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The small towns big day
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 22, 2001
LIVE OAK -- It is 70 miles from here to Gainesville, 82 miles to Tallahassee. Here, people choose up sides every autumn Saturday. Florida vs. Florida State. Gators vs. Seminoles.
Friday nights, there is no debate in Live Oak, population 6,332. Here, Suwannee High School is king.
It is like a thousand other small-town schools, the Bulldogs like a thousand other high school football teams.
Kyler Hall was the big dog here last season. More than just the quarterback, he was the object of much of the community's hopes -- and a few schoolgirls' fantasies.
"I had some teachers come up and tell me, 'You'd better win; we're counting on you now,' " he said. "We lose and people are like, 'Boy, you are sorry.' But we come off a big win and school seems a whole lot better to come to. ... I love the pressure. I like everything that comes with (being the quarterback)."
It comes with the territory.
"I like to flirt a little bit. It's fun," he said. "Some of the girls are a little crazy around here. One, I told her she needed to calm down. One, I had to just tell her, 'Get away.' I know when they're flirting. Doesn't bother me. I'll flirt right back."
Kyler Hall, who turned 18 a couple of weeks ago, smiles sheepishly. He is deferential, quiet bordering on shy. Sir or ma'am ends almost every sentence. Not quite uncomfortable in the role he plays as his senior year draws to a close, but not wallowing in it, either.
And yes, he admits reluctantly, "It's fun sometimes being a big-deal football player on campus." It will take a bit of getting used to being just another player -- at first, anyway -- in college.
There is tradition
"Most of our kids are born and raised here," coach Jay Walls said. "Their parents went to school here. The same people are here that have been here forever. If their fathers didn't play football here, maybe a cousin or an uncle or a grandfather did."
And there are expectations of the community.
"This is a perfect football town," Kyler Hall said. "Not too big. One school. We get all the attention. If we win, they love us. If we lose, well, they ain't going to hate us but they'll sure be down, a lot of them."
The day after a game, said Wayne Littrell, who does double duty broadcasting the games on WQHL-FM and reporting them in the local newspaper, the Suwannee Democrat, "You go in the Olde Tyme Barber Shop on a Saturday, Jay's Restaurant, the Dixie Grill -- almost anywhere -- and that's what you'll hear. Sometimes that's all you'll hear. Football talk, rehashing the game.
"It's only talk. I mean, life goes on. But there is a mood. You can feel it, especially if the Bulldogs aren't doing well."
Any quarterback, from the littlest leagues to the Super Bowl, is unique -- drawing attention to himself even without trying, as a picnic attracts ants.
In high school, the celebrity of football comes with twin burdens felt nowhere else. He must deal simultaneously with the present (grades) and, if he is good enough, face the future that encroaches on the present (recruiting).
'Hmm, I like that name'
"When football's going on, that's all Kyler thinks about," his mother, Connie, said. "When track's going on that's all he thinks about. From the jump-go his life has been sports. Everything sports.
Kyler was born and raised in Jasper, about 17 miles north of Live Oak along U.S. 129, a strip of two-lane blacktop.
"I was driving down the road listening to the news," his mother said, "and I thought I heard the guy on the radio say the name Kyler. 'Hmm, I like that name.' We have friends who had a Kyle, friends who had a Tyler. But I didn't think, 'Oh, I'll combine them.' "
He, Logan and their sister Casi, 23, went to Westwood Christian, a private school in Suwannee, and made the natural progression to Suwannee Middle and Suwannee High, each child receiving permission from the Hamilton County High School Board in Jasper to matriculate in Live Oak.
Kyler cut his teeth on Florida State games, watching defensive back Deion Sanders in the late 1980s and quarterback Charlie Ward in the early '90s.
"He's always been athletic, his whole life, even when he was this big," said Casi, who graduated from FSU last year and, like her mother, teaches handicapped children from five surrounding counties at the Greenwood School in Jasper. "It's funny, watching him. I remember when I was young I looked up to all these football players thinking they were these big heroes. It's funny thinking some people think my brother is one of these now."
Some Suwannee teachers, when they know the team is practicing late or going out of town for a game, may change a test date. That's about it as far as cutting the players any slack. And "there's some teachers around here who don't like football, think there's too much emphasis on it," Hall said. "I don't know if they make it tougher on me, but they couldn't care less if I play football or not."
The players do have fans at Suwannee High besides the students. The cafeteria women know all the players' names and slip them extra food. Susan Brown, the school's administrative secretary, makes Rice Krispies Treats and bakes cakes just for them.
When the final bell rings, the football team's first stop after school is, well, still in school. Forty-five minutes in the film room followed by 31/4 hours on the practice field. By the time Hall gets home and the family sits down to supper it's usually after 8 p.m.
"People think athletes have it made," his mother said. "Kyler comes in, he eats, he goes right to his homework." It's usually near midnight when he closes his books and then his eyes.
"I think football helps keep him focused on his grades," she said (he has a 3.38 grade-point average). "If he had a lot of other things going on he might not be so focused on academics."
'You can go a little crazy'
Given the schools' proximity, it's a big game. Suwannee won 49-6. The Bulldogs won their next four as well. Game No. 6, on Oct. 6, was against North Marion, a Class 3A, District 3 rival and 5-0 as well
At Suwannee's pep rally, Hall said, "I gave a little speech, and at the end I said something like, 'Come on out and support us and we'll give y'all a win. I promise.' "
Hello, Joe Namath.
"It was spontaneous," Hall said. "When I thought about it, it was like, 'Whoa! What did I do?' "
Two touchdown passes. Suwannee won 19-7.
Was he relieved he'd delivered on his promise?
"The truth? I don't think too many people were paying attention."
The Bulldogs qualified for the playoffs and won twice before losing to Palatka in the regional finals. Hall was named Class 3A Player of the Year.
"There was no question he'd be going somewhere on scholarship," Coach Walls said. "He was our starting safety and our punter from when he was a sophomore." Hall was a backup quarterback until his senior season.
One of Alabama's coaches called in the spring to inquire about Suwannee's quarterback. Nice, Hall said, but that wasn't in his plans.
"I wouldn't want to play quarterback in college," he said. "If I'd started my sophomore year, maybe even (as a) junior, maybe it'd be different. Anyway, I'm not a typical quarterback. ... I think of myself as a safety playing quarterback.
"I like safety better. When you're the quarterback, you have to be calm throughout the whole game, be a leader, have poise. You can't play with too much emotion. On defense you still have to be calm but you can get a little more aggressive. You can go a little crazy out there."
By the end of his junior year, Hall knew he was good enough to go somewhere on scholarship. He never worried about that -- only about whether Florida State would call. "All that did was give me headaches," he said, "so I tried not to think about it."
He and his parents made the official recruiting visit to FSU. Wisely, linebacker Lee Weaver was assigned to be their host. He and Kyler were Suwannee teammates.
"It was real nice," Kyler said. "They gave us a nice motel room, fed us breakfast at the motel, Ruby Tuesday for lunch, the Outback for dinner, paid for everything. Got to tour the campus, see the academic stuff, the athletic facilities. I met a lot of the players, went back to the dorm with some of them to see where I'd live. They treated me like I was one of them."
He and several other recruits and their families met the coaching staff at Bobby Bowden's. "They fed us dessert, banana pudding," Kyler said. "Coach Bowden wasn't feeling well. Strep throat or something. He came down for about five minutes and said hey. He's got a real nice house."
As July gave way to August, Mickey Andrews, FSU's defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach, called. Would Kyler like to be a Seminole?
Hall committed to Florida State in a heartbeat.
Still, the recruiters called -- Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Cincinnati, Central Florida. "It was almost like radar," Connie Hall said. "They'd know when he was home and the phone would start ringing."
Said Kyler: "It got aggravating. One coach, Northwestern, he talked and talked and talked. Talked to my dad. Talked to me. Talked to everyone. We couldn't get him off the phone. Alabama kept calling a whole bunch until all their coaches got fired. I didn't hear from them anymore."
"It wasn't anything we couldn't live with," his father said. "I mean, we didn't have to take the phone off the hook." He grinned. "Girls called him more than the coaches. I don't get my nose in that business at all. I figure the less I know the better off I am."
Logan Hall moved up to Suwannee's varsity last season. This year he'll play quarterback and safety.
Kyler Hall is prepared to take the next step, from Suwannee's Paul Langford Stadium in Live Oak to FSU's Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, the leap from being the big dog on a small-town high school team to being one of a hundred anonymous faces on a big-time college team.
"They've got commitments from names a lot bigger than mine," he said. "Everybody's a star in high school; you get to college, you're just another person."
He has played in front of 5,000, maybe 6,000 fans. "I can't imagine playing in front of 75,000, 80,000," he said, "but I can't wait, either, to get on the field, make a play and hear the noise."
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