TRUSSVILLE, Ala. --
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.
"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
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
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
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.
"Everybody was giving me advice and telling me what was best," Williams told
Alabama and Auburn did their worst job of closing off the border this decade in Jackson's senior year. The No. 2 recruit, receiver
Russell isn't the only top Alabama recruit LSU has poached. In 2007, LSU grabbed Mobile defensive end
Watson, who coached the class of 2008's top player, receiver
"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
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
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
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."