Thursday October 23rd, 2008

TRUSSVILLE, Ala. -- Kendall Kelly Sr. saw the blue lights in his rearview mirror and pulled to the side of the road. As Kelly reached for his driver's license, an officer asked his name. When Kelly answered, the officer did a double-take.

As he recounted the story while waiting to watch his son's Gadsden City High Titans play at Hewitt-Trussville High last week, Kelly could only smile. It wasn't anything serious -- just a routine traffic stop -- but the officer's reaction upon hearing the name is something Kelly has grown accustomed to. Kendall Kelly Jr. is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound wide receiver with scholarship offers from dozens of the nation's best football programs, so lots of people in Gadsden know the name. And just about all of them think Kelly should attend either Alabama or Auburn. So the elder Kelly wasn't surprised when, after he explained the father-son connection, the officer wanted to talk football.

"He talked up Alabama," Kelly said with a laugh.

A stone marker at the Alabama Welcome Center just west of the Georgia border on Interstate 20 bears the inscription "We Dare Defend Our Rights," but it may as well say "We Dare Defend Our Recruits," because there may be no state as good at keeping its best players from crossing the border for college. In the past four recruiting classes, Alabama and Auburn have scooped up almost every elite recruit in the state. Of the 80 players ranked in the state's top 20 by Rivals.com from 2005-08, 61 have signed with one of the two state powers, and one has signed with upstart Troy. Only a few future stars -- former Vanderbilt receiver Earl Bennett, for example -- have managed to cross the state line. Of course, that might not have been so easy had Bennett received a scholarship offer from Alabama or Auburn.

So why do players from Alabama stay home? Players, high school coaches and out-of-state coaches who recruit there say it's a combination of factors. Chief among them: Alabama may be the most college football- obsessed state in the union. With no pro teams, the Alabama and Auburn football programs represent the pinnacle of athletic achievement in the state. That means a lot of future football players grow up dreaming of wearing either crimson or orange and blue, and that old loyalty can be tough to shake.

"It's a very difficult thing to do because of the way they're raised and the importance put on football," said Clemson interim coach Dabo Swinney, a former Alabama receiver who recruited the state before his promotion last week after Tommy Bowden's resignation. "Everybody in the community is [for] either Alabama or Auburn."

Kim Kirkpatrick runs Angels Hair and Fashion in Gadsden. Her son, Dre, is a teammate of Kelly's. Dre Kirkpatrick is the top-ranked cornerback recruit in the nation, which makes him the most sought-after player in the state. "There's one man, who, every time he sees me leaving the store, he says, 'Now remember, Roll Tide,'" Kim Kirkpatrick said. "They think there are only two football teams -- Alabama and Auburn."

As if on cue, an older woman sitting a few rows over stood a few moments later and feigned shock at the declaration made by another fan. "Roll Tide?" the woman yelled, incredulous. "War Eagle!"

Dre is considering both schools, but he also wants to examine several dozen others, including Texas, Florida and USC. Gadsden, located about 60 miles northwest of Birmingham, is deep in the heart of Alabama territory. The few Auburn fans, such as the woman in the stands, yell "War Eagle!" at their own peril.

"It's a lot of pressure on me and my family," Dre Kirkpatrick said. "Most everybody in my city is a big Alabama fan. They keep telling me, Alabama, Alabama. But like I told my coach, I'm going to go where it fits me."

Gadsden City defensive coordinator Ali Smith, who also serves as the program's recruiting coordinator, said Kirkpatrick and Kelly have learned to block out the constant suggestions. "They've been listening to it for about two or three years, so they really don't listen to all that," Smith said. "They listen in a respectful way, but they've got to find the school they like. In the beginning, you had to worry about [the outside pressure], but they're mature enough now. They see through it."

Kirkpatrick, who has little time for recruiting as he tries to juggle school, football and a 2-year-old son, doesn't plan on paring his list until after the season ends. Kelly also plans to wait. That means the pair can expect to hear plenty, just as another high-profile recruit from their area did eight years ago. Carnell Williams, a running back from nearby Atalla, gave the state a collective heart attack when he committed to Tennessee over offers from Alabama and Auburn. The commitment didn't last long. Williams reopened his recruitment days later, and he ultimately picked Auburn -- but not without a little help from just about everyone.

"Everybody was giving me advice and telling me what was best," Williams told The Birmingham News when he picked the Tigers in January 2001. "I stopped talking to people for the last two weeks so Carnell could figure out what's best for Carnell. I was getting too much advice from too many people."

Chad Jackson ignored that same advice. Jackson, a star receiver at Hoover High, was rated the top-ranked recruit in the state in the class of 2003 by Rivals.com. He chose Florida, and in 2005, as the Gators prepared to face Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Jackson said he expected to return home to a hail of boos. Jackson had a personal reason for leaving the state; he wanted to make a fresh start after watching his best friend, Victor Hill, collapse and die on the practice field in 2002. "I wanted to go out of state and do something new," Jackson said in 2005. "I wanted to see where I was as a person and see what I could do out there on my own."

Alabama and Auburn did their worst job of closing off the border this decade in Jackson's senior year. The No. 2 recruit, receiver Jayson Swain of Huntsville, went to Tennessee. The No. 3 recruit, quarterback JaMarcus Russell of Mobile, went to LSU. No. 7, offensive lineman Aaron Sears of Russellville, joined Swain in Knoxville.

Russell isn't the only top Alabama recruit LSU has poached. In 2007, LSU grabbed Mobile defensive end Sidell Corley and his McGill-Toolen High teammate, cornerback Phelon Jones. Todd Watson, the head coach at nearby Foley High, explained that the state schools must work harder in the Mobile area because two major programs -- LSU and Florida State -- are just as close as Tuscaloosa and Auburn.

Watson, who coached the class of 2008's top player, receiver Julio Jones, believes the arrival of Nick Saban at Alabama last year changed the game. Saban's insistence on sealing off the border has forced Auburn to work harder as well, and that will make life even more difficult for out-of-state recruiters.

"Coach Saban coming in has kind of made it his priority to make sure nobody in the state gets out of here," Watson said. "I know he did that at LSU. He's really worked it and worked it hard. Auburn does a good job, too, of getting out and recruiting. With those two schools and as strong as football is in this state, it makes it hard."

So how does an out-of-state school get a prospect to cross the border? Swinney, who helped pull offensive lineman Antoine McClain, an Auburn target, out of Anniston to Clemson earlier this year, said technology has helped. "It's not easy, but it is easier than it used to be," Swinney said. "Now, with the Internet, people learn more about other programs than they used to."

Gadsden City's Smith said it also helps to be fearless. He said many college recruiters come in "scared," and players can sense that fear. Coaches such as Swinney and Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong show no such fear, Smith said. Strong, who helped the Gators sign Hoover defensive end William Green and Auburn safety Dee Finley in February, said recruiting in Alabama isn't much different than recruiting in Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia. "It's very territorial," Strong said. "And kids will look at it like, 'Why do I have to leave home when I can play right here?'"

The key, Strong said, is to identify early players who might be willing to leave the state and concentrate efforts on them. Some players are a mortal lock to stay home, and they will not be swayed. Georgia Tech learned that the hard way in August 2004. Hoover linebacker Cory Reamer was seriously considering the Yellow Jackets -- until he got the call from Alabama he'd dreamed about his entire life. Last Saturday, Reamer held his right hand like a phone and recreated the call. "I said 'Hold on one second,'" Reamer said. "I got offered. 'OK, I'm committed.'"

Lifelong loyalty that, in some cases, runs thicker than blood is probably impossible to overcome for out-of-state coaches. But in the pursuit of players such as Kirkpatrick and Kelly, who entered the recruiting process with an open mind, the carpetbaggers may have a fighting chance -- assuming they can make the prospects hear them over the din of their friends, loved ones and perfect strangers begging them to go to Alabama or Auburn.

"Those top five or top 10 kids in the state, year-in and year-out, it's going to be very difficult to get one of those," Swinney said. "But it certainly is not impossible."

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