First in an occasional series
The white cordless phone rang at midnight, right on schedule, and everyone in the room looked at Derrick Williams.
Hey Coach Lilly, how you doing? Good, good. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.
The most sought-after high school football player in the country laughed once, twice, and continued chatting with Florida State's recruiting coordinator. Briefly. Within seconds, another call interrupted their conversation and Williams clicked to the other line, leaving the assistant from Florida State on hold. Now he was talking to an assistant from the University of Florida.
Hello, hello? Hey, hey. Nothing, just chillin'. Yes, sir.
Williams, an 18-year-old senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, can play quarterback, wide receiver, slot back, cornerback, safety, punt returner and kick returner. His test scores and grades -- better than a 3.0 average -- make him eligible for NCAA competition, and he is in position to graduate this December and enroll in college by January, in time for spring practices. He is 6 feet tall, weighs 190 pounds, can bench press 185 pounds 18 times and has run the 40-yard dash in 4.25 seconds. He has received scholarship offers from the top 18 teams in the country.
"Every college in America, he's the number one guy on their list right now," said an assistant coach at one Division I program who asked not to be identified because NCAA rules prohibit coaches from talking publicly about potential recruits.
Being the nation's No. 1 player guarantees Williams neither a professional contract nor an endorsement deal. Dwight Howard, last year's top-ranked high school basketball player, earned a three-year, $11.2 million contract with the Orlando Magic. Matt Bush, a high school senior chosen No. 1 in June's Major League Baseball draft, earned a $3.15 million signing bonus from the San Diego Padres.
But in May, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling preserved the NFL policy mandating that high school players wait three years before becoming professionals, and so the best high school football player in the country is bombarded with less liquid returns: hundreds of Internet hits and Internet rumors; boxes filled with flashy brochures and earnest letters from virtually every Division I school in the country; and phone calls, endless phone calls, from reporters and recruiting analysts and college coaches.
Which is why, just a few moments after midnight on Sept. 1 -- the first day college coaches are permitted to call recruits -- Williams toggled back and forth between recruiters, each trying to prove just how important Williams is to their team.
Hey coach, hey, how you doin'? Just lyin' around right now. It's going real well. Can you hold on? Hold on.
Williams's father, Dwight, sat on the couch next to Derrick in the family's four-bedroom Upper Marlboro home. Mother Brinda was upstairs, getting ready for bed. Godfather Donald Murphy, who spent a preseason with the Washington Redskins in 1977, was perched on a nearby easy chair. A late-night dating show played silently on the television, four women desperately striving to win the attention of one young man.
Coach Lilly, uh, that was Florida.
Williams clicked back and forth several more times, talking to Florida Coach Ron Zook in addition to the assistants. As other schools signaled their interest via call waiting, he gestured helplessly to his father, who said, "I know, I know," and soon told Derrick to end his conversations and get to bed.
Yeah, yeah, my bad, my bad, my bad. . . . I'm just going to call you when I get to school tomorrow.
Such attention no longer merits even a raised eyebrow in the Williams home. Not after a 14-year-old Derrick was ushered into Joe Paterno's office during a camp at Penn State before his ninth-grade year. Not after he received a dozen verbal offers of full athletic scholarships as a 10th grader. Not after Zook and Paterno and Southern California Coach Pete Carroll and Virginia Coach Al Groh all came to the Roosevelt campus last spring to visit with football coach Rick Houchens, although NCAA rules prohibited them from meeting with Williams.
Not after the UPS and FedEx and Airborne Express envelopes began arriving, filled with formal offers from the nation's best-known programs: Texas and Oklahoma and Nebraska, UCLA and USC and Arizona State, Georgia and Louisiana State and Tennessee, Miami and Florida and Florida State, West Virginia and Virginia and Virginia Tech, Ohio State and Penn State and North Carolina State and Michigan State and Kansas State.
"YOU ARE SPECIAL," began the letter from Kansas State Coach Bill Snyder.
"I have never seen an athlete that can beat you so many ways as you can!" penned Pittsburgh Coach Walt Harris on the bottom of the Panthers' offer.
"We need Derrick Williams," insisted Paterno in a three-page handwritten note, underlining the words to add emphasis.
Williams's father initially tucked the letters into plastic sleeves and recorded the written and verbal offers on a spreadsheet. He gave up after the total of written offers climbed above 30.
"I thought I was going to be smart about it and keep it all together, but then it started going crazy -- I'd be talking to a coach, and then an interviewer would call, and I just said forget it," confessed the elder Williams, who said the current tally of written and verbal offers from Division I programs has reached approximately 57.
The fact that the Williams family has spent 18 years preparing for this fall makes the ringing phone and the 20 or so daily pieces of mail easier to process.
"What's happening with Derrick is not an accident," explained older brother Domonique Williams, himself a highly recruited high school all-American who went on to play football at North Carolina and North Carolina A&T.
Just a few hours after Derrick was born, his father returned to the hospital with a plastic football for his second child. At age 2, Derrick would lug a toy football with him everywhere -- "You know how some kids have a teddy bear?" Domonique asked rhetorically -- and by the time Derrick was 5 or 6, he and his brother were already putting in early-morning workouts, running up and down the stairs at Cole Field House.
He organized 10-year-old teammates for extra practice, joined his father and brother for agility and throwing drills before church on Sunday mornings and worked out especially hard from June through August, when his parents considered the training to be his summer job.
When he started attending skills camps, he shaved his head and put baby oil on his arms and legs to make them glisten, accentuating his physique. He wore brightly colored shoes and shorts to attract maximum attention, and stood alone instead of mingling with the other athletes to further differentiate himself from the crowd.
As the scholarship offers began pouring in, the family gradually formulated a list of seven criteria they would use to choose a school. They want a program that will give Williams a chance to play as a freshman -- most college coaches tell Williams he'll play wide receiver -- that has enough national recognition to allow him to compete for a Heisman Trophy, that will give him a chance to advance to the NFL. They want a school that has a high graduation rate for minority athletes, one that promotes the hiring of African Americans and other minorities in its athletic programs. (Dwight Williams, a former assistant athletic director at the University of Maryland, was the first black senior administrator in the Maryland athletic department.)
Last spring the family narrowed its list to 14 schools, and on Monday, Dwight Williams said the choices had been further winnowed to eight: Florida, Florida State, Maryland, Oklahoma, Penn State, Texas, USC and Virginia.
Derrick, who said he has been anticipating the recruiting onslaught since he was a middle-schooler, maintained that he doesn't feel overwhelmed by the attention, that he knows the recruiters are only doing their jobs.
But he acknowledged that the calls get repetitive -- "it's a lot of telling you the same thing over and over; everyone's telling you what a kid wants to hear" -- and he said his parents will assume about 90 percent of the decision-making responsibilities. Indeed, he sometimes struggles to remember which schools are still on his list, and thinks "a regular 18-year-old kid doesn't know what's good for him right now."
"It's fun to me, it's just fun," he said last week while sitting in his coach's office. "I'm very blessed to be in this position. There's so many high schools in the country, so many football players in the country, and I know they'd like to be where I'm at. I try not to take that for granted."
He said his life still plays out to its familiar rhythms of movies and video games ("the best invention ever"), weekly visits to Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Lanham, whispered phone conversations with his girlfriend, football practice and football drills and football dreams.
His teammates agree that the hype has deflected off their superstar, who as a youth standout routinely gave away his most valuable player trophies to less talented players and once asked whether his name could be mentioned less frequently at awards banquets. Houchens, the high school coach, said four times during a recent conversation that Williams's greatest attribute is the kindness and humility he displays toward his teammates, that "he is the special part about this whole thing, him as a person."
Some things, of course, have changed. After the first day of school last week, Williams acknowledged "it was like I was the Godfather today," with seemingly everyone in the school greeting him by name. Houchens offered to unretire a uniform number for his final season -- No. 1, naturally.
And then there are the calls. After hanging up the phone at 12:20 a.m. Wednesday morning, Williams said, he was awakened at 5:30 by a call from Connecticut Coach Randy Edsall ("He asked me what I was doing, and I said 'sleeping' "). Soon after, Brinda Williams discovered several voice-mail messages from Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops, who apparently had been unable to get through the night before. Fifteen or more coaches called Williams on Wednesday night, both on his home and mobile phones.Williams said he knows the calls will continue, that "it's going to be stressed out a little bit when it comes closer to making that decision." But the player who has already graced the cover of six magazines -- "Believe the Hype" one proclaimed -- and given an interview to ESPN has also formulated a sound-bite-ready plan for dealing with the deluge:
"Just take it one call at a time," he said.