Derrick Williams was on a recruiting trip 800 miles from home when he met a University of Florida fan in the lobby of a Gainesville, Fla., hotel. After the fan found out whom she was talking to, she immediately called her husband, who materialized from his hotel room in what seemed like "about three seconds" to Derrick's mother, Brinda.
The husband knew what position Derrick played and what part of the country he was from. He asked for Derrick's autograph, which was addressed "to my best, best friend." He asked for Derrick's father's autograph. He asked about Derrick's other college choices. And he revealed that he'd been following the 18-year-old's football career on the Internet "for a long, long time," according to Brinda Williams.
In the eight years since Derrick's older brother, Domonique, was a highly regarded high school senior, family members say, the recruiting process has changed in one significant way: The national attention focused on prized recruits has increased exponentially. There are more interview requests and photo shoots, more rumors and more questions, and there is scrutiny of nearly every word they utter.
The biggest explanation for the change, family members say, is simple. "We got that Internet now, and information gets out so quick, so quick," as Derrick's father, Dwight Williams, puts it.
Two months into his senior year, Derrick -- a 6-foot, 190-pound wide receiver prospect who's considered the top football recruit in the country -- has already landed several national television appearances. He's been a guest on radio programs in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. He's given an ESPNews interview on his cell phone in the hallways of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt.
On Wednesday, he conducted a telephone interview with Fox SportsNet South's "Countdown to Signing Day," which features an Internet recruiting analyst. On Thursday, he and his parents traveled to a Silver Spring studio for another ESPNews appearance, featuring a different Internet analyst.
And in the past year, Derrick has given interviews to scores of online reporters, from HokieHaven.com and USCFootball.com, from Penn State's BlueWhiteIllustrated.com and Texas's Orangebloods.com, from Nebraska's HuskersIllustrated.com, Michigan's TheWolverine.com, Oklahoma's SoonerScoop.com, Virginia's TheWagonOnline.com, Florida State's Warchant.com and Florida's GatorBait.net.
Recruiting Web sites list Derrick's time in the 40-yard dash, his bench press and his vertical leap. They send videographers to Derrick's games and put the footage on the Web. They rank Derrick's remaining college choices and assign dates for his official visits.
And they compete with each other for the latest Derrick Williams news, calling his house several times a week, sometimes two or three times a night.
"It's flat-out ridiculous," said Jamie Newberg, a national recruiting analyst for Scout.com who, like several other online reporters, said he is trying to limit the number of phone calls to top recruits. "We stress that at meetings -- there's no reason to be calling these kids 18 times a month, because we're only cutting off the hand that feeds us."
Fans post their own opinions on message boards: "Derrick, sometimes a place, a situation, and a person come together to create something very rare and very special," one Maryland fan wrote this summer. "The person is you Derrick -- who can bring the national championship to your home town. So are you in or are you out??"
The Internet analysts say their daily recruiting coverage still has room for growth. Rivals.com has 43 full-time employees, more than 200 contract writers and editors in its network of affiliated sites, and claims it gets more than 15 million page views a day, according to publisher Bobby Burton. Scout.com -- which covers professional, collegiate and high school sports in addition to recruiting -- says it has 1.8 million unique users a month and syndicates its content to sites that reach 38 million users, according to Editor in Chief Glenn Nelson.
Longtime recruiting analyst Tom Lemming now provides rankings for ESPN.com, and Mike Farrell -- an analyst for Rivals.com and ESPNews -- has been contacted by 15-year-old high school students who want to know how to get into the recruiting industry.
"It's like the gold rush," said Allen Wallace, the national recruiting editor for Scout.com and publisher of "SuperPrep" magazine. "You've got a lot of people who would like to carve a name for themselves. They're not even good. Sometimes the questions are barely answered. [The Internet's] really opened the door for anyone to get into it."
With so many demands for instant updates, managing the tidal wave of information can sometimes be overwhelming. During an ESPNews interview last month, the cable outlet's graphic listed Williams's upcoming visit to Florida State after the trip had already been scuttled. During the same interview, Williams went through his finalists but accidentally left out one of the choices. A few minutes later, he told a television production crew for NBC's U.S. Army All-American Bowl that he was looking at seven schools and then rattled off the names of eight universities.
Virtually every mild slip-up, every change of opinion or tweak to the all-important list of finalists, brings a response.
"Everybody's in our lives now," said Dwight Williams, who last week received an anonymous letter urging him not to send his son to Florida. "We can't change our minds on things, because everybody wants to get the story. Like anyone else, decisions are made and taken back. You go through that same process with any young man who's choosing a school for academics. Now, if we change our minds, people are like, 'Why did you do it this way, why did you do it that way?' Derrick feels like he can't change his mind."
College coaches, too, are adapting to a wired world. Some assistants say they watch videos of recruits on the Web -- Rivals.com has footage of more than 1,000 high school football and basketball players, and Scout.com has footage of every player on its preseason "Hot 100" list of top football recruits.
Since the college coaches can only call high school players once a week, they also scour Internet sites for the latest news, searching for official visit schedules and reading about the recruits' up-to-date preferences.
"How accurate the stuff is, I don't ever know -- that's what bothers you," said one college recruiter. "Somebody who runs those Internet sites talks to those kids every night, and they end up posting every day on top of it. Our alumni probably know more about who's on our recruiting board than I know."
The Internet analysts, though, say their sites do more than shovel information at the most fanatical fans. They argue that their instant updates also keep recruiters honest -- "It's made the coaches 100 percent more accountable," as Burton puts it.
Before the Internet boom, information was available only sporadically -- in paper newsletters or magazines and on pay-to-listen 900 lines -- and recruiting was followed primarily by "super freaks" and major boosters, according to Nelson of Scout.com.
Now, the analysts say, recruiting coverage attracts more mainstream fans, to the point that "people know who Derrick Williams is -- Derrick Williams can go on an official visit to Oklahoma and thousands of people will recognize him," Farrell said.
And because every visit and every conversation will be reported on the Web, college coaches can no longer promise the same starting slot to four different high school players, can no longer insist that they're not recruiting that other highly ranked quarterback or receiver.
"If our head coach goes out and sees Derrick Williams, it's all over the Internet and other kids feel slighted -- 'He's going out to see Derrick Williams, why isn't he going out to see me?' " one college assistant said. "You have to think about that now, and you never had to think about that before."
Williams's family members have used the Internet to revise their choices, studying college depth charts and bumping Virginia up their list when the Cavaliers' early commitments earned positive reviews. But they also read the message boards, where the comments can be less glowing.
After Derrick sprained his ankle during a loss to C.H. Flowers this fall, an Internet poster claimed Derrick was using his injury as an excuse and "needs a lesson in humility." Dwight Williams, who scans college and high school message boards virtually daily, posted a response, asking for an apology, which in turn led to a cyberspace spar.
When Derrick had kind words for Florida and Penn State in interviews, his family members read message board posts in which anxious Maryland fans appealed to Derrick's sense of home-state loyalty.
Dwight Williams had recently been laid off by the University of Maryland after 21 years, an action that forced the family to limit its expenses and postpone some recruiting trips. (For several months, Dwight Williams worked in a District youth center; earlier this month, he started a new job as a government accountant.)
After Dwight Williams lost his job at Maryland, some family members -- including Derrick -- wanted to eliminate Maryland as an option. His father and mother, who still works at the university, resisted. But the appeals to loyalty they read on the message board were the final straw, they said, and they officially crossed Maryland off their list.
Amid the computerized cacophony, Derrick Williams tries to say something positive to each of his many Internet interviewers "so they can feel good," he said. Thus, Penn State's coaches "are great," Florida State's staff is "great," Nebraska's Bill Callahan is a "a great coach," Michigan's Lloyd Carr is "a great coach" and Texas's Mack Brown is "an awesome coach."
Williams knows the interviews aren't likely to end. He and his father are considering traveling to Atlanta for a live studio appearance on "Countdown to Signing Day" with Scout.com's Newberg. In December, Derrick Williams said, he'll likely reveal his college selection live on ESPN or ESPNews, an arrangement that would be coordinated by Rivals.com's Farrell.
And Derrick Williams said he hasn't been surprised by the amount of attention showered on 18-year-old recruits.
"Those are the players of the future," he said. "Better jump on 'em now."