Carver High School football coach Dell McGee long ago stopped keeping track of the time he spends responding to the beeps and buzzes coming from his cell phone each day.
With a stable of athletes and a reputation for sending troves of them on to the college level, McGee is used to being inundated with calls from recruiters. But the last year has been a tiring experience for the coach as tries to wrangle the ever-growing hype and handle the seemingly never-ending calls about one of the nation’s top college prospects, Carver running back Isaiah Crowell.
“It’s kind of hard to say how much time it takes, but I have calls and texts coming in from 7 in the morning until 9 or 10 at night or until I just turn my phone off,” McGee said. “My phone hardly ever stops with colleges and reporters, and a lot of it is people just asking about Isaiah.”
Crowell, a 6-foot, 210-pound Columbus native, is seen by some as the crown jewel of the state’s recruiting class and is ranked as the No. 1 high school running back in the country by ESPN and the No. 4 back by recruiting website rivals.com. He tallied more than 3,600 rushing yards and scored 43 touchdowns in the previous two seasons, earning Ledger-Enquirer All-Bi-City Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2009 and 2010.
Those accolades have earned him dozens of college scholarship offers, which he whittled down to two -- Georgia and Alabama. Coaches from both schools have been frequent visitors to Carver as Crowell prepares to make his decision on Wednesday, which is known as national signing day. Fans on both sides have let him know they want him to go their way, too, with some saying Crowell could be a savior for the Georgia football program after its 6-7 season. It was common for chants of “Is-ai-ah, Is-ai-ah” to erupt from the student sections at football and basketball games he attended while on college visits, and ESPNU will be broadcasting live when he makes his announcement Wednesday. Everywhere he turns, someone is trying to draw him in.
Crowell and his family have handled the attention with grace and patience, according to those who know them, yet they reached a wall after an official visit to Georgia two weekends ago. After that, Isaiah and his parents, Debbie and Chuck, decided they would stop doing interviews until signing day, said McGee, who has become Crowell’s de facto spokesman. No more questions about Georgia, no more questions about Alabama and no more questions about Crowell’s signing day decision.
“It’s been a lot for them to deal with,” McGee said. “The whole situation with Isaiah being proclaimed as a program’s savior or that he can save someone’s job by picking a certain school, that’s a tough situation for a kid his age to be in. There is a lot of pressure, and he’s not taking it lightly. It’s tough for a kid to think that he has to put a team on his shoulders or that the outcome of a team’s season is going to be predicated on him. He just wanted some time to have some quiet time to make his decision.”
Crowell’s newfound celebrity quickly spilled over from the football field and into the hallways at Carver this fall. “It’s brought a lot of attention to the school, and everybody’s been talking about Isaiah a lot,” Solomon Williams, a Carver sophomore, said. “I didn’t expect it to be so big, but he’s on ESPN and on magazines.”
That sort of attention and the expectations that come with it have been nothing new for the soft-spoken, wide-smiling Crowell. Clemson verbally offered him his first scholarship as a freshman, he was a hot topic for recruiting analysts by the end of his sophomore season, and he politely answered questions from throngs of media through his junior and senior seasons, even seeking out reporters after his games to ask if they needed him for an interview before he left on the team bus.
But as the 2010 season wore on, it all began to weigh heavy on Crowell and the team. McGee cut off media access to Crowell before a game against then-No. 1 and three-time defending state champion Buford, in the days leading up to the team’s nationally televised game against LaGrange and at other pivotal points in Carver’s season.
Meanwhile, Crowell was becoming more difficult to reach. The coverage of Crowell had reached a critical mass and, at points, threatened to harm the team dynamic, McGee said.
“I didn’t want it to take away from the team aspect and overall team concept,” McGee said. “We have to keep kids grounded and keep the other kids who aren’t getting as much attention happy knowing that we’re a team and not individuals. That’s the toughest part of all of it: getting the other guys to see that, sure, Isaiah might make a big play and get all the attention, but we need them to be there playing their position to win, too.”
Crowell, who could not be reached for comment, often downplayed his role and spoke coyly when asked about the pressure of being labeled one of the nation’s best and handling attention from outside sources. “You have got to stay focused and not let any of it get to you,” Crowell said in September. “You have to know your team needs you and they come before anything else.”
The expectations on Crowell have been heavy but not detrimental, said D.J. Jones, a Crowell family friend and former Carver, Georgia and NFL football player who now co-hosts and produces Sportsvisions on Fox 54. Jones acknowledges he is only one of many people who have given input, solicited and otherwise, to the Crowells, and said he tries to keep his own allegiance to Georgia at bay when he offers advice.
“Everybody and their grandma is telling Isaiah he’s the No. 1 guy in the country, and of course, they don’t think about spring practices, two-a-days, in the classrooms and over the three of four years he will stay where ever he goes,” Jones said. “Not everyone is thinking about what he has to go through day by day to actually get to play at the college level and, God willing, the NFL. A lot of the people talking to him only think about him running the football. I just ask him to think about what he needs to do in case that doesn’t work out.”
For their part, Crowell and his parents have not been easily swayed, Jones said. They have enjoyed their experience on the national recruiting stage but have managed to keep it separate from the way they have approached the business of selecting their best option.
“They have been straightforward with all the coaches and administrators on campuses and gotten all the answers they needed on everything pertaining to Isaiah,” Jones said. “They have asked about what happens in discipline situations, in classroom situations, in on-the-field situations. They have known all along what this opportunity means, and they are trying to make sure absolutely everything has been considered. They have always known this was about more than football.”