TAMPA — As an 8-year-old, the nation’s top high school football recruit was content staying inside playing Nintendo, labeled by his older brother as “lazy.”
But James Wilder Jr. had everyone’s attention Wednesday evening. The five-star Plant High running back/defensive end — with the familiar name and the a chiseled frame ready for the pros — made his college announcement at Plant’s auditorium as three major Division I programs hinged on his every word.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior came out wearing the team colors of the University of Georgia — an Internet report Tuesday had him heading to Athens — from the red sweater vest and black polo shirt to the matching Nike Jordan sneakers. But after twice bluffing for a hat under his table, he pulled out a garnet Florida State hat and offered his first tomahawk chop.
“I thought I’d try to trick out some people,” Wilder said with a smile.
Wilder, a consensus All-American who is ranked the No. 1 prospect in the nation by MaxPreps and No. 3 overall by ESPN, chose the Seminoles over Georgia and Florida.
“They said, 'We know we can sleep well as long as we’re in your top three,’ ” Wilder said of the FSU coaches. “ 'But we can sleep great when we know you’re going to be a Seminole.’ So I called Coach (Jimbo Fisher) two days ago and said, 'Coach, I know you slept well last night, but tonight you’ll be able to sleep great.’ He just yelled and he passed the phone to all the coaches and they were yelling.”
Even though Wilder’s commitment is nonbinding until he signs a letter of intent in February — and some schools will likely still pursue him — the announcement ends one of the wildest recruitments in the bay area in recent memory.
“He’s one in a million, one of a kind as a football player,” Plant coach Robert Weiner said.
Last month, a fake Facebook page created by someone claiming to be Wilder said he was committing to Florida.
Two weeks ago, when Wilder naively gave his cell phone number to a radio host and it went public, he was bombarded with 200 texts in one hour, forcing him to change his number.
“Oh my God, it got crazy,” Wilder said. “The process is kind of fun, but it’s also kind of stressful.”
Wilder said last week he had narrowed down his choices to three , but it seemed FSU was in the lead. He made one final trip to Tallahassee over the weekend.
While other schools wanted him to play linebacker, Florida State adhered to Wilder’s desire to be a college running back — his father James Wilder Sr. is the Bucs’ all-time leading rusher.
Wilder developed a good relationship with FSU assistant Lawrence Dawsey, who recruits the bay area, and forged a bond with new running backs coach Eddie Gran, who tutored big NFL backs Ronnie Brown, Brandon Jacobs, Deuce McAllister, Ben Tate and Montario Hardesty in college.
“That really caught my attention,” Wilder said. “Coach Gran has nine backs in the (NFL) right now. I think I fit there perfectly.”
Wilder, who ran for 1,004 yards and 15 touchdowns last season in helping Plant to its third state title in four years, has always wanted to be a running back. But he was also a defensive presence, going back to when he was 11 years old playing for the Ybor City Boys and Girls Club Eagles. His older brother, Curtis Wilder, said he could play every position on defense.
But Wilder wanted to be a running back. And on one of his first carries, he spun around and carried defenders — much like some of his runs from last season that drew thousands of hits on YouTube — but broke away from the pack running the wrong way 30 yards down the field until a teammate tackled him.
“We had to take the ball away from him after that,” Curtis Wilder said.
But now, Wilder will have it back for good.
He already has our attention.
“This,” James Wilder Sr. said, “is just the beginning.”