fall. Strauss is not exactly a stranger to big-time college athletics. During a 21-year career, he has worked at Oklahoma State, Utah State and the Big 12 Conference offices; managing the time and access of people like Eddie Sutton and Bryant Reeves and Barry Sanders.
But with the possible exception of Sanders — the 1988 Heisman winner – he’s not sure any of them garnered the amount of media attention Reesing has.
On average, Strauss fields eight to 10 Reesing requests a week during the season — though that number sometimes doubled during the team’s historic 2007 run, when Kansas blazed to an 11-0 start and reporters from ESPN and Sports Illustrated and The New York Times began popping up in Lawrence, bent on writing about the Jayhawks and their unlikely superstar.
Says Strauss, “I talked to (Times reporter) Thayer Evans so much it felt like he was one of the regular beat writers.”
And it’s not just reporters. Strauss has grown intimately familiar with the postgame crowds that await Reesing’s emergence from the locker room. He’s seen the kids in No. 5 jerseys and their camera-toting parents. He’s seen the elation from the youngsters who walk away with Reesing’s signature — and, occasionally, the devastation from those that don’t.
After the Iowa State game two years ago, for instance, Reesing was feeling particularly worn down. It was late in the season, and he’d already done a news conference, a handful of radio interviews, gone through post-game treatment. So Strauss told the crowd waiting outside the stadium that the quarterback would sign as many autographs as he could, but then he had to meet his waiting family.
The plan went well enough, until Strauss began ushering Reesing away and turned back to see a little boy — realizing that he would not be leaving that night with Reesing’s signature — break into a state of hysteria that Strauss still hasn’t been able to shake from his memory.
You want to know what it’s like being Todd Reesing?
Strauss smiles from behind his desk.
“You know those shirts from a couple years ago – ‘Todd is God’?” he asks. “Well, that’s really how people see him.”
• • •
It’s late summer in Lawrence, and everywhere you go, folks are talking about the Kansas football team and its larger-than-life quarterback.
From their chairs at the downtown barbershops and over drinks at the old Eldridge Hotel, the locals — having seen the unusual things their senior signal-caller can do with a football — are certain that the upcoming season is going to be special. And why not? The previous fall, the Jayhawks had put together an impressive season, highlighted by a particularly epic victory over a much-ballyhooed Missouri team.
One thing: It’s 1961, and the larger-than-life quarterback is a homegrown product with a quick smile and a buzz cut. Kid by the name of Hadl.
• • •
Here’s a legend, and he’ll tell you — with a good deal of perspective — what it’s like to be Todd Reesing.
For two years in the early 1960s, John Hadl was the best show in town, the local kid who’d shunned national power Oklahoma to stay in Lawrence and help build his hometown school into a national power — which, of course, he did. On Saturday afternoons in the fall, he piled up yards and ground out victories and, for his efforts, twice was named an All-American.
So you call him up one afternoon, tell him you’re doing a story on Todd Reesing — but, really, a story on what it means to be the starting quarterback on a Midwestern college campus — and the Last Great Kansas Quarterback chuckles into the phone. Yeah, he says, he can tell you a little bit about that.
And for the next 20 minutes, he does. He tells you how the people of Lawrence liked doting on their hometown heroes. About the free haircuts and the free meals and the pretty girls that would sometimes say hi on the way to class. He tells you about the fine group of guys he played with, and the work hard/play hard ethos they adhered to. About the first time he opened up an issue of Sports Illustrated and saw his name, and how, through all the autograph requests and media attention and All-American honors, his buddies – the same ones he still goes golfing with today – never let him get a big head about it.
He’ll tell you it was some kind of life.
“Every day,” he says, a good bit of nostalgia hanging from his words, “you got up and felt good about everything.”
Before hanging up, he tells you one more thing.
Following his senior season at Kansas, in 1961, Hadl went on to enjoy a 17-year NFL career. He threw for 33,500 yards and 244 touchdowns and built himself a resume that some think is Hall of Fame-worthy. He played in front of packed stadiums and national television audiences, partied with Joe Namath and dined with John Wayne (“A man’s man,” is how he describes The Duke). And as much fun as that professional lifestyle was, he tells you there’s something special about being the starting quarterback on a college campus. Something you can’t quite replicate no matter how large the crowds or how bright the lights.
“You’re playing for your school, you’re playing for your student body, you’re representing your university,” he says. “That meant a lot to me. ... And having success doing that made me feel real good, there’s no doubt about that.”
• • •
Late Saturday night, in a meeting room next to Memorial Stadium, in front of a gaggle of cameras and recorders and notebooks, Todd Reesing sat smiling.
A few minutes earlier, he’d led the then-No. 25 Jayhawks to a season-opening victory over Northern Colorado, piecing together a typically dominant performance. He had dodged defenders and whistled passes and contributed four touchdowns to the effort, and now he was wearing a charcoal suit and grinning big and playfully answering the questions that came flying at him from all directions.
A few feet away, meanwhile, a smaller group had begun to form around another player — a backup quarterback out of Dodge City. Earlier that night, in the first game of his college career, he had come off the bench and put on quite a show. He had completed all of his passes and scrambled for big gains, and although he is young and unproven — a red-shirt freshman with exactly one quarter of Div. I experience — some have looked at his size and athleticism and swagger and been struck by the possibilities.
His name is Kale Pick, and some think he’s the next big thing.