Editorís note: This story originally published on Jan. 22, 2012. Since Berkeley Prep alumnus Nelson Agholor is set to play in this yearís Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles, we thought our readers might enjoy a blast from the past.
A glorious midday sun presides over Berkeley Prepís campus as its most famous athlete strolls down a sidewalk by the tennis courts.
Nelson Agholorís stomach grumbles as his smartphone hums. Lunch beckons, but so does a local reporter, the latest in a litany of them who call, text, tweet or, in this case, make an old-fashioned appointment. After all, the indefatigable beast that is college football recruiting needs perpetual pabulum.
On this day, one of the nationís most coveted prospects has chosen to feed it first. If time allows, heíll grab an empanada later. "It gets to the point where you want to be normal," says Agholor, just a wisp of his native Nigeria in his accent. "You love the game of football Ö but this isnít the game of football."
Clearly, the conglomeration of letters, trips, in-home visits and calls segued from novelty to nuisance long ago. Few in the bay area have been hyped and hailed, assessed and analyzed, probed and prodded like this angular 180-pounder with the soft voice and softer brown eyes.
But at least those eyes now can finally see the end of the process.
Once he makes the last of his five official visits ó to the University of Southern California ó at the end of the month, Agholor will ponder his options with his loved ones, inform the schools he doesnít choose and announce his decision (likely on Feb. 1).
"I donít want to say itís concrete, but Iíd like to just sign on (national) signing day just like everybody else," said Agholor, who received the Guy Toph Award on Thursday as Hillsborough Countyís top senior football player.
"I donít want to be the guy that postpones it, leaves everybody in suspense. Thatís not for me."
Then and only then, perhaps, he can go back to just being Nelson Agholor.
But that raises a glaring question: Exactly who is Nelson Agholor?
An enigma, yes, but still a typical teen
Almost by rote, virtually every recruitnik in cyberspace can recite Agholorís dimensions (6 feet 2, 180 or thereabouts), senior year rushing total (1,983 yards), projected college position (receiver) and quintet of favorite schools (Florida, FSU, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, USC).
Beyond that, the fourth of Felix and Caroline Agholorís five kids is a bit more evasive, at least in terms of his personal life. Much like Agholor the tailback, Agholor the human can be tough to nail.
He politely declines to spell his Nigerian middle name or even translate its meaning. Heíd also prefer you didnít contact his folks (Felix Agholor, who works in the physical plant at USF, didnít respond to an interview request).
But those closest to him describe a gregarious, charming 18-year-old who slaps high-fives with Berkeleyís elementary-aged kids, loves The Simpsons, devours his momís fufu (a pasty African vegetable dish) and his godmotherís mushroom rice, and snores like nobodyís business.
"Itís like a horn," joked Tampa Prep basketball star and Butler University signee Devontae Morgan, one of his best friends. "He wakes up the whole house."
Spend an hour or so with Agholor personally, and you find an articulate senior who looks you in the eye when he speaks, oozes politeness, refuses to be roped into an online recruiting scrum and brandishes a perspective belying his birth certificate.
"We would have a house full of kids at my house a lot, and Nelson would be over in the corner studying," said Leslie Berlin, mother of one of Agholorís closest friends to whom Agholor refers as his godmother.
"We had to make a little special place for him (a desk at the end of a long hallway) that was his quiet study place for him. ... Heís just got maturity thatís way beyond his years. And yet heís still funny and goofs off a little bit, which is really fun."
New life in Tampa molds a young man
The Agholor family arrived in New York from Lagos, Nigeria ó where Felix had been well educated and played high-level soccer ó when Nelson was 5. Older brother Franklin said the family, which didnít yet include youngest sister Ruby, had planned to settle in Maryland.
When relatives couldnít be reached, Franklin said, the family was taken in by other relatives in Carrollwood after boarding a train for Orlando, then a bus for Tampa. When Nelsonís parents found work, the family settled in a three-bedroom apartment near USF.
"My dad and my mom made sacrifices, whatever they needed to make, to move the family to the states," said Agholor, who has an older brother (Franklin) in junior college and a sister (Valerie) in nursing school. "Itís just what they wanted in our lives, to be here."
It was in the Suitcase City patch of northeast Tampa, besmirched by heavy crime and seedy influences, that Franklin says his younger brother developed a "street savvy" out of necessity and learned to think on his feet - traits that would assist him in the recruiting process.
Developing football skills, while playing for at least three local youth teams, would come later. Initially, Franklin said, Nelson was awful.
"Nelson was about that big," said Franklin, putting a centimeter between his thumb and index finger. "A toothpick. He was quick, he wasnít fast. He just wanted to play. He just liked doing it because his older brother (Felix Jr.) and I played."
His talents ó and grades ó ameliorated with stunning concurrence.
A natural, national talent emerges
By the latter part of middle school, Nelson was a game-changer on the Liberty Middle School flag football team, dual-threat quarterback for the Lutz Chiefs and, perhaps most significantly, an A student.
In eighth grade, he was named one of Libertyís Turnaround Achievement Award winners.
"I come from an area where a lot of people, they didnít really stay in high school that long. They just went to the local school or whatnot for as much as they could," he said.
"They were all good people Ö but I told myself I would go somewhere different, and different for me ended up being a private school."
He arrived at Berkeley in 2008 as a 6-foot-1, 156-pound freshman. He exits with 4,732 rushing yards, 921 receiving yards, 12 interceptions and eight kickoff returns for touchdowns.
"What separates Agholor from his peers is that he is incredibly explosive and elusive with the ball in his hands," said Chris Nee, the state of Floridaís recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.
"He has the versatility and ability to play on either side of the ball, but at the end of the day he is just too good with the ball in his hands not to use him on the offensive side of the ball."
Toss a dart anywhere on a U.S. map, and Agholor could go there to attend college and play football. As if sorting through Fortune 500 job offers, he has whittled his choices, relying on introspection and counsel. When his playing career ends, he has told some heíd like to coach.
"When I asked him about what level heíd like to teach," Berlin said, "he said high school because thatís where the dream begins."
Aha. This, you finally realize, is the story Agholor has been mostly reticent to tell, the one in which siblings and surrogates fill in the holes. Itís the story of a dream. More specifically, an American one.
This is who Nelson Agholor is.
Joey Knight can be reached at [email protected]