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The reluctant legend

As colleges covet and video games emulate his moves, North Fort Myers' Noel Devine often shuns the spotlight.

By BOB PUTNAM
Published November 15, 2006


FORT MYERS - Derek Williams, founder of the recruiting service, Sunshine Preps, was putting together highlight tapes three years ago when he came across a North Fort Myers High player who was more Houdini than halfback.

Whenever this electrifying runner was trapped by a cluster of defenders, he invariably wriggled out of reach, leaving a trail of disbelieving players and fans. Williams was so impressed, he spliced together game footage and linked it to his site. That week, the video clip received more than 100,000 hits, enough to shut down Williams' server.

"I've watched plenty of game tape before and this was unlike anything I've ever seen," Williams said.

College coaches started asking where this kid was going to school. Williams said they would have to wait. He was only a freshman. That's when the legend of Noel Devine was born.

Since then, Devine, whose team faces visiting Largo in Friday's Class 5A region semifinal, has been learning to cope with the blitz of his newfound fame.

Devine, a senior who reportedly lost both parents to AIDS before age 11, has posed for magazine covers and been approached by newspapers and other media outlets too many times to count.

A few weeks ago, EA Sports came to North Fort Myers to capture moves of Devine to use in next year's NCAA college video game. Devine also has his own trading card that sells for $6 on eBay.

Then there's the college recruiting. Devine, rated the nation's top high school running back by recruiting service Rivals.com, has been courted more than the Homecoming queen. Devine, who has rushed for more than 1,700 yards this season, receives as many as 75 pieces of mail a day at school, so much that two volunteers offer to sift through it.

"The attention is overwhelming," North Fort Myers coach James Iandoli said. "I wouldn't wish this on anybody. It's almost as if Noel has become larger than life."

If he could, Iandoli would build a moat around campus to keep the poking and prodding of his star player to a minimum. In June, Iandoli scheduled a media day for Devine in which national, local and state media outlets piled into the school's fieldhouse.

"I feel like I'm blessed, but I can't let it get to my head," said the 5-foot-8, 170-pound Devine during his media day. "I have to keep my head clear."

Devine also has done his part to diminish the magnitude of Noel Devine, Superstar. He is as elusive off the field as on it, rarely giving interviews. He declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

"Noel really is shy and doesn't like all this attention," Iandoli said. "He has had some ups and downs, and we want him to get past the negative."

Devine is trying to gain a measure of stability at home that has eluded him most of his life. .

According to a story in the New York Times, both of Devine's parents died of complications from AIDS by the time he was 11. Custody then belonged to his maternal grandmother, but they didn't live together long.

Devine preferred to stay with Robert and Liz Harlow, parents of a former high school teammate. The Harlows, who are white, agreed to let him move in. The same story also reported that Devine, while living with the Harlows, impregnated two girls within a seven-month span. In 2004, Devine witnessed the shooting death of his friend, Rashard Patterson.

Deion Sanders, a former North Fort Myers standout and eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback, heard of Devine's plight and offered to help.

Sanders wanted to adopt Devine in hopes of giving the troubled high school star a better life in Prosper, Texas.

Devine moved to Sanders' mansion on July 28, 2005.

It lasted a week.

Devine missed home so much, he hopped into a Cadillac Escalade that belonged to Sanders' wife and drove to the airport. Devine moved back in with the Harlows and has been there since.

"(Noel) has had a tough life, and he's had some bad media" said teammate Zack Duff. "But that's because people don't know him. He's a great player, a superstar, really. That stuff, though, doesn't go to his head."

On the field, he continues to pile up yards, surpassing former Cape Coral star and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer Earnest Graham as Lee County's all-time career leading rusher.

"I'm impressed with the way Noel has been able to handle not only the media attention, but everything that has gone on in his personal life," Iandoli said. "He's been through a lot of family trials and tribulations and has made huge strides to be where he is today."

 

ON THE WEB

To see game footage that helped Noel Devine gain national acclaim, visit http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=noel+devine&search=Search