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ORLANDO — Dante Fowler Jr. spins around an offensive lineman and in a blur puts on the brakes inches from the quarterback, who is grateful on this day to be wearing a red jersey.
Recruiting analysts lined up alongside the practice field at ESPN Wide World of Sports nod, then tweet.
Each day, there is more spinning and blur and braking, more nodding than the previous day, more tweeting.
Everyone seems to agree: Dante Fowler Jr. once again looks like, well, Dante Fowler Jr.
The best kid out here, says one analyst.
Unstoppable today, mutters another.
“It was a good day,” says Fowler, typically affable.
He answers more questions, and smiles some more, then you notice the biggest difference in Fowler’s game since a dreadful, embarrassing fall spoiled his senior season, the one thing that went missing when he was kicked off the Lakewood High School football team.
You see joy.
“I’m at Disney World,” he says. “I gotta be happy!”
• • •
As he prepares this week for Thursday’s Under Armour All-America Game at Tropicana Field, Fowler looks nothing like the kid who disappeared in the big games and last month was told he was no longer considered a five-star recruit.
The Florida State commit has been what he has always claimed to be — one of the country’s best defensive end prospects.
“I’m coming with something to prove,” said Fowler, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound pass rusher. “I have a chip on my shoulder. They took my star and I want it back.”
Truth is, Fowler lost more than just one star.
He lost his standing as one.
He was suspended after the season opener in September for mouthing off to coaches, resulting in a disruptive entrenchment between coach and player that caused Fowler to miss three games.
He fretted as organizers of the Under Armour game considered taking back their invitation.
“It was tough on me and my wife. No parent wants to see their child go through what he went through,’’ said Dante Sr., who roamed the sidelines at Disney watching his son wow other onlookers. “But he owned up to it, and next time he’ll know how to conduct and carry himself in the right manner.’’
Fowler returned and played well against Gibbs, but not as well against Jesuit in a crucial district game. Afterward, a few scathing online reports wrote him off as a disappointment.
Lakewood, once a state title contender, stumbled down the stretch and did not make the playoffs.
Last month, Rivals dropped Fowler 22 spots (from No. 13) in its rankings and took away his prized fifth star.
• • •
Fowler says he wasn’t surprised to lose a star.
But knowing how important that was to him, it is surprising to hear him say it wasn’t the biggest disappointment of 2011.
“What hurt me the most was getting kicked off the team,” he said. “I wasn’t with my team and I let my teammates down with my actions. I didn’t meet a lot of people’s expectations.”
He blames himself for not showing up in big games.
“I didn’t shine in the big game like big-time players are supposed to; I didn’t step up.”
Fowler may have lost a star, but he has clearly gained some perspective.
He has put 2011 behind him. He spent his down time working on his grades, and his dad says he has posted a qualifying ACT score.
Thursday in his hometown of St. Petersburg, he hopes to remind everyone of what made him great on the gridiron.
Fowler practically grew up in the shadows of Tropicana Field, in Pinellas Point, playing neighborhood football among a host of future high school stars.
He was always a defensive player. He always played with bigger kids.
In his back yard, his father would coach him up. Fowler would play end. His mother, Lanora, would play quarterback.
Dante Sr. said he never feared for his wife’s safety, just the safety of the boys trying to take her down.
“She roughed me up a little bit,” Fowler said, laughing. “That’s kind of embarrassing, but . . .”
Fowler will have more than 300 friends and family at the game, which he hopes to use as a personal showcase like Alonso’s Anthony Chickillo did last year in earning MVP honors.
He wants to be remembered for how he plays in his final high school game.
“I’m out here to prove to everyone that I am the person who they thought I was,” Fowler said. “I’m coming out to dominate anyone who gets in my way. I’m going to show everyone that I am one of the best defensive ends in the country.”