LARGO — Sometimes it takes a while for Largo High's Cordell Hudson to get around to the subject of football.
The game is important, but so is his desire to attend a prestigious university and his aspirations to work in the engineering field.
Teachers and coaches alike say he has all the tools for greatness, but it is not always clear whether they mean on the football field — where Scout.com and ESPN have ranked him as a three-star prospect at cornerback — or in the classroom, where he maintains a 4.5 weighted grade point average.
Hudson, a senior, has an intense focus on his future, already seizing on test scores and college readiness as benchmarks for his success.
That drive was instilled by his mother, Tera Booze-Hudson, the first African-American from north Pinellas County to be accepted into the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High. She taught her children that a college degree was a prerequisite for a better life outside their hardscrabble Ridgecrest neighborhood, where negative influences lurked.
As a middle schooler, Hudson was approached by someone asking where he could buy drugs.
"I told my mom about that, but it didn't really freak me out," he said. "Drugs were pretty common everywhere."
Ridgecrest lore is filled with should-have-been, could-have-been athletic stories. There are success stories, too.
Former Largo standout Dexter McCluster (Ole Miss/Kansas City Chiefs) and former Seminole star D'Qwell Jackson (Maryland/Cleveland Browns) are among many who grew up in the community and went on to play in college and the NFL.
"When I would walk Cordell to (elementary) school, I would point out the houses where some of these players lived as an example of guys who have made it out," Booze-Hudson said.
In order to avoid the so-called fast life, Hudson kept studying. He credits his parents and older sisters for protecting him.
"Without them guiding me, and steering me in the right direction, I could have easily gone the other way," Hudson said.
Instead, he is in a dual enrollment program at St. Petersburg College and will have completed his associate in arts degree by the time he finishes high school.
"Cordell is the kind of kid that makes you want to keep coaching," said coach Rick Rodriguez, who is in his 15th season with Largo. "He is the complete package — an excellent football player who is even better in the classroom."
Though his grades are stellar, Hudson sweats even fractional fluctuations in his GPA. Last week, he fretted over scoring 98 percent on a trigonometry test that dropped his overall average in the class to 99. His test scores are just as strong, with an 1150 on the SAT and 23 on the ACT.
"I know he'll be successful even if he doesn't play another down of football after high school. That's because he has the grades and is a natural born leader," Largo defensive coordinator Jeremy Frioud said.
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Higher education became a preoccupation for Hudson before he reached puberty. His mother made sure of it.
She taught her son to read and write by the time he was 3. Hudson was in gifted programs in elementary and middle school. By the time he entered Largo as a freshman, he already had high school credits in two math, one foreign language and one science class.
"I really value education, and I wanted to instill that in my children," said Booze-Hudson, director of the 21st Century Community Learning Center at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School. "My three older daughters have either graduated from college or are currently in college. Cordell is the youngest and he's learned a lot following in their path. But he's very self-driven, too."
Hudson's father, Curtis, a night foreman at Ridgecrest Elementary, was just as stringent when it came to grades.
"My dad had good grades when he was in school, but he went in to the Army and never went to college," Hudson said. "He always stressed that going to college was the best thing I could do in my life."
Athletically, Hudson is also gifted. The 5-foot-11, 160-pound defensive back has the total package of speed, toughness and smarts.
"Cordell is one of the smartest kids I've been around," Frioud said. "The big thing, he applies himself and holds himself accountable, which is rare for a kid in high school these days. He's also one of the nicest kids. But the minute he steps on the football field, he's straight gangster."
Hudson was a Tampa Bay Times' first-team all-county selection last year after recording 21 tackles and three interceptions. That got the attention of colleges. He has 15 Division I offers, mostly from schools in the northeast.
With recruiting trips looming, Hudson is trying to balance a rigorous academic schedule with the demands of football. He also has extracurricular activities, such as volunteering with the Bridging the Achievement Gap tutoring program in the greater Ridgecrest area.
"Cordell will help out anyone, even tutor kids on the team if they ask," Frioud said. "That's the way he is. It's a shout-out to his parents, who obviously don't mess around and raised him right. There's a million reasons for Cordell to fail given where he grew up. But he sees the light at the end of the tunnel."
Hudson's academic achievements are good enough for Ivy League schools, but he would not be able to transfer his dual enrollment credits at SPC.
Instead, Hudson will be headed to Iowa State, Rutgers, Syracuse or Wake Forest, where he will try to further his football career with the notion of preparing for a master's degree in engineering and achieving one of his primary goals — a career in the NFL.
But for now, Hudson plans to be a student who is an athlete — not an athlete who is a student.
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BobbyHomeTeam.