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The Quarterback In The Rye: Is Ricky Stanzi a Phony?

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Holden Caulfield famously hated phonies. So what would he have thought of Ricky Stanzi?

It’s fairly likely you’ve read recently deceased author J.D. Salinger’s, The Catcher in the Rye. For a good many years it was the most taught book in American English classes, and still to this day a remarkably large number of copies are sold at the start of every school year.  The literary importance of this novel is highly debatable; its fame is not. The novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is considered a hero to disaffected youth to the degree of a cult-like following. Internet sites abound with Caulfield interpretations and celebrations, although internet sites aside, Caulfield’s hero status may be more deeply felt by those youth who experienced their adolescence in the 1950s, 60s, or 70s than those who lived it in any decade since. Don’t get me wrong, many teens today still very much relate to Holden Caulfield’s excessive distrust of adults, adult institutions, and adulthood itself. But times have changed and Caulfield’s cult worship has become more and more limited over the years. 

The novel, often described as a coming-of-age story, is in actuality about a guy who does everything he can to avoid coming of age. Holden Caulfield’s journey from Pennsylvania prep school to New York mean streets is one episode after the next of a man-child forestalling his transitional rites of passage at every possible turn, and this appears to be the secret of the novel’s allure. Who didn’t love childhood? It’s the locus of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, minimal homework, dessert with every meal—in a nutshell, boundless innocence. Childhood is where everything works out in the end, and that which does not goes unnoticed like a F-4 Phantom jet over the head of a rube. Childhood is that last uncomplicated place in life's long journey, unlike adolescence, which is filled with thrills but also hellacious spills of harsh realities of an impending adult world as it slowly creeps into full view. 

Holden Caulfield existence is believed to have helped inspire another cult figure of youth, Jim Stark, the James Dean character in the classic film "Rebel Without A Cause." Like Caulfield, Stark was forever warring with authority figures in a misguided effort to get them to "just understand!" Youth cult heroes today are a different breed though. Contemporary America has, at least in this realm, long since cut the umbilical cord to the 1950s, and adults have long since ceased to be the enemy. A recent study showed that the typical American teen would list a parent as one of their five best friends. Cell phone use studies confirm that teens call parents often to, that's right, just talk. Holden Caulfield would vomit at the notion of all this parent love, Jim Stark would be green red with envy. Today’s cult heroes are less likely to be rebellious without a cause than they are to be cooperative and cause oriented.



"Well of course. I mean there’s nothing better than being an American…so…I mean this is the greatest feeling. If you don’t love it, leave it. U.S.A. number one!"

Ricky Stanzi, Orange Bowl 2010


And with that utterance Ricky Stanzi cemented himself as a cult hero. 

There were literally thousands of hero-cults throughout the locales of the ancient Greek-speaking world. Every locale had its own set of local heroes who qualified because they were the ideal portrayal of the values and beliefs of the local community. In Ancient Greece hero-cults were formed around those who were something in between a mortal and a God. Hero status was first attained on earth, almost always through extraordinary effort in battle during one’s lifetime or in some cases due to an unusually brave death. These heroes were deemed “cult" heroes because they were no longer like the living, they were dead after all, and yet they had not met the qualifications to ascend to the status of a God. Locals liked their cult heroes because they believe they would protect them in battle, but more importantly their immortalization was a way to carry forward the mythical identity of the locale. Most Greek scholars today suggest, in so many words, that cult heroes were a kind of discovery, never a contrivance. In contemporary culture traditional heroes are all the rage, but they are too often created out of whole cloth either by journalistic exuberance and/or by image making on Madison Avenue, but cult heroes are a whole 'nother ball game, they emerge out of the Greek tradition, locally, by the people and for the people---through discovery. 


Ricky Stanzi has a tattoo on his upper back stamping him with his place and year of birth---and on the off chance you’ve lived in a cave for the past month, that place is America and that stamp looks like this. Until the Orange Bowl, for a full two seasons, it was easy to convince ourselves that we knew the young QB but then in an instant he reminded us that one’s image is too often one dimensional and too often at odds with the truth. Images are filtered and mediated and seductive, and easy to swallow. Stanzi was able to do something though that is rarely done---he was able to break through (albeit somewhat cheekily), and allow for a more unvarnished interpretation of himself and all because Chris Myers jammed a microphone into his face and asked the oddest of questions. It was a thing of beauty. 

When Myers asked Stanzi if he felt he and his fellow Hawkeyes represented not only a university or a state but also an entire cultural region of the U.S., Stanzi hardly blinked. In a matter of a few sentences he made the notion of earnest nationalism quite palatable for those who had choosen, for whatever reason, to live theirs out more discreetly while also suggesting he is quite clear on the issue personally, all wrapped in a beautiful irony due to his toungue being firmly planted in cheek. 

But seriously, who knew? Prior to that awkward question, who knew Ricky Stanzi was a...devoted patriot? For that matter, who knew Ricky Stanzi at all. It became clear that his ordinariness had rocked us gently to sleep.

Holden Caulfield would have liked Ricky Stanzi. Why? Because Stanzi does not wear American flags under his eyes to (cough, cough) deflect the glare of stadium lights or a purity ring to make public his sexual practices (or lack thereof) nor does he insert into interviews patriotic asides or preachy tangents of gratitude for being able to play ball in the greatest country in the world and as far as I know he doesn’t allow others to exploit whatever fame he has achieved for their own purposes. And that is because Stanzi is not a phony. Stanzi instead wears wristbands in support and recognition of others, in particular cancer patients at the University of Iowa Hospital. 

Caulfield’s naivety allowed him to confuse goodness with innocence, which might be the reason he only could find real comfort among children. But goodness comes in many forms and at all of life's stages, and Stanzi proves this without even trying. Whereas Tim Tebow’s image, which he’s not in total control of but does little to shape otherwise, has been put forth as an almost Jesus-like inspirational figure of goodness to be emulated and followed, Stanzi’s image is a much more mature image, one that serves as a candid lesson in being other-focused. Throughout the past year Stanzi proved himself to be like this, time and again he went out of his way to deflect focus on himself. He profusely refused to take credit, except when there was any sort of failure, at which point he rushed forward and gobbled it up without hesitation or in some disingenuous gesture of self-sacrifice.   

To anoint the team’s quarterback its hero, especially one who has won 18 of the 22 games he’s ever started, seems patently obvious. But this is Iowa, a place where conventional hero worship is anathema. Stanzi might walk the Iowa City streets irrefutably with heroic status, but not because he is the ideal personality. No, Stanzi is a hero because he is an unusual personality. Stanzi is a hero because he is an unlikely hero, which means he qualifies as a contemporary cult hero

Marc Morehouse was right all along; Ricky is special. He is not egocentric and he’s not intemperate. He is not Drew Tate or Mitch King, he’s not the second coming of Chuck Long or an ubber talent like Iowa's most recent cult hero, Tim Dwight, and he's not Kirk Ferentz's muse either. He's completely his own dude, which is about the highest praise I can lavish on the guy. At a time when star quarterbacks dance self-interestedly with acclaim and attention, Stanzi is a football common man—steak and potatoes and never more than he can eat. It is difficult to get the Indiana game out of my head. A game that would prove to be the ultimate test of resilience and self-confidence, and would have reduced a lesser quarterback to rubble, it is a game that became an invisible stamp on Stanzi’s back that read, "Born To Lead. 2009". 


Muhammad Ali presciently said, "Jokes? There are no jokes. The truth is the funniest joke of all." Ricky Stanzi’s patriotic declaration at the Orange Bowl will go down as one of the funniest, coolest, most unique post bowl game interview responses to one of the strangest interview questions in Iowa football history (if not college football bowl history), but don’t be fooled by Stanzi’s giggling as Chris Myers pulled the microphone away. Stanzi was just being authentically Stanzi. We found out that he is in fact patriotic with the body ink to prove it. No, Stanzi was laughing to himself, in almost nervous reflection of the ludicrous idea that he could or should speak for an entire team, or a state, much less an entire cultural region of the U.S. But he blurted his answer and quickly turned to acknowledge his brothers in arms. And the pictures tell the story, they loved it but like so much of what Stanzi does, it slightly amazed them too.  

When the 2010 season begins and the Iowa team captains and Ricky Stanzi jog out to midfield for the coin toss, the Iowa Hawkeyes will be standing behind one of its all-time coolest, most legitimate leaders in its long and storied football history, and somewhere in the literary clouds one can only hope that Holden Caulfield is learning a lesson.