Tate ready to leave recruiting process behind

1/27/2008 - College Football

HYATTSVILLE, Md. -- Four white U.S. mail bins were lined up side by side on a table in the athletic department film room at DeMatha Catholic High School, miniature dumpsters for recruiting letters from college football programs all over the country.

Jammed inside them were bright orange envelopes from Clemson, letters from Alabama, Boston College, UCLA, Oregon, Pittsburgh, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Louisville, Northwestern, Virginia, Georgia Tech (just to name a few). They were all addressed to 17-year-old Kenny Tate -- and all of them unopened and ignored.

"I can't believe the postage these guys spend on this stuff," longtime DeMatha coach Bill McGregor mumbled as he rooted through one pile.

A student lugged up another box from the school's main office downstairs -- evidence that one of the nation's most sought-after prep stars plays here. And at Tate's home in Forestville, Md., trash bags are filled with even more letters.

Although their financial situation is such that Tate needs a full scholarship to be able to attend college, his mother said the recruiting process was not particularly enjoyable.

"It can be really stressful," said Michelle Fields, Tate's mother. "I wouldn't say this was the greatest thing going. Everybody looks at it like at least you have options and that is true but sometimes you have to be careful what you ask for.

"Yes, you have options, but then it gets hard because now all these options have to dwindle down, and you have to make a decision and that can be difficult. It can get to be very tiresome, very tiresome, the rippin' and the running. It was OK. It's something you have to do. If you're in the situation you deal with it, but I wouldn't want to do it again."

At the very least, the nation's No. 19-ranked wide receiver knows where he's NOT going to play football as national signing day nears.

Tate, the most recognizable student-athlete in the hallways of a storied all-boys school that has churned out at least 10 Division I-A or I-AA full-scholarship football players every year from 1990-2005, is the The Man in yet another outstanding senior class (although you'd never know it by talking to him, especially during the school day, when he's dressed in his preppy, school-issued cranberry suit jacket and a tie). As a 6-foot-3, three-year starter on one of the country's elite basketball teams, Tate also caught the attention of several college basketball coaches, but his passion for football made that decision an easy one. ("Oh, yeah, football is first," he says, "always first.")

It's picking the school that hasn't been easy.

On Feb. 6, Tate, along with about 10-12 of his teammates and hundreds of other athletes across the country, will sign a letter of intent.

He's finally on the brink of saying where.

"It is tough," Tate said, shaking his head as he recalled a recent unofficial visit to Florida. "Everything looks so good. Seeing that national championship trophy is very tempting -- very tempting -- but I realize with talking to coach McGregor it's a business, it really is. These coaches have heard no before, so it really doesn't affect them if you say yes or if you say no. They're always going to be there to do their job. It's about you and where you want to go."

Tate wants to go to Illinois, Maryland or Penn State, and he could announce his decision as early as Monday. All three of his recruiters -- Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, Maryland defensive coordinator Chris Cosh, and Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson -- made their final sales pitches last week. Johnson came to DeMatha's basketball game on Tuesday. Tate made the two-mile trip up Route 1 to Maryland on Wednesday, and Locksley was in Hyattsville on Thursday.

All three coaches have connections to the state of Maryland and have something working in their favor. Maryland has other DeMatha graduates in its starting lineup, and is the perfect location for Tate, who is close to his family and wants them nearby. But last season, Locksley signed DeMatha linebacker Ian Thomas, one of Tate's friends, and Locksley -- a former recruiting coordinator for Maryland -- knows McGregor well. And Penn State impressed Tate on his official visit Jan. 19, and is still within driving distance.

Plus, Johnson was head coach at McDonough High School in Pomfret, Md., for 19 years and played one season with the Redskins, so he, too, has had success in plucking talent from the area.

"He could go to any school in the country," McGregor said. "I don't know one school that came in that wouldn't have offered [a scholarship]. He had Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois, Penn State.... It was Kenny's choice to come up with these three schools."

As Tate helped lead his team to a 54-53 overtime win against St. John's last Tuesday, Penn State's Johnson turned to look up at McGregor in the stands, shook his head and smiled.

"Afterward he says, 'Bill, he can play either side of the ball. I didn't know he was the type of athlete he showed last night'" McGregor said.

Tate is averaging 6.4 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.6 blocks for the Stags while shooting 63 percent from the field. Still, DeMatha coach Mike Jones said he can understand why Tate would prefer a football scholarship -- although some schools floated the possibility of playing both sports.

"I think it's a smart move because he obviously has a passion for it, but I've always said -- and Kenny knows I feel this way -- that if he ever wanted to concentrate on basketball, he'd be just as highly sought after," Jones said. "He's in a position where he's one of those rare guys, he's good at both of them and obviously he's going with the one he really loves. You can't knock a kid for that."

Tate became a starter on DeMatha's varsity football team as a sophomore, and contributed to a championship every season. As a wide receiver and safety, Tate was part of a program that was 33-3 over the past three seasons.

"He never came off the football field," McGregor said.

Early during his recruitment, Tate would be pulled out of class three or four times a day to meet coaches. Before the NCAA banned text messaging, Tate said he received so many that he had to change his plan to allow unlimited text messages.

"It did cost me a couple of times," he said.

Tate is ranked as the No. 132 prospect in the ESPN 150 and the No. 19 wide receiver in the nation. Scouts Inc. recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said Tate can play just about anywhere.

"I think he projects as a wide receiver, but the versatility he provides gives coaches a lot of options," Luginbill said. "He's lined up in so many different situations and formations and he's very comfortable doing all of them."

Although Tate was inundated with phone calls and letters, the magnitude of the opportunity in front of him -- the chance to go to college -- was never lost.

His parents are separated and he lives with his mom, grandmother and 3-year-old brother, but Tate maintains a close relationship with his dad, who lives less than five minutes away.

Last year, Tate was up late, working on a speech for his public speaking class (taught by Jones). As he was typing in the computer room next to his bedroom, he heard a loud bang. Tate ignored it, just wanting to get his speech done.

A second shot, though, rang so loud, and sounded so close that Tate instantly got down on the ground.

A high power assault rifle bullet had whizzed by him, pierced two doors and two walls. The loud explosion he had heard was the sound of the bullet meeting the wooden closet door in his bedroom, where it left a gaping hole.

"If I was in my room and asleep it would've went right over me," he said.

It was the first time anything like that had ever happened, and Tate's parents always kept him on the right side of things. They, along with McGregor, helped guide him through the recruiting process.

There were a few letters he kept -- like his official offer from Ohio State.

"When I read it, I was pretty excited," he said. "... They were still No. 1 in the country. I was just like, 'Wow, I have the No. 1 school in the country giving me an offer.'"

Although it was flattering, Tate remained humble and unassuming -- a quality that hasn't gone unnoticed.

"When he leaves here, DeMatha will be a better place than when he got here," Jones said. "He's somebody that we will be able to point to for years to come as an example of what to do, how to do it and how to behave on and off the court."

Tate is more than ready for his recruiting to come to a close.

"I really can't wait," he said. "It's going to be a relief."

It's up to him now to end it.

Heather Dinich is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at espn.hd@hotmail.com.