CALIFORNIA, Pa. — Peter Lalich stood in front of his favorite pizza joint this past weekend, one block from the only stoplight in town, when a car full of football players pulled up.
“Pistol Pete,” said the driver, referencing the basketball legend his 6-foot-5, 240-pound teammate was named after. “Are you going to have an NFL draft party?”
Lalich shook his head, the prospect of not being selected in front of friends and family too “embarrassing” to consider. Besides, the people that once anointed him a star quarterback in Northern Virginia have forgotten about him.
Most of his high school friends have real jobs by now and “go to Happy Hour at 4 every day,” another reminder of the potential Lalich, 24, was supposed to realize years earlier.
“Other people are more embarrassed for me, like, ‘What are you doing? What’s going on with you?’ Or they think I’m just a burnout,” Lalich said. “They don’t know I’m still playing football.”
Seven years after setting Virginia passing records at West Springfield High and “breaking the mold for what a passing quarterback was in this area,” according to former Spartans coach Bill Renner, Lalich is on the verge of becoming the NFL player many predicted he would be long ago.
Rivals.com considered him to be one of the top five signal callers in the country in a class that included future NFL players Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Tyrod Taylor. Virginia once sent seven coaches just to watch him practice. Lalich eventually became the highest profile recruit of the Al Groh era, spurning schools such as Oklahoma, Michigan and Miami to play for the in-state Cavaliers.
That, though, was only the start of a journey as winding as the Monongahela River that runs along the campus of California University of Pennsylvania, the Division II school where Lalich completed his collegiate career this past fall.
“I just kept learning from mistakes,” Lalich said. “I needed to do that and it helped me out a lot because if they would have just swept it under the rug, I would have probably done something worse in the NFL or later.”
While he was starring in high school, Lalich dreamed about college life. He heard stories about the wild parties and booze-filled nights, and when he arrived in Charlottesville as a ballyhooed recruit, it all seemed to come true.
Lalich became the first true freshman quarterback to play at Virginia in 10 years, appearing in eight games while living by the mantra, “At U-Va., the best nights are the weeknights.”
His stature on the field gave him access to any party he wanted. If the offensive line wanted to have “a case race,” he was there. Lalich said he didn’t particularly like the taste of alcohol, but the attention was intoxicating.
“I just had way too much fun with it,” he said. “I was thinking about being a college student more than being a football player. I was just naive. I wanted to do everything and I didn’t understand the magnitude of the situation.”
It caught up with him in July 2008 when Lalich was arrested for underage drinking and put in a pre-conviction program. He started again at quarterback to begin the 2008 season, but his Virginia career would be derailed for good soon thereafter when he admitted to drinking alcohol and violating the terms of his probation in Charlottesville General District court.
Athletic Director Craig Littlepage then announced in September that Lalich had been dismissed from the football team because of his continued missteps.
“That was like taking his girlfriend away,” said Lalich’s father, Todd.
Nonetheless, Lalich was barely a year removed from his days as an elite high school quarterback, and less than a month later he transferred to Oregon State on the recommendation of Groh. The move across the country was a tough adjustment, relegated to the sidelines a month after starting for Virginia against No. 1 Southern California. He also sat out the 2009 season because of NCAA transfer rules.
But following spring practice in May 2010, with Lalich embroiled in a competition to be Oregon State’s starting quarterback in the fall, he was charged with a boating DUI while out on California’s Lake Shasta with friends.
Lalich faced a three-game suspension and Riley told him it was unlikely he would win the starting job. So Lalich left his second Bowl Championship Series program in two years, with little idea what the future would hold.
Back in Western Pennsylvania, former Cavaliers defensive back Mike Brown watched his old roommate from Virginia struggling and empathized. He had also been a highly touted recruit upon arriving in Charlottesville only to be dismissed from the football program over legal issues.
Brown had moved on to California University, a school of about 9,400 students that has become a haven for castoffs from Football Bowl Subdivision programs in recent years. Ten alumni are currently playing in the NFL, and Brown figured the change of scenery could resurrect Lalich’s career.
“I think he took a pretty arrogant approach to Virginia, maybe read his newspaper clippings a little too much,” Brown said. “If he was out having a beer casually or he was out late doing something casually, not only because of his size but because of who he was, people definitely took notice to the things he did, I think, unfairly. Although when you have the opportunity to be Peter Lalich, I think in some respects it is fair.
“But he still really wanted to play.”
Lalich took his friend’s advice and moved in with Brown as the highest-rated scout-team quarterback to ever play for California’s football team. Vulcans Coach Mike Kellar said at that point it seemed Lalich was still ashamed of his past and he kept reminding his new signal caller, “you aren’t the first college student that drank underage.”
“It felt like purgatory,” Lalich said.
But the freedom of being on the scout team, with no pressure to perform or live up expectations, provided Lalich the fresh start he had been in search of for more than two years. By the 2011 season, he had grabbed hold of the starting job and would soon embark on a historic campaign.
In his first full season in four years, Lalich set a school record by throwing for 3,725 yards and 31 touchdowns in Kellar’s no-huddle offense, which resembled the freewheeling system in which Lalich thrived at West Springfield. This past year, despite missing four games because of a staph infection, Lalich averaged close to 345 passing yards per contest.
“The best thing that may have ever happened to Pete and one of the best things that happened to us was him getting to us at Cal,” Kellar said. “It’s a shame, though, that he didn’t have the career that he could have had at Virginia. It’s a shame that the underage drinking happened, because if he’s coming out of Virginia with the exact same college career he had here, he’s a first-day pick.”
A silver lining to Lalich’s circuitous career is the sheer number of complicated offensive systems he has mastered, and his ability to process the X’s and O’s is a skill coaches and teammates have marveled about at every stop along the way.
Lalich had always been a football junkie, even watching film with West Springfield’s coaches as an eighth grader. Groh used to call him “The Mad Bomber” because of his gun-slinger mentality in the pocket, but Lalich was the lone player Kellar would allow to sit in his coaches’ meetings this year because of his innate ability to read defenses and process concepts.
“He’s definitely a savant in terms of I’ve never seen another player on any other team prepare plays almost with the imagination of he’s 6 or 7 years old,” Brown said.
Kellar hopes if the NFL doesn’t work out that Lalich considers coaching because of his acumen. But Lalich is focused on playing football, even if all the pro scouts want to ask about is his past.
“What’s good about it is he’s owned up to it in front of a lot of people,” Todd Lalich said.
Peter Lalich says he’d be willing to play in Canada or the Arena Football League, although his prototypical size and arm strength should allow him to be in an NFL training camp this summer, whether it’s via the draft or as an undrafted free agent.
He wants to be the next Tom Brady, an overlooked player in the NFL draft who re-captured his football stardom on the game’s biggest stages. Whether he can handle that spotlight will depend on the lessons he learned during his cross-country journey through college.
“If I had my head the way it is now, I probably would have been in the NFL last year or the year before,” Lalich said. “But that’s not how it worked out. Everybody’s story is different and I know I’m ready now. It’s given me a lot of confidence because I know I can overcome things.”