Signing day Wednesday …

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 5, 2002

Alonzo Stevens has been on all sides of the recruiting as a player at Rosa A. Temple High, as an assistant coach at Alcorn State and, now, as head coach at Vicksburg High. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[02/05/02]Even now, seven years later, Alonzo Stevens still chuckles about how he pulled a fast one on a big-time university.

While a recruiter for Alcorn State, Stevens visited Ahndre Patterson from Carter High in Dallas. Patterson was rated by almost every publication as the top tight end in the country. He had verbally committed to Tennessee.

But Stevens, from the tiny school in little Lorman, convinced Patterson that it would be better for him to play with the Braves.

“People couldn’t believe I even got him to come down for a visit,” Stevens said. “I sold him on education with athletics being second, and I also sold his parents on that. Tennessee didn’t even know where Alcorn was.

“He had to call the University of Tennessee and tell them thanks, but no thanks.”

Recruiters across the country will find out Wednesday if all their work paid off. That’s National Signing Day, the first day high school recruits can sign a national letter of intent with the college of his choice.

Stevens had many successful “sales” jobs as a recruiter at Alcorn. Donald Driver, Marcus Hinton, Chad Slaughter, Torrance Small and John Thierry all on NFL rosters now were Stevens’ recruits.

Now, things are different. Stevens is on the other side of the phone. Now, he is not the salesman, but he gets to watch the feeding frenzy unfold before his eyes.

One of his prized pupils, Andre Bennett, has been receiving mail from colleges for three years. He has taken nightly phone calls and several official visits this season.

“Your livelihood is riding on 17-year-old kids,” said Stevens, who led VHS to the North State title game his first season as head coach at VHS. “It all comes down to winning. Vince Lombardi said, winning is not everything, it’s the only thing.’ That’s all that matters.”

He doesn’t miss the hustle and bustle of big-time college recruiting, though.

Working on a shoestring budget, Stevens was gone from his family for weeks on end. His recruiting map was much more vast than the budget he had to work with.

“A lot of that came out of pocket,” Stevens said. “Some places have million-dollar recruiting budgets. Our whole budget at Alcorn was less than that.”

Stevens’ area stretched across Interstate 20 through Louisiana to Dallas-Fort Worth. The map then turned south to Houston, back across southern Louisiana and back to Lorman and everywhere in between. That was more than 1,000 interstate miles, not counting the “in between.”

He smiles as he recalls meeting a recruiter from the University of Southern California in Shreveport.

“We got to talking and got to know one another pretty well,” Stevens said. “He asked me, where are you going from here?’ I told him Dallas.

“He asked me what flight I was on. Flight? I’m driving,’ I said. He said, I’ll let them all know you’re coming.’ ”

That didn’t deter Stevens from landing professional-caliber players, but it wore him down.

Days turned into weeks on the road. Phone bills at home skyrocketed to $300 and $400 a month most to recruits.

The only time he could rest was after the signed letters arrived in the mail two months after the marathon started.

“I know this, I wouldn’t do it again,” Stevens said.

There were also the good times, though, Stevens recalled. The daughter of a close friend, Willie Moore, married former Alcorn receiver Percy Singleton.

Singleton, a standout at Carter High, was another of Stevens’ prizes.

“It’s like a family,” Stevens said.

So he answers phone calls from coaches, sends tapes and paperwork all over the country. In the fieldhouse, he schedules meetings with recruits and recruiters, but he is no longer a salesman. He is on the sidelines in the hunt for the next great thing. The next superstar.

Many thought it would be Bennett, a massive 6-foot-6, 350-pound offensive lineman who moves defenders like a bulldozer.

For someone as large as Bennett, his voice is soft, rarely saying more than a few words at a time.

That changes, though, when the phone rings again and again and again.

“I get maybe three of four (calls) a night,” Bennett said. “It’s still kind of a surprise for my family because I’m the first one to really go through this.”

Bennett had two brothers who played at Vicksburg, but neither got the attention Andre is getting.

Starting his sophomore year, he began getting mail from schools everywhere. Most of them, he said, were introductions from coaches and messages of luck for the season.

“I didn’t think they’d start coming until my senior year,” Bennett said. “The summer going into my senior year, they really started picking up.”

Those were just the ones to his house. During the season, offensive coordinator Jackie Williamson acts as mailman in the fieldhouse, arranging and delivering recruiting letters. The bulk went to Bennett.

Kentucky and LSU sent letters almost daily.

It all comes to fruition Wednesday, National Signing Day.

Bennett said that he has not gotten tired of the hoopla surrounding him the phone calls and letters that occupy most of his nights.

“It’s fun,” Bennett said. “It’s nice to know that people are interested in me. It’s an exciting thing.”

Bennett should be one of several Gators to sign with colleges Wednesday. LSU is still veryinterested, but a late push by Grambling is leaving Bennett’s decision in limbo.

“This is it,” Stevens said.