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Big dreams without big heads

The hype is real, and so are the college offers. But three of the county's top players won't lose focus on the task at hand.

By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002

The hype is real, and so are the college offers. But three of the county's top players won't lose focus on the task at hand.

When it comes to their senior season, Lakewood's Pat Carter and Julian Riley and Clearwater Central Catholic's LeRue Rumph are being told many things.

They have shoe boxes stuffed with letters from coaches at the best college football programs in the country, telling them they can be stars.

Classmates, looking for a bandwagon, can't wait to tell them they're the man.

Then there is the hype. By way of newspaper articles, eager recruiting gurus and internet sites, as well as praise from opposing coaches, they are told that their many talents -- the strong arms, the speed, the strength -- make them the best.

That is the yin of high school football.

Here's the yang: the high school coach, who can't offer the fame and future riches colleges can, who won't fawn over his own players, who prefers his stars don't devour too big a helping of the hype.

* * *

Riley admits it: He watches college games and "sweats" getting so excited about playing on television. The fans screaming, the shots of the sidelines, the sounds of the band instantly vault him past his senior year of high school and into college.

"I dream about it," he said, "all the time."

This is what scares coaches. Before a game has even been played, if even for just one Saturday afternoon, a player can easily forget something like his senior season.

And if, say, Lakewood coach Brian Bruch finds that a frightening thought?

"I wouldn't really blame him," Riley said. "But with me, it's just two different days. Today I was watching a (high school) scoreboard show on TV, and if I'm tripping over college that's something that will ground me real quick. There was a segment on (Tampa) Jefferson, and all I could think about then was how bad I want to play them."

Yin. Yang.

But Bruch said he considers himself a fortunate man, for he has had no problems getting his players back from a youthful moment of college dreaming. Carter, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound quarterback, already has written offers from Louisiana State, Georgia Tech, Minnesota and Tulane. Riley, a 6-4, 240-pound defensive end, has offers from Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Miami and Tulane. And neither walks around at practice as if they know it.

"Patrick, he handles the attention with a little more reserve, almost as if he expects it," Bruch said. "Julian, he's just happy as a clam, ecstatic that someone even offered him a scholarship."

Bruch draws only a paltry stipend compared to his hours of work as a coach, with no state championships or endorsement contracts, but in Carter and Riley's world he commands the same attention as the six-figured, smartly attired, trophy-bearing coaches begging for his signature on signing day.

"Bruch tries to keep you grounded and make sure your head doesn't get too big," Riley said.

As for Bruch having to remind his stars they are still his for one more year before possible fame in college, Riley added, "It never really comes to that. I'm a pretty hard worker. I know I'm not in college yet. I have goals in high school to accomplish, and to do that if I need to run those extra gassers, I run them."

* * *

At CCC, Rumph is finding out that despite 50 letters a week and offers from Clemson, Georgia and Southern Cal, he's just one of the Marauders.

So when he begs out of running sprints, he finds a brick wall. And he's glad.

"LeRue, he's a special kid," new Marauder coach Mike Jalazo said. "He doesn't want to be bigger than the team. He's everything you'd want in a kid. I don't know, it's part the school, part how we the coaches are consistent in how we treat our players. I don't treat LeRue any more special than the next kid.

"Yesterday we're running, and he said, 'Coach my knee's getting sore.' I said, 'LeRue, you're a Division I player, you're going to be playing with some pain, run your sprints.' And he ran his sprints."

Rumph, a 6-2, 210-pound safety and wide receiver, is grateful for the extra push he gets at practice. He broke his leg in the fourth week last year, a spiral fracture of the tibia, and missed the rest of the season. The letters never stopped coming, though.

Rumph doesn't think being a hot recruit has affected the way he goes about practice or responds to Jalazo's instructions. If anything, he said, the attention makes him work harder.

When Jalazo demands that last sprint, he obliges. You never know who might be watching.

"If I'm playing and glance over and see (Florida assistant) coach (Joe) Wickline, I'll step my game up just another notch to impress him," Rumph said. "I'm always trying to give 100 percent, but if I see a coach I'm going 101 percent. You have to (notice). You can't have a half-game with a coach watching, you have to notice they're watching you playing."

Jalazo said he demands 100 percent, regardless how many letters a player has stashed under his bed. And if that player decides a recruiter's praise holds more weight than what his high school coach is telling him to do on the practice field, then good-bye.

"Any kids will try to test you, and our response is if you're not going to play, get off the field," Jalazo said. "If I ever had a formula, it's being consistent in your coaching staff, treating your players the same, working harder than them and having them work hard.

"Sometimes coaches at this level don't keep that perspective of what we're really here for."

* * *

Bruch and Jalazo have another thing in their favor when it comes to keeping their future college players focused on the task at hand: strong households. These players have families looking out for the same things that concern the coaches, such as lapses in the classroom, half-hearted practice efforts or arrogance.

"It's something you have to look out for as a parent," said John Carter, Pat's father and veteran of the recruiting game. "You don't know who's giving him input and what effect that might take on him."

Chuckling, John Carter added, "but we have a way of knocking that big head down."

Pat Carter said life at home includes a steady stream of interaction. His parents keep a close eye on him ("If he goes out, it has to be for a definite purpose," John said.), and brother Tim is in touch from New York where he plays for the NFL Giants.

In 1998, Tim experienced many of the same pressures. Though not as heavily recruited, he received a host of letters, made his visits and fielded dozens of calls before signing with Auburn. Pat said he watched all this intently, and witnessing his brother navigate all the attention with nary a hint of braggadocio, said he was duly impressed.

"Really, this is all like deja vu for me," Carter said. "I've seen my brother go through it and everywhere he went, he made sure to include me and told me what to look out for."

Lesson No. 1: Listen to the coach.

Lesson No. 2: Keep things from going to your head.

"Man, if my brother heard I was walking around (like I was the bomb), he'd get me on the phone as soon as he found out," Carter said, laughing. "He'd kill me."

As for Riley, he hears it all the time from his older siblings and parents, making it tough for his admittedly cocky demeanor to spiral out of control.

"My brother (Adhrien) and sister (Khendra) keep me grounded," he said. "My sister is always telling me how sorry I am and how I can do this better, and my dad (Michael) is always like, 'Julian, you can do this better,' and my mom (Pauline) even said we're going to lose a couple of games. Yeah, they have ways of keeping me grounded. But it's good."

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