ORLANDO, Fla. — Never thought I’d get to follow another athlete, see more dramatic endings authored by one player than you’d get from a typical soap opera producer, be amazed and impressed and driven so often to the point of no words at all to describe what was happening in front of me, than I did when I wrote about Gerry McNamara.
A little more than a decade later, I watched Trace McSorley limp away from Camping World Stadium, and it hit me.
There goes another Gerry.
We chatted about records McSorley set and plays he made ad nauseum over the last few months. We can continue to just call him a winner, because he most certainly qualifies; even in the loss that sent him out the door. We can call him undersized and more gritty than he is athletic, and some of you are even going to call him overrated. Hey, I know the drill. I wrote this same story a long time ago, only about a different guy.
All those things were said about McNamara, too. He started his college career by guiding a most talented team to the biggest win in the history of a storied program, then finished it with something even better: guts and determination, a refusal to lose in the 2006 Big East Tournament even though he clearly no longer had the best team around him.
Moments like those are what makes legends.
McNamara hasn’t played at Syracuse in more than 12 years, and a dozen years from now, McSorley is going to be thought of in much the same way, in football terms of course. But, he’s going to find out what McNamara did after his own legendary career with the Orange ended: The next step is a whole different type of beast.
Especially when you approach it limping.
McNamara fought his way through that classic Big east Tournament while battling a severe groin strain, just like McSorley gutted out the last half of Penn State’s 2018 season with a balky right knee and, in the second half of the 27-24 loss to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, what is very likely a broken foot.
McSorley insisted after the game that tests were taken, and that they had yet to show any kind of conclusive diagnosis, but they throw injury information around at Penn State like manhole covers. If an athletic department spokesperson says his foot is broken, then it was likely at least a preliminary diagnosis.
For as much toughness as he showed getting back into the game and darn near leading the Nittany Lions to victory despite a 27-7 deficit heading into the fourth quarter, senior safety Nick Scott’s assessment of the goings on might have been the most prudent on record.
“As a friend, I’m looking at Trace like, ‘Dude, what are you doing? You have a future ahead of you,’” Scott said.
He’s right. The next couple of weeks are going to be big ones for McSorley’s pro prospects.
He is likely going to get an invitation to some of the bigger All-Star games for draft-eligible players, and you find all the top NFL scouts, general managers and coaches at those games and practices. Players can make a name for themselves there as easily as they can at the NFL Combine in February.
Coaches are going to want to see him in those games, in those practices, doing those interviews and working out in those drills. They’ll want to see how he handles the speed of NFL-caliber prospects on defense, how he works with NFL coaches, how he picks up offenses and honestly, whether some of the accuracy issues he battled through during his senior season can be remedied with a few mechanical tweaks.
Most of all, they’ll want to see if he’s healthy. Right now, that’s a big question mark.
“We’re just going to take it one step at a time. That’s all I can do,” McSorley said. “Whatever comes our way, I’m going to be able to face it head-on. My career as a player isn’t over. I wholeheartedly believe that. Whatever adversity comes or doesn’t come, I’m going to face it head-on. I’m going to attack these next couple of months like nothing was different.”
On one hand, this is the perfect time to be the type of quarterback McSorley is. More NFL teams are looking for leadership, playmaking ability, a special kind of ability at the quarterback position than they are the prototypical size and speed combination.
Twenty years ago, Russell Wilson wouldn’t have been a perennial Pro Bowler, and Baker Mayfield wouldn’t have been the No. 1 pick overall in the draft. But the fact of the matter is, players who don’t have that size and speed get one chance to show what they can do and you don’t want to get that chance when you aren’t 100 percent.
McNamara’s injury in the Big East Tourney in ’06 came at exactly the wrong time and hampered any chance he had at the NBA. This is not a well-timed injury, whatever is wrong with his foot, for Trace McSorley.
But that’s OK. Really, it is. McNamara went into coaching, and it’s likely his career in basketball will far outlast the typical NBA player. That’s another road McSorley could take that would be an easy parallel to McNamara’s career to draw, too.
Both players are legends in the college game, and both will mean something to fan bases of their respective schools for generations, and there’s plenty of pride in that for both. For McSorley, like McNamara, the battles they fought in their final months of college took a toll. In McSorley’s case, he’ll have to work hard to overcome them.