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COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE
FIRST PLACE: COLUMN
The small-town football player involved in the most bizarre recruiting story, well, ever, answered the phone on the third ring.
"I'm not going to make any comment on it," said Kevin Hart, his voice subdued, almost sad. "I don't mean to be impolite. I'm just going to hang up the phone."
A moment later, click.
Thursday was not a good day for Hart. How could it be? The sheriff's department wanted to talk to him again.
But Wednesday was worse. Wednesday is when the pride of Fernley High School admitted that he had lied to the police, to his family, his friends, his teachers, his coaches, his teammates, his classmates, and anyone else in a small Nevada town who thought Hart was going to be the first Vaqueros player to receive a Division I football scholarship.
"I've been with the Lyon County Sheriff's office for 18 years," said Lt. Rob Hall, "and I've never seen anything like this."
A week ago, in front of television cameras and a packed high school gymnasium, the 6-5, 290-pound offensive guard placed two baseball caps on a table a Cal Bears cap on his right, an Oregon Ducks cap on his left and then, after a dramatic pause, put the blue-andgold Cal hat on his head.
"They really won me over," Hart told reporters. "Coach [Jeff] Tedford and I talked a lot, and the fact that the head coach did most of the recruiting of me kind of gave me the real personal experience."
Actually, the Cal head coach barely knew he existed. That's because there was no scholarship offer. Not from Cal. Not from Oregon. Not from anywhere. Hart made it up. He made everything up.
What began six months ago as a small, ego-driven lie, somehow gained weight and strength and grew into an uncontrollable hoax. It enveloped a school, a town, a family and maybe a future.
Chin strap-deep in his own confused dishonesty, Hart issued a statement Wednesday through the county school district saying that he fabricated it all.
"I wanted to play D-I ball more than anything," he said in the statement. "When I realized that wasn't going to happen, I made up what I wanted to be reality."
You've got to at least give Hart credit for facing the truth. Not that he had any choice.
Not long after Hart received a standing ovation at the school assembly, word of his decision made its way to the recruiting chat rooms. A sampling from The Bear Insider.com:
"1st DI player to come out of that high school? He must be a superstar at the school." "I think this qualifies as a KABOOM." "Yes, I have seen him play. He's pretty good. Has college size, good skills. Good addition for Cal." "Sounds like a great young man with size and attitude!" "I think Kevin Hart will be one hell of a sleeper recruit for Cal."
Except that Cal never recruited him. And even though Hart attended football camps at Oregon and the nearby University of Nevada, he wasn't on either program's list of approximately 300 potential recruits.
"We knew of the kid," said a sympathetic Chris Ault, head coach at Nevada. "He was in our camp, but he's not a scholarship athlete."
And yet, about 10 days ago, a Nevada assistant coach told Ault, "Coach, you won't believe this, but the Hart kid is gonna go to Oregon."
"What?" said Ault.
"Oregon's offering him a scholarship," said the assistant.
A few days later, after spending time with nine players making their official weekend recruiting visits to Nevada, Ault came home, ate dinner and then saw some jaw-dropping footage on the local news.
There was the non-prospect Hart placing a Cal cap on his head.
Ault couldn't believe it. He started calling his assistant coaches, all the time consumed by a single, paranoid thought: Holy god, the guy's a half hour from our campus and we didn't even recruit him! What's this going to look like?
As early as last September, Hart told his school newspaper, the Vaquero Voice, that he was being recruited by Nevada, Boise State, Washington, Oregon, Cal, and Oregon State and that Oregon and Washington had already offered him full scholarships. And last Friday, Hart told reporters how difficult it had been to choose between a list of finalists that included Cal, Oregon, Nevada, Illinois and Oklahoma State.
"Didn't talk to the kid one time, never recruited him," said Cal's Tedford during a Wednesday news conference."
"He was in our camp," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti told me Thursday. "We evaluated him. We did not recruit him."
Nobody on that list did. But Hart apparently was overwhelmed by his fixation on playing big-time football, on being wanted, on the need to replicate what he had seen done by actual blue-chip players on national signing day: the semi-insanity of high school seniors announcing their college decisions on local and even national television outlets, including ESPNU.
"Now that it's over, you just feel sorry for him," said Ault.
Hart created a lie of audacious proportions. It was a lie doomed at conception. After all, what did he think would happen when news of his "commitment" reached Cal? Or when the police probed just below the water line of his flimsy cover-up story (Hart told police he was duped by a fake recruiter, prompting a brief investigation)?
But there are more important questions to ask, such as, where were the adults in this football horror flick?
Tedford, Bellotti and Ault never set foot in Hart's home, never even contacted the family all standard recruiting doctrine when you're trying to sign a kid and yet, Hart's parents didn't think something was a little screwy? And wouldn't you think Fernley coach Mark Hodges might have been a teensy bit curious why nobody from Oregon, Cal or Nevada ever bothered with a visit, a phone call, a letter to him?
Or maybe they simply wanted to believe the unbelievable.
Fernley High principal Dave Regalado, when reached in his office Thursday morning, declined to comment on the situation. He referred all questions to Teri White of the Lyon County School District. White also was unavailable for comment.
The adults hid, but not Hart's classmates.
"I'm disappointed, but I'm not angry," said Sean Lewandowski, a Fernley High junior who writes for the school newspaper. "I texted him and told him that I stand by him."
Hart needs all the friends he can get these days. According to Lewandowski, Hart hasn't been at school since last Friday's event. And if and when he returns, Lewandowski said the reaction among the students will be "mixed." No standing O's this time.
As for football, Ault suggested Hart consider playing for a junior college program.
"But what if he wanted to walk on at Nevada?" I said.
There was a pause.
"I think it's best that we just let it lie," said Ault. "I think it would be very difficult for him here."
It's going to be difficult for him everywhere. At Fernley. At the next place he wears a football uniform. That's what happens when you become the latest cautionary tale of college recruiting.
"The people who have talked to him say he's really embarrassed, ashamed of himself," said Lt. Hall, whose own two sons played football at Fernley. "It sounds like he's learned his lesson."
Hall's investigation should be completed by early next week. The findings will be submitted to the district attorney, but Hall said he would be "surprised" if charges were filed against Hart for falsifying a police report.
Makes sense. The one truth in all of this is that nobody can do to Hart what he's already done to himself.
Comment of the judge, Mickey Spagnola: Really good job of reporting here, yet incorporating all the facts and all sides of the story into a commentary-type piece to give the reader a real feel for this strange, strange episode in high school recruiting.
► Second place: Michael Lev, The Orange County Register
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