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TAMPA — A glorious midday sun presides over Berkeley Prep’s campus as its most famous athlete strolls down a sidewalk by the tennis courts. Nelson Agholor’s stomach grumbles as his smartphone hums.
Lunch beckons, but so did a local reporter, the latest in a litany of them who call, text, tweet or, in this case, make an old-fashioned appointment. After all, the indefatigable beast that is college football recruiting is in need of perpetual pabulum.
On this day, one of the nation’s most coveted prospects has chosen to feed it first. If time allows, he’ll grab an empanada later.
“It gets to the point where you want to be normal,” says Agholor, just a wisp of his native Nigeria in his accent. “You love the game of
football …but this isn’t the game of football.”
Clearly, the conglomeration of letters, trips, in-home visits and calls segued from novelty to nuisance long ago. Few in the bay area have been hyped and hailed, assessed and analyzed, probed and prodded like this angular 180-pounder with the soft voice and softer brown eyes.
But at least those eyes now can finally see the end of the process.
Once he makes the last of his five official visits — to the University of Southern California — at the end of the month, Agholor will ponder his options with his loved ones, inform the schools he doesn’t choose, and announce his decision (likely on Feb. 1).
“I don’t want to say it’s concrete, but I’d like to just sign on (national) signing day just like everybody else,” said Agholor, who received the Guy Toph Award as Hillsborough County’s top senior player Thursday.
“I don’t want to be the guy that postpones it, leaves everybody in suspense. That’s not for me.”
Then and only then, perhaps, he can go back to just being Nelson Agholor.
But that begs a glaring question: Exactly who is Nelson Agholor?
An enigma, yes, but still a typical teen
Almost by rote, virtually every recruitnik in cyberspace can recite Agholor’s dimensions (6-foot-2, 180 or thereabouts), senior-year rushing total (1,983 yards), projected college position (receiver) and quintet of favorite schools (Florida, FSU, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, USC).
Beyond that, the fourth of Felix and Caroline Agholor’s five kids is a bit more evasive, at least in terms of his personal life. Much like Agholor the tailback, Agholor the human can be tough to nail.
He politely declines to spell his Nigerian middle name or even translate its meaning. He’d also prefer you didn’t contact his folks (Felix Agholor, who works in the physical plant at USF, didn’t respond to an interview request).
But those closest to him describe a gregarious, charming 18-year-old who slaps high-fives with Berkeley’s elementary-aged kids, loves The Simpsons, devours his mom’s fufu (a pasty African vegetable dish) and his godmother’s mushroom rice, and snores like nobody’s business.
“It’s like a horn,” joked Tampa Prep basketball star and Butler University signee Devontae Morgan, one of his best friends. “He wakes up the whole house.”
Spend an hour or so with Agholor personally, and you find an articulate senior who looks you in the eye when he speaks, oozes politeness, refuses to be roped into an online recruiting scrum and brandishes a perspective belying his birth certificate.
“We would have a house full of kids at my house a lot, and Nelson would be over in the corner studying,” said Leslie Berlin, mother of one of Agholor’s closest friends to whom Agholor refers as his godmother.
“We had to make a little special place for him (a desk at the end of a long hallway) that was his quiet study place for him. …He’s just got maturity that’s way beyond his years. And yet he’s still funny and goofs off a little bit, which is really fun.”
New life in Tampa molds a young man
The Agholor family arrived in New York from Lagos, Nigeria — where Felix had been well educated and played high-level soccer — when Nelson was 5. Older brother Franklin said the family, which didn’t yet include youngest sister Ruby, had planned to settle in Maryland.
When those relatives couldn’t be reached, Franklin said, the family was taken in by other relatives in Carrollwood after boarding a train for Orlando, then a bus for Tampa. When Nelson’s parents found work, the family settled in a three-bedroom apartment near USF.
“My dad and my mom made sacrifices, whatever they needed to make, to move the family to the states,” said Agholor, who has an older brother (Franklin) in junior college and a sister (Valerie) in nursing school. “It’s just what they wanted in our lives, to be here.”
It was in the Suitcase City patch of northeast Tampa, besmirched by heavy crime and seedy influences, that Franklin says his younger brother developed a “street savvy” out of necessity and learned to think on his feet — traits that would assist him in the recruiting process.
Developing football skills, while playing for at least three local youth football teams, would come later. Initially, Franklin said, Nelson was awful.
“Nelson was about that big,” said Franklin, putting a centimeter between his thumb and index finger. “A toothpick. He was quick, he wasn’t fast. He just wanted to play. He just liked doing it because his older brother (Felix Jr.) and I played.”
His talents — and grades — ameliorated with stunning concurrence.
A natural, national talent emerges
By the latter part of middle school, Nelson was a game changer on the Liberty Middle School flag football team, dual-threat quarterback for the Lutz Chiefs and, perhaps most significantly, an A student.
In eighth grade, he was named one of Liberty’s Turnaround Achievement Award winners.
“I come from an area where a lot of people, they didn’t really stay in high school that long. They just went to the local school or what not for as much as they could,” he said.
“They were all good people …but I told myself I would go somewhere different, and different for me ended up being a private school.”
He arrived at Berkeley in 2008 as a 6-foot-1, 156-pound freshman. He exits with 4,732 rushing yards, 921 receiving yards, 12 interceptions and eight kickoff returns for touchdowns.
“What separates Agholor from his peers is that he is incredibly explosive and elusive with the ball in his hands,” said Chris Nee, the state of Florida’s recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.
“He has the versatility and ability to play on either side of the ball, but at the end of the day he is just too good with the ball in his hands not to use him on the offensive side of the ball.”
Toss a dart anywhere on a U.S. map, and Agholor could go there to attend college and play football. As if sorting through Fortune 500 job offers, he has whittled his choices, relying on introspection and counsel. When his playing career ends, he has told some he’d like to coach.
“When I asked him about what level he’d like to teach,” Berlin said, “he said high school because that’s where the dream begins.”
Aha. This, you finally realize, is the story Agholor has been mostly reticent to tell, the one in which siblings and surrogates fill in the holes. It’s the story of a dream. More specifically, an American one.
This is who Nelson Agholor is.
The full Nelson
Berkeley Prep five-star recruit Nelson Agholor discusses some recruiting hot points.
• His five finalists: Florida, FSU, Southern California, Oklahoma, Notre Dame (He has said he won’t attend a school he doesn’t visit.)
• On whether he’ll reveal his choice via social media (he won’t): “I think social media is for you and your friends,” he said.
• Once he makes a decision: “I’m going to contact every school that I’m not going to and let them know I appreciate everything. .…It’s going to be hard, but as a man, I think they have an obligation to get the best players to keep their jobs. I have an obligation to find the best school to help my job in the future.”
Joey Knight can be reached at email@example.com