To look at him, you would think Eric Engels is just another normal guy. He is a lanky 17-year-old with wavy light brown hair and a smile that's slow to start yet engaging at the finish. He has a quick wit and a modest demeanor.
But looks are deceiving.
Eric Engels is a high school student's impossible dream-come-true: he is a perfect 1600. And in the world of college entrance examinations, that says it all.
Last spring, when more than 1 million high school students took the all-important Scholastic Aptitude Test, Eric Engels was among them.
When the results came back, Engels was one of four students in the nation who scored the ultimate: a perfect 800 on both the math and verbal sections of the test.
"I was pretty happy about it when I heard," said Engels, slowly stretching out his arms and clasping his hands behind his head.
Engels, a senior at West Springfield High School, got the news from his mother, who called him at a math meet in Maryland last spring to read the scores she received in the mail that morning.
"She didn't know what it meant. I had to explain it to her," he said.
It wasn't long, however, before nearly everyone else knew exactly what the score meant -- thanks to an onslaught of newspaper and television coverage.
Tipped off by school administrators, half a dozen newspapers and a national wire service descended on Engels. Reporters from the three major television networks sought interviews with the "boy genius."
By the time Engels started his senior year at West Springfield this fall, he had become a folk hero.
John Smith, a spokesman for the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., which administers the SAT, said scores on the verbal and math tests range from 200 to 800. For 1982, the national average for math was 467 and for verbal, 426.
An 800 score goes to those students who have the most correct answers on the test; the remainder of the scores are scaled down from that standard. An 800 in both math and English, or a combined score of 1600, means Engels had one of the highest scores of all those taking the test.
"It is extremely rare, to say the least," said Smith. "The odds are tremendous. We had maybe four students do it last year and three the year before."
A testing service report said four students received a perfect 1600 this year. The service will not release the names of the other three students and Engels and his family have never heard mention of them.
It is Engels that the media zeroed in on after a wire service picked up the story from a local newspaper.
Engels was the one who had to fend off questions:
Like, "How did you study?"
Answer: "I didn't really. I just looked over some vocabulary words."
And, "Where do you want to go to college?"
Answer: "Duke or the University of Virginia to study physics."
And, of course, "How does it feel to have a perfect SAT score?"
And the perfect 1600 answer: "Good."
"They all sort of made me out to be a real brain," said Engels. "It was fun at first but then it was pretty tiring. I think of myself as normal."
His friends are quick to agree. In an interview recently, they sat with him around a conference table at the high school, cracking jokes and attempting to explain the truth behind his perfect score.
"He had this system," said Pat Robb, 17. "On every third question he picked the answer marked "A" and on every seventh question he -- "
"No, no," corrected Karen Prentiss, also 17. "He didn't use a No. 2 pencil so all his answers came out right on the computer scan."
"He ate his Wheaties," suggested someone else.
Not true, said Engels. He said he did not guess on any of the math questions but did on a few of the English questions. "And obviously I must have guessed right."
The test was easy, he said. It was the reaction of classmates that had him worried.
In an attempt to make clear that he is an all-around regular guy, Engels made his debut as a cheerleader this fall for the girls' powder puff football league.
"Everyone was saying, 'My God, is that Eric Engels out there with a 1600 painted on the back of his shorts?'" said Prentiss. "It did a lot to change his image."
Engels is taking advanced math at George Mason University along with a dozen other West Springfield High students. He said his high school teachers have kept him busy, except for one class. "I've been able to slide through because the teacher thinks, 'Well, if he has perfect SATs -- '," he said.
"I think we are a good enough school to keep Eric challenged," said principal George Stepp, who dropped into the conference room to say "Eric doesn't intimidate anyone. He is an exceptional student and decent young man."
Eric's parents, Eugene L. Engels, a defense consultant, and Rosalind Engels, a youth social worker, are reported not to be in awe of their perfect son.
"At home, it's like nothing happened," said Eric's brother Emil Engels, 14, a freshman at West Springfield High. "He still has to take out the garbage and all that."
Emil Engels does not look forward to taking the SATs his junior year. "I could never follow Eric's act," he said.
But Eric Engels confides that his only sibling is "incredibly intelligent. He just is not vocal about it."
Now that the SAT furor is dying, Engels is looking forward to his next challenge: becoming valedictorian. He is first in his class of 600 but classmate and friend Debbie Klosky is close behind. He beat her on the SAT but she bettered him on the test that determines National Merit Scholar semifinalists. Both are semifinalists.
A more important challenge will be finding a scholarship to put him through college. Most scholarships are based on need, not on academic achievement.
"I'm sure Eric will be able to do anything he sets his mind to," said Vince Coppola, 17, Engels' best friend for years. Then he added in mock conspiracy, "He could always accept one of the bribes people have offered him" to take the SAT test for them.
"Getting a 1600 is wonderful, but it doesn't set my future up for me," said Engels. "There are a lot of challenges out there, a lot more things I want to do, to learn."
Will he take the SAT a second time, like many of his classmates?
"It depends," he said, "on who's willing to pay me the most."