KANSAS CITY, KAN. — In a vacant classroom on the ground floor of Washington High, Darrell Stuckey interrupts himself and points at the television screen in the corner.
"Watch this," he says.
It's Darrell Stuckey on the screen, streaking up the left sideline untouched for a score during a football game last fall. His strides are graceful, and each one puts a little more space between him and the opponent.
"That's the longest run I've ever had," Stuckey says with a smile.
At 99 yards, they can't get much longer, really. But what were the Kansas City Kansas League champion Wildcats doing pinned at the one-yard line to begin with?
"I intercepted a pass at the one," Stuckey says, "then I ran it 99 yards on the next play."
While Stuckey talks football with best friend Grady Henderson, his senior highlight tape keeps going ... and going ... and going. The broken tackles pile up, as do the interceptions, touchdown runs and touchdown receptions. Stuckey obviously has Division-One talent, with breakaway speed, ice-cold instincts, hands softer than a pillow and a head straighter than a fly route.
And to think, Kansas University already had offered him a full scholarship BEFORE he made any of the plays on this lengthy tape.
Today, Darrell Stuckey will follow through on a promise he made 229 days ago, in an era where 17- and 18-year old prospects give similar oaths, but bend, buckle and back out when their word is tested against another school's sales pitch.
The fact that Stuckey made no headlines in the last eight months is a story in itself, it seems. His football skills were hidden in a low-budget, low-attention neighborhood, at Washington in urban Kansas City, Kan.
Recruiting analysts now admit they underestimated Stuckey's game. Far inferior players in surrounding counties received more hype than Stuckey did, and certainly developed their talents in better working conditions.
But KU coach Mark Mangino noticed the 6-foot-1, 188-pound playmaker right away. Stuckey's game film from his junior year, followed by a sparkling showing at KU's camps in June, were enough evidence for the Jayhawks to offer a full scholarship. Stuckey graciously accepted June 18, 2004, at the time becoming the second player to commit to KU for the 2005 season.
Since then, more than 25 recruits have given commitments to the Jayhawks. But more than a half dozen backed out before today's signing day, consistent with a disturbing national trend of prospects enjoying the post-commitment love -- and then giving in to it.
Stuckey got the love, too -- more than a dozen major-conference schools tried to lure him after June 18 -- but he took pride in his promise, and because of that, his letter of intent will inch its way out of Mangino's fax machine today, a fresh signature gracing the bottom of it.
Washington's student body will applaud Stuckey at a ceremony this morning. He'll put on a KU hat while filling out the paperwork. And television cameras, finally, will make their way to KCK and point at him, zooming in on a gifted athlete who made a lot out of a little -- and stuck to his word in an age when it seems popular not to.
A small building next to the football stadium shared by Washington and Schlagle high schools is home to the Wildcats' aging weight room.
It isn't pretty.
The dumbbells are rusted and discolored, the result of thousands of hands gripping them over the years. Of the two mirrors in the room, one has corners cracked off, and simply is leaning against the wall. A few of the leather benches are torn up, and new, cutting-edge equipment designed to maximize results are nowhere to be found.
The lifting area is the size of a classroom, making Darwin Franklin's job as head coach of Washington's football program all the more difficult. Just think of how those high-budget schools have it, the same ones Washington goes up against come postseason every year.
"Look at this place," Franklin says, trying to prove an oft-debated point of how Stuckey and other players from urban schools are at a disadvantage out of the gate. "We've got to create our own lifts in here. We do lifting in shifts because it's so small."
While Stuckey and Henderson grip dumbbells on the floor and do push-ups, Franklin elaborates on his coaching philosophies at Washington -- an unselfish style of football with rewards for hard work and punishments for egocentric attitudes.
"You can feel like the cornerstone of the team. I can't do anything about that," Franklin says. "But you never say that in a team setting."
Stuckey understood. On the football field this year, he rushed for 1,234 yards as the featured running back, had 432 yards receiving, grabbed eight interceptions and took two of them back for scores. He seemed to be the cornerstone of the 7-2 Wildcats in 2004.
But, consistent with his creed, Franklin hesitates to admit as much, and Stuckey flat-out won't. Off the field, Stuckey was the leader that coaches dream of -- a good student and a stellar role model, a guy the freshmen and sophomores look up to and think, "That can be me, if I work hard enough."
As good as he was in football, though, Stuckey just may have been better at baseball. His junior year, he hit .604, crushed six homers and stole 17 bases in 17 tries.
He could've been a Division-One baseball player, too -- maybe even a draft pick next summer. But along with his promise to Mangino was a promise to himself that he'd dedicate his energy to the sport that's giving him a free education he can feed off of for the rest of his life.
As a result, he's forgoing his senior year on the baseball diamond, instead focusing on training for Big 12 Conference football.
"It was a pretty easy choice, actually," Stuckey says.
Too often, a degree means squat to the college athlete. But Stuckey -- who has a 3.1 grade-point average at Washington -- seems almost giddy that a top-quality college education will be paid for. Saying so long to baseball was a small sacrifice for such a reward.
His union with KU was quick and quiet, almost too simple to be true. After turning heads at a one-day camp, Mangino asked Stuckey to come back to Lawrence for a three-day residential camp for further evaluation in June. Stuckey politely declined, citing a long-planned trip to a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp as a priority.
Eventually, the two sides met in the middle, and Stuckey went to Lawrence for the first day before bolting for the FCA camp. He once again impressed the KU coaches, and while he was away strengthening his relationship with God -- and praying that his college recruiting all would work out -- KU assistant Dave Doeren had an offer waiting for him when he got home.
Stuckey could've mulled it over for a few months. Heck, Doeren and Mangino expected him to.
But the truth was, Kansas was Stuckey's No. 1 school before anyone started talking to him. Stuckey had admired Mangino's coaching style since the day he was hired in 2002.
Stuckey dreamed of representing the state of Kansas, where he's called home his whole life. The state-of-the-art Anderson Family Strength Center on KU's campus was quite an upgrade from the dark, cramped weightroom where he developed his frame next to Washington's football stadium.
A few days after KU extended the offer, Stuckey politely said, "Yes, I commit," to Doeren over the phone.
"Really?" Doeren replied.
The exchange still makes Stuckey chuckle.
"I was surprised," Stuckey said, "that HE was surprised."
Word is bond
Ironically, the biggest kick in the butt for Stuckey's recruiting was his promise to Kansas. After that, Big Ten and other Big 12 schools instantly became more aggressive, begging for a visit, pleading for a change of heart.
Hey, it works on an awful lot of high school recruits. Why would Stuckey be any different?
"They think, 'Well, what are we missing out on?'" Franklin says. "I noticed it."
Franklin had no explanation as to why so many high school seniors flip-flop their commitments so often. But the nasty trend has broken a dam supported by the once-sacred bond of a man's word. College coaches, feasting for talent, dive in for the vulnerability of a confused teenager.
This is what football recruiting has come to. With no early-signing period, it's open season until the first week of February, and to pass the time, coaches sling mud and steal commitments, a never-ending cycle that's never pretty.
They tried with Stuckey, too. But for once, a 17-year old showered with praise and endless love said no.
"I've always told these guys to think long and hard before making a decision," Franklin says, "and then stick with it."
Darrell Stuckey did. Now, he has his Jayhawk cap ready to wear this morning while signing his letter of intent. It was planned to end this way for 229 days, but just the fact that it will is a sigh of relief in the cut-throat world of college football recruiting.
Stuckey, it seems, gives the business a sliver of hope. And all he had to do was keep one measly promise.