HOLD ON, LOU, BOBBY'S ON THE OTHER LINE

Schoolboy star Andre Hastings ignored Signing Day and kept anxious coaches like Lou Holtz and Bobby Bowden on hold about his football future
February 26, 1990

On a recent Friday evening, 19-year-old Andre Hastings, the 6'2" Morrow (Ga.) High wide receiver who is perhaps the most sought-after college football recruit in the nation this year, was crammed into seat 23A on a flight from Atlanta to Miami. He was heading to Coral Gables to favor the Miami Hurricanes with a weekend visit and give them the opportunity to address him as Sir or King, whichever they felt more comfortable with, as they tried to seduce him. But at the moment, the Hurricanes were not on Hastings's mind. ("They have such a bad reputation," he had said earlier.)

Rather, he was staring out the window at the spectacular orange sky and thinking about Florida State, one of the 100 or more schools that have pleaded with him to bring his wondrously able hands to them this fall to cradle their textbooks—and catch footballs on Saturdays. "If Florida State told me I could wear the number 1, they'd be at least 98 percent sure to get me," said Hastings. "See, it's not just a number. It's the only number. I've been wearing it since sixth grade. I'm not sure Florida State understands the significance of me having number 1.I tell you, if they told me right now—on this airplane—that I could have number 1, I'd commit."

Would that a Florida State recruiter had been sitting in seat 23B. As it happens, Shannon Baker, a talented wide receiver who will be only a sophomore next fall, wears number 1 for the Seminoles. But coach Bobby Bowden could surely finesse that.

On such seeming trifles does recruiting turn. And seasons turn. And coaches get fired. And millions of TV dollars get repositioned. All because of what is going through the mind of a high school senior who in this instance is sitting with his baseball cap on backward and listening to Heavy D. & The Boyz on his headset. Hastings started life in the Spaldings Heights housing projects in Griffin, Ga. ("It was pretty nice," says his mother, Debbra, an Army staff sergeant assigned to recruiting duty in Atlanta. "It had indoor plumbing"), and now he takes meetings with university presidents.

Very often, of course, nothing much is going on in the minds of 19-year-olds—which is one of the wonderful, albeit maddening, things about trying to build a college football team. Clearly, a number on a jersey is of no real importance, except to Hastings, which is why Florida State was blowing a gold-plated opportunity to sign up a diamond-class youngster already projected by SI (Sept. 11, 1989) to be an all-pro in 1995.

In the weeks leading up to Feb. 14, the first day a high school senior could sign a national letter of intent to go to the university of his choice, Hastings leaned this way and then that. "This is a lot tougher than I thought it would be," he said. Indeed, his heart had been swinging like a pendulum:

Perhaps it will be Notre Dame because of all that prestige, and they know how to combine academics and athletics. But it's cold up there in Indiana. And so far from Morrow. What if something happens here at home and Mom needs me? So it will be Florida State because they have a great offense and are committed to the pass. Yeah, Notre Dame is out and Florida State is in. But I want to wear number 1. Florida State is definitely out. Georgia is so close. That would be fun 'cause my mom and my friends could see me play. And it's a pretty good idea to go to an instate school because the name recognition will help later on in business. Georgia it will be. No, the Bulldogs don't pass enough, and they have a running quarterback. Better stick with Notre Dame. But it's so far. Yet, when Todd Lyght graduates after this season, they said I can have number 1. But Florida State is close to winning a national championship, and the receivers coach, John Eason, is a great guy. But what's this? They might want to redshirt me? Yuck. Georgia. Love Georgia. No, hate Georgia. But will Notre Dame really dedicate itself to the pass, as Coach Holtz told me in my living room? Or is Holtz just saying that?

Last week the phone in Morrow coach Willie Oswalt's office rang. It was Lou Holtz. Hastings picked up the phone and said, "Yes, sir," and then nothing for three minutes and 22 seconds. Then, "Yes, sir." So went the call, Hastings saying next to nothing, Holtz pleading. "Go with your heart," Holtz told him, "with your first instincts." Holtz, of course, assumed that Hastings's first instinct was to go to Notre Dame.

Ten minutes later Georgia Tech coach Bobby Ross telephoned. Hastings got in three "Yes, sirs" and one "No, sir," but Ross was paying for the call, so he had talking rights. Finally, Hastings told Ross, "Coach, I just narrowed it down to two schools I Notre Dame and Florida State], and adding a third ain't gonna make it any easier." At this point Hastings had eliminated Georgia, but a couple of days later the Bulldogs would be back in the picture as the strongest candidate.

Earlier, Hastings had begged Oswalt to call Hurricane coach Dennis Erickson and tell him that he wouldn't be going to Miami. It didn't help Miami that during Hastings's weekend visit assistant coach Alex Wood had his car broken into while he and Hastings were at the beach and Hastings's return plane ticket was stolen. Oswalt reluctantly delivered the bad news. He felt that Hastings should make the call himself, but he was sympathetic to the youngster's plight.

So on Feb. 14, Signing Day, as more than 2,000 of the land's finest high school football players announced their choices, Hastings finally decided to sign with:

Nobody.

In fact, after class that day, he went over to the Sears in Southlake Mall and returned to work in the hardware department for $4 an hour. "I need more time to decide," he said. "Maybe I'll know in a few days."

What went on in Morrow last week was the spectacle of a young man facing terrific pressure from adults, all because in his three years at Morrow High he caught 184 passes for 3,196 yards and 43 touchdowns. Oswalt says Hastings dropped only two passes last season—both on low balls. He's more than willing to run routes inside and to stretch high for throws in neighborhoods where linebackers feel territorial. "The key thing for a receiver is how much you are willing to pay to catch a ball," says Hastings. So far, it has been full retail.

So good is Hastings that Allen Wallace, copublisher of Super Prep magazine, which ranked Georgia's recruiting class this year as the fifth-best in the nation (SCORECARD, page 13), said the addition of Hastings would move the Bulldogs to third, behind Notre Dame and Florida State. "I can't make a bad choice, because they are all good choices," said Hastings.

But he acted like someone who was scared he might mess up. He was awash in conflicting opinions. Worse, he was a victim of his own raging jumble of hormones. He is at once brash and humble. He acts and talks like an adult, and then, abruptly, he is a six-year-old. He loves football. Then hates it. He has a complex view of life. Then a distressingly simplistic view. He is a serious student. Then he is a dolt. He's deep, and he's shallow. In short, he's a teenager.

I think Florida State.

Despite getting suspended from school for three days in 1988 for mouthing off in class, Hastings is praised by faculty members and administrators at Morrow High as being a first-rate student. And he is, sort of. Joann Swafford, a guidance counselor, says he just misses ranking in the top 10% of his class, with a 3.36 grade point average. Hastings is one of 25 students among 400 seniors taking calculus, a course, says Swafford, that "only the strong survive." Hastings didn't have to take calculus, but his mom says, "The minimum is never good enough."

In his health class, Mike Bankston is teaching about AIDS. Hastings's hand is always in the air. "I have a question," he says. In data processing: "I have a question." In English, teacher Anna Arnold can't find a passage in a book. "Page 481, fourth line," says Hastings. Then he has a question. In Spanish, he has a question. In calculus, he has lots of questions. Hastings is not an intellectual, but he is intellectually inclined. Cotton Volman, Morrow's student council president and sports editor of the school newspaper, says that Hastings "destroys the stereotype of the superathlete who doesn't perform in school. He's looking to learn."

I think Georgia.

Yet Hastings had a combined score of only 700 on the SAT in his first try, the minimum the NCAA requires for a freshman to qualify for an athletic scholarship. A student gets 400 points for showing up, and the maximum score is 1,600. Hastings dismisses the SAT. "All it is is a test to see how good you are at taking tests," he says. He also believes the test is racially biased. For example, he says blacks normally refer to a sofa, whites to a couch. "Besides, they ask you a whole bunch of words nobody uses," he says.

On his third and last attempt at the SAT, he scored 820. That's still way below what a regular student would need to get in to, say, Michigan or UCLA—both of which recruited Hastings hard—or to Notre Dame, where entering students average about 1,300. "Look," says Hastings, "football is first and academics are second everywhere, and there's no need to half-step about it. A lot of people who got 1,100 on the SAT can't get into the colleges I can, but that's only because I play football. The truth is, football opens more doors than academics. I'm not that smart. So I try to be a hard worker."

Morrow principal Walt Pierce agrees. "He is an overachiever," says Pierce. "He has to work harder to do well, but the point is, he is willing to work."

Yet, moments later, Hastings says, "But if I wasn't playing football, I wouldn't go to college. I'd get a good job with a freight-line company or maybe selling cars." Is he a student or not?

Surprisingly, football is not a passion for Hastings, either. The other night, while lounging on the dark green sofa in his living room at home—where Holtz and Erickson and Bowden and so many other coaches have sat and pleaded their cases—Hastings said, "I don't really like football that much. It's just a tool to get to college. Plus, I don't like contact that much. But I can put up with it as a way to get my education, then as a way to get a job—in the NFL. But I may not stay in college. Whenever the pros offer me money, I'm gonna take it and run. The education will always be there. And let's say I only make a measly million in the NFL. Having been in college some, I'll know how to manage it, and I won't ever have to work again. What I figure is I'll get a five-year pro contract for $5.5 million. And that will be it. I don't want to play very long. It's too much pain on the body. Plus I just don't like football that much." Is he a football player or not?

I think Notre Dame.

Hastings's self-confidence often slips over into arrogance. Not only did he tell all suitors that he required jersey number 1 (no problem for Michigan, UCLA and Georgia), but also that he must have a room with a private bath, that he must be able to spat his shoes (wrap tape over all but the toes and heels) and wear towels tucked in his belt, that he must wear a particular kind of air-cushioned helmet, that it must have a running back-style face mask with two vertical bars instead of the typical receiver-style mask with only one such bar, that he gets to wear whatever brand of shoes and style of thigh pads he wants. But Hastings is not crazy. "Right now, I'm in the driver's seat," he says. "They have to be nice to me, so now's the time to ask. Once I get there, I'll be a nobody, and they won't have to do anything for me. And they won't. Besides, if I turn out to be as good as I plan to be, all this will be worth it to the school. I don't think I'm overrated." Arrogant or confident?

After spending part of last weekend in Ohio, where he was a finalist for the Columbus Touchdown Club's schoolboy Player of the Year award [running back Robert Smith of Euclid (Ohio) High won], Hastings returned to Morrow. "So it comes down to where I can better prepare myself for my future," he said. "Notre Dame is better for academics, Florida State is better for football, Georgia is better for location. I have to decide which one is more important."

Last Thursday, Hastings said it was "about 70-30" he would go to Notre Dame over Florida State; on Sunday, Hastings said it was "about 60-40" he would go to Georgia over Notre Dame. Of the nation's 25 top college recruits this year, Hastings was the only one who was still uncommitted. He planned to sign with somebody any day now.

A few days earlier, as Sal Angelica was handing out pencils to his calculus students, Hastings blurted out, "I want a blue or yellow one." Angelica, who had both blue and yellow pencils in his hand, said, "Here's a green one."

Nice lesson for the hero used to getting his own way.

PHOTOPHIL HUBER
TWO PHOTOSPHIL HUBERHastings received countless recruiting letters, including some green mail from South Bend. TWO PHOTOSPHIL HUBERAmong Hastings's considerations in choosing a school were distance from the Sergeant and a license to wear jersey number 1.

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