There’s a new state of high school athletics

He had asked the question out of genuine uncertainty: “Do you think 12:30 p.m. would be a good time?”

Bill Brown wasn’t sure. This was new territory for him, but he knew even two weeks ago he had to start thinking about it.

In his 20 years of coaching at Potomac and Hylton, Brown had sent all-Americans to big-time college football programs before. But you learned Tommy Thigpen was going to North Carolina, B.J. Hawkins to Notre Dame or Craig Novitsky to UCLA by Brown giving you a phone call, letting you know the players decision. No fanfare. No hassle.

Ahmad Brooks, though, presented a different challenge. Like the opposing offenses who had to come up with a new way to defend the imposing and explosive Brooks, Brown needed to come up with a different game plan to announce to everyone what his star linebackers college choice would be.

A phone call? Not this time. There was too much curiosity from too many people, all wanting to know what college Brooks had chosen.

Brown is a patient man and is always generous with his time when it comes to handling constant phone calls. Even if you cant get him, you can leave a message, knowing he will always call you back.

But where do you draw the line when you are talking about an elite player who has been the focus of non-stop attention and speculation, especially for the last two months?

You do it by getting it all done at once in one place.

“I don’t like to sensationalize things compared to some people, but there is so much interest in this,” Brown said. “And when you are talking about a recruit of this magnitude, people want to know.”

On Monday in the Hylton auditorium a little after 3 p.m. before faculty, administrators, teammates, friends and family, Brooks strode up front to the podium alone. He told everyone in attendance he had made his decision and then paused in mid-sentence as nerves for the moment got the best of him. There was some laughter, Brooks smiled and then said he was going to Virginia.

It seems strange, maybe even a little crazy, to hold a press conference so a 17-year-old can announce what college he will play for because of what he can do on a football field.

Kids are making decisions about what college they will attend every day, but not in front of microphones and not with grown men, holding their breaths, hoping to land a marquee player that can be a vital piece to their program.

But this is the state of high school athletics today when it comes to high-profile sports like football.

It’s more than just the local newspaper that is interested in the athlete’s plans anymore. It’s Internet sites and recruiting services and even regional and national media. Within 20 minutes of Brooks’ announcement, it was already mentioned on and the Richmond Times-Dispatchs Web site.

“We could have gotten by without a press conference, but if we had, who do you call first when everyone wants to know at the same time?” Brown said.

Then, there’s the college coaches themselves. Combined, it creates a frenetic atmosphere.

People would call the Brooks’ home so much that if they weren’t screening calls through caller ID, Ahmad’s sister and brother would be answering the phone and taking messages. Brown was also answering phone calls, both at school, where they could average 5 to 10 a day, and at home, where they sometimes came later in the evening than he would have liked.

Brown got so many calls that college head football coaches were leaving their home numbers. “I’ve never gotten that before,” Brown said.

On Monday at Hylton, things reached a fever pitch. Browns wife Gail was fielding questions from all sorts of people, from Virginia Tech fans to a Tennessee television station to the Virginia coaching staff, who called four times before 7:30 a.m. because they couldnt get a 10-page fax through to remind Brooks one more time why the Cavaliers were the place for him.

Brooks certainly heightened the interest. He waited until two days before the national signing day to announce his decision.

Even though Virginia was always his first choice, he kept people off-guard. On Sunday, Tennessee, Virginia and Virginia Tech all took turns as his leader.

On Monday afternoon at his home about 20 minutes before the press conference, he told his father his choice was Virginia Tech.

“He played his father,” Perry Brooks said. “He did a good job.”

When it finally came time for Brooks, though, to make his announcement, he did so with class. He didn’t come in with a hat or a shirt of some school, trying to add drama and fool people into thinking he was headed to that school when in fact he wasn’t. He was straightforward and respectful.

There was no reason to tease anyone for the sake of suspense. He appreciated what his four finalists had offered him. Why show them up? This day was about the school he was going to, not the ones he wasn’t.

Anyway, this was a kid who from the start just wanted to go with the flow. The attention. The praise. It was nice, but it didn’t go to his head and he certainly wasnt campaigning for it. His main athletic goal in football was to win a state title. College scholarships? They would have to wait until he took care of his team first.

If anything, those around him got more excited about things. When Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden came last Wednesday to Hylton, he was swarmed with autograph requests while he walked around the school. The same thing happened to Tennessee head coach Phil Fulmer when he visited Hylton.

But Brooks? He was trying to figure out what all this fuss was about. Why, for example, didn’t his teammate from last year and current Virginia Tech freshman D.J. Walton receive the same recognition?

“I really didn’t think I would get all this attention,” Brooks said. “D.J. Walton didn’t get as much and hes a great player.”

That’s Brooks, keeping things in perspective. Credit a strong family and a selfless head coach like Brown for that.

But more than anything, you knew he couldnt wait to get things back to normal without any disruptions. Now, he could answer the phone without thinking twice. Now, he could walk into a grocery store or down the hallway at school and not be asked every other second what college he was going to. Now, he could concentrate on just being a high school senior.

“I feel free,” Brooks said before leaving the auditorium.

Then he was off. He had to get to basketball practice, which had already started. And he couldnt wait.

David Fawcett is the sports editor of the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him at (703) 878-8052 or at [email protected]

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