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Getting a jump on fame's fast track

TAMPA — Alonso defensive end Anthony Chickillo discovered quickly how one game can increase a high school athlete's popularity nationally.

The 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior turned in the final — and best — performance of his high school football career in the Under Armour All-America Game on Jan. 5 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Chickillo, playing alongside some of the country's top recruits, was named the winning team MVP in front of a TV audience of about 1.39 million — the most ever for a prep football game broadcast on ESPN.

Less than an hour after the game, Chickillo checked his Facebook page — already a landing spot for college football fans of the schools he was considering attending — and had more than 600 friend requests.

"It can get pretty crazy," said Chickillo, who plans to attend Miami. "On Facebook, every single day I'll have at least 50 fans a day IMing me, telling me which school to go to. I have over 200 friend requests a day. You try to accept them all and be thankful for it."

As high school football recruiting has become more frenzied, it has elevated some of its most coveted subjects to celebrity status. Are today's teenagers ready for such stardom?

Like most teenagers, Plant running back James Wilder Jr. has a few part-time jobs — valet parking and working at a Tampa restaurant. But the Florida State commit can hardly go anywhere without being recognized.

Not that his face isn't everywhere.

On the same magazine rack where Justin Bieber and Natalie Portman stare back at readers is Wilder, cover boy for the Sporting News' Recruiting Guide.

A lot of the attention is positive for Wilder, consisting of fans asking for photos and autographs.

But in the days before Wilder committed to FSU in August, someone created a fake Wilder Facebook page, even stealing family photos from his page and posting that he was committing to Florida.

Once Wilder picked the Seminoles, he said, the Internet turned on him. Scorned Florida and Georgia fans unleashed venom from their keyboards — "Things I can't even say," Wilder said — forcing Wilder to deactivate his Facebook page for two months.

Still, after Wilder's Plant team beat Lakeland in the Class 5A state semifinals last month, Wilder posed for photos with cheerleaders — from the opposing team. "I'm thinking, is this the right thing to do, take pictures with the opposing team?" Wilder said.

When Wilder went on his official visit to Florida State this past weekend, he took three pictures and signed two autographs — in the Tallahassee airport.

That was just the start of fan mania.

"There was a part where it was supposed to be just hanging out, but it ended up being like a photo shoot the whole time," Wilder said. "I was taking pictures and signing autographs, probably 10 pictures and about 60 autographs. Napkins, T-shirts. I was loving it. I'm happy they're already noticing me up there in Tallahassee."

When Chickillo made an official visit to North Carolina, he looked into the stands at a basketball game and saw signs bearing his name. On his trip to Florida, students would ask to take a photo with him. Chickillo said his father, Tony, a defensive lineman at Miami in the 1980s, has prepared him for the spotlight.

"He's always taught me to stay humble," Chickillo said. "It can get old, but you just try to talk to all the fans and be nice. It just comes with the territory."

And everyone wants a piece of the nation's top recruits.

When Wilder played in this month's U.S. Army All-American Game in San Antonio, Texas — and scored the winning touchdown — he returned to the locker room with just his pants and jersey.

"Kids came up and asked for my gloves and game socks, mouthpiece, cleats," he said. "You can't say no to the kids. I was walking back to the locker room half-naked."

Wilder's and Chickillo's fame was first born in San Antonio, as both shined at the U.S. Army All-American underclassmen combine. Both became elite prospects, with Internet recruiting sites salivating over their every move.

Sometimes, though, the attention can be taken for granted. Plant football coach Robert Weiner, who coached in the U.S. Army game, said not all of the game's participants were humbled by their success.

"There are kids not like James," Weiner said. "There were some kids who just weren't pleasant kids to be around because they were all that. In the end, too much adulation is probably not healthy for anybody, which is why in the end, it's the people around you that have to be realistic and keep you rooted.

"But the good ones, they all get the code of what it is to be a good football player and not to be falsely humble, but to be humble."

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com.

Getting a jump on fame's fast track 01/24/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 24, 2011 11:02pm]
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