You expect a certain reaction from a kid who has just heard his athletic ability lauded before thousands of radio listeners. A couple cartwheels, maybe. An attack of happy feet. A hug for the family dog.
But George Sagen just smiled and took a swig from his water bottle. So the Los Alamitos High receiver was the subject of a radio call-in show. So people he had never heard of were analyzing his talent over the air waves.
"Pretty good receiver, don't you think?" "He doesn't drop many." "Can you see him at BYU?" "Yeah, I can see him there . . . "
What was Sagen supposed to do, believe everything they said? No way. That's how you get in trouble. That's how you find yourself outrunning an avalanche of expectations.
Sagen, the county's leading receiver last season, has seen it happen plenty of times. Athletes who were high school heroes, the guys who got loads of press and attention, were left scurrying for a scholarship--any scholarship--come signing day. Everybody told them they were Division I prospects, and they believed it. They bragged about accepting full rides that, in the end, were never offered.
Sagen, a senior, was close to running that route last year. Letters from college recruiters were pouring in, spilling over into Sagen's ego. He started thinking ahead. Started seeing "Division I" wherever he looked, from the inside of his locker to the pages of his chemistry book. His grades began to slip. But he looked the other way.
"I was flaking around," Sagen says. "My sister was like, 'What are you doing? Don't throw everything you've accomplished away now.' "
His parents offered a few choice words as well. Apparently, their point was well taken.
Listening to Sagen today, it's difficult to imagine he ever lost his grip on scholarship reality. His outlook is positive, but realistic. He's as down to earth as a rabbit hole.
At 6 feet 1, with 4.75 speed in the 40, he knows he's not quite tall or quick enough to be the wide receiver every college recruiter seeks. He figures that--unlike his longtime friend and hot prospect, quarterback Tim Carey--he might have to take what he can get.
And if it's nothing? Then that's the way it goes. Of course, the recruiters indicate otherwise.
Step into the Sagens' kitchen, open the file drawer (just to the left of the refrigerator) and peer into a vast collection of correspondence--letters, brochures, questionnaires--sent from colleges. There's enough to wallpaper the White House.
And oh what inspiring reading it makes. A sample:
Dear George: You have been recommended to us as an outstanding student-athlete. . . . (Iowa State)
Dear George: You have been recommended to us as an outstanding student-athlete. . . . (Arizona)
Dear George: You have been highly recommended as a prospective student-athlete. . . . (Colorado State)
Dear George: You have been recommended to us as an outstanding young man and football player. . . . (BYU)
The personalization doesn't stop there. Some letters actually include an authentic rubber stamping of the head coach's signature.
Then there's the questionnaire, a seemingly innocent inquiry into each prospect's life. But think about it. Why would Cal ask a boy to list his three favorite musicians? Does the coach hope to borrow his albums someday? And why would Colorado want to know the name of his best friend? Would it concern them if he answered, "My invisible pal, Gunther"?
One questionnaire asked Sagen to rate--on a scale from 0 (lowest) to 5 (highest)--his enjoyment for 49 separate activities. Among them, Sagen gave "Working With Your Hands" a 5, "Playing Cards" a 4, and "Sleeping In" a 3.
He awarded only two zeros--to "Watching Soap Operas" and "Aerobics." Talk about pressure. What if the coach's wife was an "All My Children" aerobics buff? Would Sagen's file instantly be tossed into the shredder?
Altogether, these are pretty serious concerns for a 17-year-old boy who still stares up from his bed at night to see a galaxy of glow-in-the-dark stars glued to his ceiling. A boy who's still boy enough to equip his room with a "Where's Waldo?" light switch cover.
Truth is, Sagen's quite grown up about the entire recruiting process. He doesn't take the field worrying about the scouts in the stands, or how good his statistics will look if he catches more passes than anyone else. He's just going to make the best of it.
"The thing is," he says, "you can either make it into an ego trip or a lot of fun. I decided I'd try to make it fun.
"If I get a scholarship, great. If I don't, I don't. My job is to go out, work hard, catch some balls and have fun. That's the way I look at it."
And if colleges are looking his way, all the better.