The gym rules are posted in capital letters: NO FOOD DRINKS OR GUM. Tickets cost $4. And the mood is so electric at Upper Marlboro's Frederick Douglass High School the night the Eagles open their 2001-02 basketball season that the arrival of Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington stirs little commotion.
Arrington slides into a spot on the front row of bleachers shortly after tip-off, joining his parents and nearly a dozen relatives and friends to root for his younger brother, Eric, 17, who is debuting as the Eagles' starting point guard.
Since his little brother started playing sports, Arrington has attended as many games as he can. His parents did the same for him. And here, in a Prince George's County high school gym, Arrington finds something he misses in the NFL.
"Every time I go to a high school game or I drive past and see Pee-Wee league football players practicing, it's just pure. It's just football," said Arrington, 23, the rising star of the Redskins' defense. "There are no shoe contracts. There are no contract-contracts. There are no owners of the teams. It's just football. The higher you go up on the scale, the crazier it gets -- the politics of everything. No longer are you just having to worry about football; you're having to worry about everything that goes along with it."
Amid the squeal of cheerleaders, the squeak of basketball sneakers and the thud of bodies diving after loose balls, there's no mistaking that Arrington -- the explosive, emotional linebacker who will lead the Redskins in today's game against the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles at FedEx Field -- is his mother's child.
Carolyn Arrington radiates unbridled energy, smiling and chatting with everyone in sight -- Eagles players, the other mothers and officials, too -- as if she's known them all her life.
"Yes, baby!" she shouts, as Eric sinks his first free throw.
Then, after the referee misses a call: "You're taking a long time with that whistle! We've got to get you another whistle!"
Arrington just shakes his head. "My mom -- she's extra!" he says. "She didn't just get this way."
Next to Carolyn Arrington sits her husband, Michael, an ordained minister, who watches the game intently, beaming with pride. Arrington is his father's son, too, with a contemplative, spiritual dimension that seems at odds with the violent game he plays.
It's one of many contradictions in Arrington's complex persona: a football player who prefers chess to video games; who humiliates offenses for a living, yet lives by a creed of respect for all; who can be a dazzling conversationalist one day, moody and remote the next.
Football made Arrington a millionaire at 21. And the first thing he did was pay his parents' outstanding bills and convince his mother to retire after 25 years as a special-education teacher in Pittsburgh's public schools. Then, after a year of coaxing, he persuaded his parents to move to the Washington area so they'd be closer. After scouting local high schools, he bought them a stately home in Upper Marlboro, five minutes from the school his brother wanted to attend.
"He has a heart that stretches around from here to the other side of the ocean," Carolyn Arrington says of her middle son.
"He's very high-strung emotionally," Michael Arrington says. "He loves hard, and he hates hard. And if he loves you and respects you, there is nothing he wouldn't do for you."
Arrington's own sprawling home, which he bought from former Redskins coach Terry Robiskie, sits at the end of a two-lane road that wends past horse stables and farmhouses. He added a Jacuzzi and deck. And he shares his home with his childhood friend Frank; older brother Michael, 26; Michael's girlfriend, Shalonda; niece Jasmine, 7; and 18-month-old nephew Little Mike.
Homes and lots are huge in this part of Fairfax, so it's peaceful in the backyard except for the three dogs -- pit bulls Ali and Bishop, and American bulldog Bulvi -- who yap for Arrington's attention.
"This is LaVar," he says, surveying his five-acre expanse, blanketed by leaves so thick you'd never guess a swimming pool lay underneath. Leaves, Arrington declares, should be raked only once. After the last one falls.
The interior is a work in progress, too. He has redone the entry hall in black marble and begun furnishing the rooms with sleek, modern settees and chairs. His favorite room is the "chess room," with an ornate chess table set by a window. A suit of armor stands guard in one corner of the room.
The house comes alive with the sound of children when Jasmine and Mike return from school, clamoring for kisses and high-fives from their giant uncle.
For all Arrington's accolades -- the Bednarik Award, given to the country's top defensive college player, and the Butkus Award, to the game's top linebacker -- there are no trophies on display and scant evidence that an athlete lives here except for an oversized reprint of an ESPN Magazine cover featuring himself, Penn State defensive end Courtney Brown and Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick as the stars of the 2000 NFL draft.
Above it hangs a color photograph of Arrington's own son, Keeno, 16 months, who lives near Pittsburgh with his mother.
"I wouldn't care if my son ever played one down of football or a minute of basketball; I just want him to do what makes him happy," Arrington says. "He doesn't need all that pressure. That's why I didn't name him LaVar Jr. He'll have his opportunity to have his own identity. I think that's fair. Much will be required of him because I'm not going to accept him being average at what he likes to do. He will have to strive to be great at what he decides he wants to do. But that will be his decision."
A gifted athlete as a youngster, Arrington considered an NBA career before football took hold of his heart. The game is in his blood, he believes, and he ticks off the names of Pittsburgh's great linebackers with reverence: Andy Russell, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Levon Kirkland, Earl Holmes . . .
"That's just how Pittsburgh people are," Arrington says. "We know our football, and we love our history in football. It's just like hard-nosed, blue-collar, steel-mill workers. It's our mentality. . . . I'm drawn to football because of what it stands for. It's the only sport where you bring 53 guys together, and try and take 53 different personalities and put them together and turn it into a winning machine."
Despite Arrington's talent, there have been hurdles along the way -- first at Penn State, where his individualism clashed with Coach Joe Paterno's hallowed system.
After Arrington opined that Penn State would never win a national championship unless Paterno played his best players (rather than favoring upperclassmen), Paterno told Sports Illustrated that if Arrington wanted to be a revolutionary, he would be "a revolutionary in exile."
He turned pro after his junior year and remains perplexed by the politics of the college game.
"It wasn't a personal attack on anybody," Arrington said of the comment that offended Paterno so deeply.
The Redskins scooped him up with the second pick of the 2000 draft, rewarded him with a $10 million signing bonus and whisked him to Washington by private jet, where he and fellow first-rounder Chris Samuels were feted with a party at FedEx Field. But opening day of the 2000 season found Arrington relegated to backup duty, punishment for a contract holdout that delayed his arrival at training camp.
Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff cringed at the decision. "I even went to [linebackers coach] Foge Fazio and said, 'What are you guys doing?' " Huff recalls. "He said, 'They didn't want to play him because he held out.' "
Arrington recalls his rookie year as "just a nightmare," adding: "I don't even think that my first year is worth recalling."
His second season, however, has been impossible to ignore. Arrington has exploded under a defensive scheme that has unleashed him to make the splashy plays that have become his signature.
He spurred the Redskins' 17-14 comeback victory over the Carolina Panthers by returning an interception 67 yards for a touchdown -- a play that many believe salvaged the season after an 0-5 start. He has played hurt, fending off a shoulder injury, sprained knee, apparent concussion and sprained ankle in the last five months. He has hit running backs so hard they never looked his way again. And while his fury has been costly at times -- drawing multiple penalties for unnecessary roughness and four league fines for a total of $35,000 -- no one is talking about reining him in.
"He's the linebacker the Redskins have been looking for for a long, long time," Huff said.
But on this Friday night at Douglass High, Arrington is no more than a cheerleader for his younger brother. When Eric drives for layup, his 6-3, 240-pound brother jumps to his feet and cheers. But when Eric flops over at the waist and gasps for breath, Arrington is on him in a flash. "Hey!" he shouts. "You're all right, boy!"
Little Mike sits in Arrington's lap with his back toward the game, tugging on the shiny diamond-studded hoop in his uncle's ear. He pretends to talk into Arrington's cell phone. And then he starts squirming, and it's all Arrington can do to keep the child from jumping onto the basketball floor.
The game ends with the Eagles fending off a late charge by the Potomac Braves to win, 63-59. And as the jubilant crowd files out, several pause to shake Arrington's hand and pat him on the back. And older man in a Redskins cap clutches Arrington's arm and whispers: "I'm one of those fans that's expecting you all to be at the top at the end."
Carolyn and Michael Arrington stand and wait for Eric to come out of the locker room. It's a ritual they have performed countless times over the years, for each of their children.
At LaVar's high school games, his mother recalls, he'd run onto the football field and scan the stands for his parents before kickoff. Once he spotted them, he'd point to signal that he knew they were watching him.
These days, Carolyn and Michael Arrington watch their son play from his luxury suite at FedEx Field. And before kickoff, LaVar Arrington still points up at them.