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The Curious Case of Todd Gurley

Also known as how college halfbacks can take the archaic NCAA amateurism rules and use them to their advantage...

@TG3II pre-game versus the Volunteers earlier this season
@TG3II pre-game versus the Volunteers earlier this season
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

On September 16, 2002, Ohio State freshman halfback Maurice Clarett sat down with Gene Wojciechowski for ESPN The Magazine. The Youngstown native and close friend of LeBron James recounted to the reporter his intention to challenge the NFL's Draft eligibility rules and try to become a professional football player after only a year of college ball. The Buckeye back spent his freshman year as the focal point of Jim Tressel's offense, leaving him bruised and beaten after one season in Columbus. All of those hard hits left him to think about how many he could take before he was damaged goods and his value depreciation began. He sat down and explained this "formula" to Gene.

Her son can recite the latest contract figures for, say, Donovan McNabb, down to length of deal and the last decimal on the signing bonus. He has calculated the number of hits his own six-foot, 230-pound body will likely absorb during the course of a college season. The rough formula: at least 20-25 carries multiplied by 13 games (260-325), plus secondary hits (100), plus bottom-of-the-pile knee and ankle twists (minimum 20), plus blocking (minimum 75), plus pass receptions (projected 20), plus hits taken during late summer, fall and spring practices (lots), plus hits taken during the spring game (some). Add those numbers, compare the result to McNabb's salary figures and, says Clarett, "You kind of reevaluate your situation."

The rest is history. Clarett, followed by Mike Williams and supported by a group of lawyers and confidants including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Jim Brown, battled the NFL's legal department, only to lose, leaving Maurice on the outside looking in on organized football until 2005, when he was drafted by the Denver Broncos, then subsequently cut after a disappointing training camp.

Flash forward to October 27, 2012; with 4:50 left in the second quarter, Marcus Lattimore takes the hand-off in front of a sold out crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina. His right guard pulls to the left and his tight end does a great job of washing a Tennessee Volunteer D-end down inside. Lattimore follows his guard, bouncing it outside the left tackle. The lead blocking guard hesitates, allowing a linebacker coming from the inside to hit Marcus right below his shoulder pads. A safety, who crashed down to help seal the edge and keep #21 from another highlight reel play, goes low.

The star Gamecock halfback was playing out his junior season, his last year before draft eligibility. Unfortunately, that accidental high-low combination would end the young running back's football career. The projected 1st round pick would never take a snap in the NFL.

2 days ago, eerily similar circumstances ended another elite SEC back's season. Todd Gurley was playing in his first game following his 4 game suspension, trying to shake off the rust against a top-10 Auburn team. As reports said early Sunday, the junior back tore his ACL and now will spend the rest of 2014 on crutches. He was a project first round pick.

Maurice Clarett might be a villain to many football fans who still remember his exploits in scarlet and grey, but his formula was years ahead of its' time. Running backs, unlike a lot of positions in the NFL, have almost a rigid, set in stone lifespan. At age 30, even the best halfbacks are seen as "old" or "over the hump" and fall to battling young draft picks for carries in their respective offenses.

The problem isn't the age. A running back at 29 is not different than a back at 30. It's not as though their bodies magically become weaker when that 30th birthday is crossed off the calender. No, it falls onto exactly what Maurice suspected in 2002. It's the number of hits they take.

Maurice was a martyr. Someone eventually had to test the NFL's eligibility rules and with his fallout in Columbus, it was a match made in heaven... or hell, depending on who you ask. Obviously, it didn't work out for Clarett, essentially ruining what was once a very promising career. He was seen as a villain, cocky and greedy. But if anything, he was just smart. He was trying to cash in while he could, before it was far too late.

So the possibility of changing the NFL rules couldn't have saved Todd Gurley or rather, it wouldn't have happened. If Clarett couldn't do it in 2002, Gurley couldn't do it in 2014.

So was there anything Gurley could have done to protect himself? Or was he doomed to the same fate as Marcus Lattimore, playing out a season in the NCAA which could only negatively affect his future NFL career?

No. He could have stayed suspended.

Now, this article is in no way accusing Gurley of purposely getting suspended from football to prevent an injury, rather just acknowledging a loophole Todd fell ass backwards into.

The NCAA is crooked. I think as a sports culture we are enlightened enough to know that the NCAA makes an obscene profit off young adults risking life and limb, while the fat cats sit at home reaping the rewards. The system is broken. Amateurism is widely acknowledged as a fictional concept created by the NCAA to keep the system in order. Breaking those rules means nearly nothing to most of society and, most importantly, the NFL.

Violating an amateurism rule isn't a character concern. Things like committing a felony, being "un-coachable" or drug use are all seen as cardinal sins. But breaking the crooked rules of a crooked system? It almost sounds patriotic.

Take for example Johnny Manziel. The polarizing Heisman trophy winner was seen as a huge distraction. Many wondered if he cared more about partying than football and his "blow-ups" (which turned out to be overblown) with Coach Sumlin were put under the microscope. However, no one mentioned his autograph suspension as a sign of character concerns, despite it being a cardinal sin in the NCAA's eyes.

The NFL is hand in hand with NCAA's crooked behavior, enabling it with their eligibility requirements, but their coaches and owners know the amateurism rules are a mute point on draft day. It's like stealing loose grapes at the grocery store; is it technically against the rules and inherently bad? Yes. But nobody will call you a thief for those two green grapes you snuck in the produce section. Is signing an autograph for cash while under scholarship for the NCAA technically bad? Yes. But nobody will say you have character concerns if you're trying to profit off all your hard work. If I'm not mistaken, trying to profit through hard work is the whole concept driving capitalism? No?

Todd Gurley came into this season with little to nothing to prove. Suspension or no suspension, he was still projected to be a first-second round pick come next year. Had he never played another snap this season, he would still be exactly where he was before. Sure, the opportunity to win the Heisman Trophy and the SEC and/or National Championship is tempting, but put that next to total financial security for your children and your children's children, it doesn't seem to hold up. Todd Gurley should have done the "wrong" thing to do the right thing; stay suspended to protect your future.

Now, this concept only works when you have completely and utterly proved you can play at the next level. Specifically, the time when it is most effective is in your last year of college football before you can declare eligibility for the draft.

For example, Leonard Fournette has been compared to Adrian Peterson and Darren McFadden coming out of high school. But if he only played his freshman year and refused to play year two and three, he wouldn't be higher than a 4th round pick. He hasn't proved he can consistently play against elite level NFL talent yet. If he can show the same level of play for the rest of this year and next year, sitting out his junior year would be a mute point. NFL teams without a star back will be licking their chops to get their hands on Fournette, whether he signed some autographs for chunk change or not.

Not only could it have saved Gurley from his ACL injury, but it would have prevented more wear on his legs regardless. Coming full circle with Clarett's "hits formula", Gurley could have left college with more tread on his tires. If you had two of the same used car, you'd always pick the one with less miles. The same applies for running backs and carries. All things equal, all 32 NFL GMs would take the back with less carries under his belt. That's more carries for them.

The other key to this loophole is secrecy. Essentially, cashing in on yourself with the intent to get caught is a move that anyone could see as selfish. In addition, any player suspended for deliberately breaking NCAA rules is always dogged a little bit by their respective fan base. Playing it off as just a dumb mistake you made, with no underlying ulterior motives, will prevent any real snooping into exactly why a player would do this, besides the money.

Even if you are caught exploiting the loophole of the century, saying you wanted to protect yourself, so you could get to the NFL and finally provide your family with the life they deserve is logic every person can understand.

It's too late for Todd. He's suffered a terrible fate under a flawed system that doesn't protect him well enough, just as many before him have. I think I speak for all college football fans when I say that we wish you a speedy recovery and hope to see you tearing it up again next year, in the NFL or otherwise.

I don't know if it's the 1970's shady Italian mafioso or the frugal business man inside me but, if I'm Melvin Gordon, maybe I take a stroll around Madison, collect enough cash to buy myself a nice new jacket for the Wisconsin winter, find a pay phone and snitch myself out to Badger compliance. History repeats itself and with this disturbing trend, no one should ever be next.