8:30 AM CT -- I arrive at the Springfield Hillcrest gymnasium. Students have not been released to attend yet, so most of the crowd consists of adults from the community and, primarily, press. Lots of press.
For all intents and purposes, Springfield, MO, is the biggest small town in the country. Wind-blown trees. Intense, nearly over-bearing religion. Obsession with fireworks. Walmarts on every block. A man selling flags out of his truck in a parking lot on Glendale Avenue (your options: America, Missouri, Dixie, or Dixie With A Marijuana Leaf and "SOUTHERNER" At The Bottom). From Springfield, you are within an hour and a half of Yakov Smirnoff's act in Branson, the home of those Precious Moments figurines, Winter's Bone and a sign that says "Eternal Life: Exit Here."
Springfield has billed itself as Missouri's fastest-growing city for what seems like a couple of decades now (2009 population: 157,630), but its aura does not lend to that. Not that this is a bad thing, of course. Small towns are often beautifully close-knit. And when one person from the community succeeds, it is a victory for everybody. Springfield will more than prove that today.
Hillcrest High School, meanwhile, is the most small-town school in the district. Its enrollment is a modest 1,200; the school backs up to both a fairgrounds area and one of the city's many -- many -- bible colleges. Its most famous alum: John Ashcroft, best known as George W. Bush's first Attorney General (the one who covered up a partially nude justice statue), a Singing Senator, and "that Republican who lost to that dead guy in Missouri."
In May, however, the list of famous alums will double when Dorial Green-Beckham crosses the stage. And for 10 minutes on the morning of February 1, 2012, Hillcrest is the only high school in the country.
Banners hang around the basketball court. The largest: MISSOURI CLASS 5 STATE CHAMPIONS 2009-2010. Who was the star of that team? You get one guess. Sponsorships line the court as well: State Farm, In & Out Car Wash, local roofing and automotive companies, the Convoy of Hope. There was a bit of a kerfuffle regarding the latter; they hung a backdrop behind the podium as well, which ruffled the feathers of some of the other sponsors. Still, it is a good enough cause that the matter was dropped.
(Twitter, meanwhile, is blocked, even on the media's wireless connection. It's almost like this is an actual school or something.)
8:50 AM -- The Hillcrest marching band has warmed up and begins their routine with some Blink-182 as the students begin to filter in. The cymbals are so much louder than the rest of the instruments (a common problem among high school marching bands without the benefit of a perfect distribution of personnel), which makes the ending to (unidentified) song No. 2 quite a bit more dramatic than was probably intended. The finale of the three-song set: the USC fight song (which is, I am assuming, also the Hillcrest fight song).
8:54 AM -- John and Tracy Beckham sit down at the table where the action will take place. John is in football coach garb -- sweater pulled over a shirt and tie; the tie is red, however, which makes the Missouri portion of the Internet panic a little.
8:59 AM -- DGB, as he is known, enters to applause. He is wearing a gray suit, black shirt and silver-white tie.
His back story is rather well-known that this point, and this piece isn't intended to rehash it in great detail. Good writers have already tackled the topic. He grew up Dorial Green, a no-chance kid in both St. Louis and Springfield. He lived in group homes, foster homes … a van. Older siblings struggled with the law, and his single mother struggled with drugs and alcohol. John Beckham, Hillcrest football coach, and his wife Tracy took in both Dorial and his brother Darnell, like they had for tens of other kids through the years. In 2009, they became official guardians, and Green became Green-Beckham. Last winter, as Dorial's recruiting stock began to explode, he was dealt another tough card: Darnell, a freshman at Hillcrest, was stricken with leukemia. He has responded wonderfully to treatment.
DGB was taught the hard (and lasting) way how much family and trust can matter.
Because of both his upbringing and the traits inherent to him, Dorial has never carried himself as an elite recruit. He grew up painfully shy, and as he will prove in his signing ceremony, he still is to a degree. From the beginning of his recruitment, about four years ago, he (with help from Mr. Beckham) has strived for privacy, a humble kid who hit the genetic lottery. He speaks with little volume, hoping that his exploits will do much of the talking for him.
9:00 AM -- The NJROTC makes an appearance, and all are instructed to rise and say the pledge of allegiance.
9:03 AM -- Hillcrest principal Jay Rush briefs the crowd on the brief schedule of events. ("At some point, Dorial will be taking questions from ESPN that you will not be hearing," et cetera), then cues the band. Time for some "HEEEEEEEEY, BABY."
9:10 AM -- A city councilman is introduced to read a resolution recognizing DGB and his exploits. The paraphrased version: "Resolved that [DGB is amazing at football], and resolved that [everybody really likes him], the City of Springfield wishes to recognize [how awesome this is for Springfield]." Meanwhile, Dorial looks incredibly nervous, almost nauseous. When the councilman is finished reading, he presents a plaque; DGB jerks out of his seat, and in perhaps the most endearing moment of the day, his mother covertly fixes his kinked suit jacket while he shakes the councilman's hand.
His high school highlight film is, honestly, funny. It probably goes without saying that high school cornerbacks in southwest Missouri typically don't have to worry about covering receivers who are half a foot taller than them (6-foot-6), up to 50 pounds bigger than them (220 pounds), and much, much faster than them. DGB won the state 100-meter and 200-meter titles as a sophomore and had over 100 career receptions (for over 2,400 yards) before even his junior year at Hillcrest.
By the time his career was finished, DGB had set the national record for receiving yardage. His final stat line: 6,353 yards, 75 touchdowns. Being this tall, this early, is not necessarily a good thing. You might run less like a deer, more like a colt in platform shoes. DGB, however, appears to have avoided the awkward stage. He passes the cliched eyeball test, to say the least, but one could have concerns about how he would fare when actually pitted against D1-level competition. He had a chance to prove himself at the U.S. Army All-American Game in San Antonio in December; mission: accomplished.
Because of raw athleticism alone, DGB was destined to become a high-profile recruit. But it was clear rather early on that he was going to be more than simply "high-profile." The Hillcrest community would see virtually every major college football coach at some point in 2011-12. His recruitment had every twist and turn that one has come to expect for the bluest of blue-chippers. The last two weeks were particularly odd, from the Pinkel-copter's appearance two weeks ago, to everybody from Mack Brown, to Bob Stoops, to Paul Petrino showing up in-house last week. This is, once again, rare for Hillcrest. And it made the bond between athlete and community that much stronger.
9:12 AM -- The principal welcomes any and all guests and begins to gush about how DGB is not only a great athlete but well-liked around the school and community. This doesn't really need to be said -- the school will give that away over the next 20 minutes. Meanwhile, DGB is reviewing the notes for his speech.
9:17 AM -- It's time for the announcement.
Though they share a long, horizontal border, Arkansas and Missouri have only faced off on the football field five times in 110 years (Mizzou 3, Arkansas 2), and they have not yet spent one day as actual conference rivals. But they have quickly learned to hate each other. Last spring, Arkansas lured Missouri's basketball coach, Mike Anderson, back to Fayetteville, where he had been a long-time assistant under Nolan Richardson. But basketball is not football. Five-star football recruits typically trump roundball coaches. And when the No. 1 recruit in the country is nearly equidistant from both schools -- 130 miles or so from Fayetteville, 160 from Columbia -- hard feelings multiply.
For most of the last year, Arkansas fans have considered their school the leader for DGB's services. Bobby Petrino began developing a solid relationship with him and his family a while ago, and with their SEC ties, recent success, and receiver-friendly offense, the Hogs clearly have plenty to offer a semi-local pass-catcher. For Hog fans, high on two years of great success (their record: 21-5), the chief competition in the DGB race would surely come from Oklahoma and, perhaps, Texas.
While Arkansas fans reveal themselves to be both proud and incredibly confident, Missouri fans alternate between the same level of pride and deep-seeded insecurity. For months, nobody talked about them as a factor in the DGB race, even though offensive coordinator David Yost had all but lived in Springfield for the past few years, getting to know Dorial, befriending the entire family. Missouri was the first to offer Dorial, but with the family doing an impressive (and rare) job of staying quiet, the "DGB favors ___" narrative came from elsewhere. First, Oklahoma was the leader; then, Arkansas. Texas was a darkhorse.
As Signing Day has approached, however, the race for DGB's services has zeroed on the two closest schools. DGB took an official visit to Texas, and by all accounts the family really liked Mack Brown, but Austin was probably too far from home base. Meanwhile, he canceled an official visit to Oklahoma in December and never rescheduled. His schedule was clouded with basketball games, but he managed to get down to Fayetteville for his official visit on January 20 and to Columbia on January 27. Arkansas fans were entirely convinced he was theirs around January 22. A week later, he had made a different choice.
The crowd goes wild. (In texting a friend, I learn that the iPhone's auto-correct attempts to change "apeshit" to "sprague.") One gets the impression, however, that while there are plenty of Mizzou supporters in the crowd, they were cheering mostly for Dorial himself. The ovation would have been almost as loud had he announced he was playing basketball at Alaska-Fairbanks.
Shy Dorial makes an extended appearance at this time. While he is clearly comfortable around the student body, he looks down at his notes while speaking, and afterward, when ESPN's Rece Davis is in his ear, live on ESPNU, he will pragmatically fill out his Letter of Intent before finally acknowledging the interview. The only time he will really look up during the interview is to refer to the crowd, saying he hoped that they would all come to his games. You can tell he actually means it. They are his crutch.
9:25 AM -- After a short ESPNU interview that includes the requisite dig at Missouri offensive coordinator David Yost's hair (it truly is
awful unique), the ceremony itself is done. The students are dismissed back to their classes, and the football team gathers with DGB behind the stage to chant and cheer. Dorial is, however briefly, in his comfort zone. He walks around, stopping to hug and chat with virtually everybody remaining adult and child in the room.
9:35 AM -- The media Q&A session begins, and you can guess how every question will be answered. Felt comfortable with the coaching staff. Family atmosphere. Fan base. Family. Fit. Comfort. Family. Et cetera.
Recruiting is, at times, both ridiculous and redeeming. Dorial Green-Beckham's individual recruitment featured plenty of both adjectives. Coaches told on each other, while helicopters, boosters and free drinks got involved. But relationships, between an 18-year-old athletic marvel and his adopted parents, between a young man and his community, and between the same young man and a coaching staff that got to know him so well through the years, made his recruitment both unique and, yes, redeeming.
When DGB enrolls at Missouri next fall, he will face expectations steeper than anybody's in the country. As mentioned yesterday on Twitter, "all he has to do now is catch 185 for 2300 and cure cancer to live up to the hype!". But as he attempts to ingratiate himself further with a community he has already positively impacted, he will always have the home town, just under three hours away. They have given him away, but the small town never leaves you.