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Aiming for Perfection

Hoover High, which has won five Alabama state titles in six years, is the hottest high school football program in America, and this season its strong-armed QB and pass-happy offense are looking to make history

It's atar-meltin'-hot Friday night in July in Alabama, and Ross Wilson is once againwalking toward the brightest lights in his small city. With his helmet in hand,the 17-year-old quarterback for Hoover High strides through the double doors ofhis school's locker room and onto the asphalt road that leads to BuccaneerStadium. Before Ross reaches the field, he's stopped on the sideline by hisolder brother, John Parker Wilson, the starting quarterback at the Universityof Alabama. As Ross chats with John Parker, a former Parade All-America who ledthe Buccaneers to state titles in 2002 and '03, a seven-year-old boyapproaches, holding a football and a pen, and asks for an autograph from themost famous football player in all of Hoover. The brothers smile, and then JohnParker takes a half step back while Ross gladly scribbles his name on the ball,then turns and strides onto the field.

The Southeastern Select 7-on-7 Tournament in Hoover is one of the biggest highschool football events of the summer. Twenty teams representing 11 states havetraveled to Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham, to showcase their quarterbacks,receivers and defensive backs for recruiting analysts from around the nation inwhat is, essentially, a glorified version of touch football--the quarterbackhas four seconds to throw, defensive players can't rush, there are no runningplays and no linemen, and tackles are made simply by the touch of a hand.

Hoover's opponenttonight is perennial power Huguenot High of Richmond, but it takes just secondsfor the Falcons to see why Hoover, SI's preseason No. 1 team (below), is themost successful big-time high school football program in America. On the game'sfirst play Wilson takes the snap, drops back and looks to his right. No one'sopen, so his head snaps left, and he quickly zeros in on a receiver 25 yardsdownfield sprinting toward the sideline. Wilson pivots, sets his feet andslings a crisp, tight spiral that the receiver catches in stride just before heruns out-of-bounds. The unlucky defensive back shakes his head, the crowd roarsand the jaws of several scouts bounce off the grass.

Hoover goes on tobeat Huguenot 40--13, and in the first two games of the tournament Wilsoncompletes 37 of 45 passes and throws for nine touchdowns. The games are ashowcase for Hoover's high-flying, high-scoring and highly complex passingoffense. The no-huddle attack was the first of its kind in Alabama when headcoach Rush Propst installed it seven years ago, and, like a neon sign flashingHELP WANTED, it has enticed some talented players to transfer to the school.Every high school football player in the state--and beyond--probably wishes hecould run and gun for the Buccaneers, who throw the ball around like kids in asandlot and try to score on every play. "Around here," says Propst,"we call it 'basketball on grass.'"

One hundredfive-alarm chicken wings are stacked on a tray in the main Hoover footballoffice, and the Buccaneers' 13 coaches are at the trough. As Propst, 48, worksthrough his plateful of wings, his cellphone bleats. He checks the caller I.D.but doesn't answer. "Another college coach trying to get me to convince oneof my players to commit," he says matter-of-factly between bites.

Of all thestatistics testifying to Hoover's dominance on the football field--five statechampionships in the last six years in Alabama's largest football division,Class 6A; an 84--5 record since 2000; an average margin of victory during thelast three years of 27 points--this one may be the most impressive: 61% of theBucs' starters have earned scholarships to a Division I-A, Division I-AA orDivision II school since 2001. Even two nonstarters got I-AA scholarships.

Eighteen playerson this year's Hoover squad have already received scholarship offers. It'slikely that a dozen of those players will be on Division I rosters next season.Three of them are among the most coveted recruits in the country: offensivelineman Ryan Pugh, a 6'3", 270-pound road grader who has orally committedto Auburn; defensive tackle Kerry Murphy, a 6'5", 318-pound house of brickswho has narrowed his choices to Alabama, Auburn and Miami; and defensive endJosh Chapman, a 6'1" 280-pounder with a neck-snapping first step who hasorally committed to Auburn. Ironically, one of the few Buccaneers who doesn'thave a football scholarship lined up is the team's best player. Wilson has yetto receive any football offers from big-time Division I-A schools because he'sconsidered undersized at 5'11" and has orally committed to playing baseballat Alabama. (He is a shortstop.) "If Ross were two inches taller--hisbrother had a growth spurt when he got to college--every school in the countrywould be begging for him," says Miller Safrit, a recruiting analyst "He's clearly got the arm to be a very, very good collegeplayer."

A few weeks afterhe was hired as Hoover's football coach in January 1999, Propst got a clearlook at the challenge before him. He was eating dinner at a local restaurantwhen a woman approached his table. Jabbing a finger at Propst, she askedpointedly, "Are you going to be one of those coaches who run the ball upthe middle three times and then punt?"

"Ma'am, letme make you a promise," said Propst. "We are going to have the mostunorthodox offense in all of high school football. I will put you on the edgeof your seat."

Before hisarrival Hoover football had taken a backseat in an otherwise football-crazyregion. From 1994 to '98 the Bucs had only one winning season, and the majorityof the school's best athletes played basketball or baseball, but not football.To resuscitate the program, Hoover superintendent Jack Farr hired Propst, anative of Ohatchee, Ala., who in 1998 had guided Alma Bryant High of Irvington,Ala., to a 12--1 record and the state quarterfinals.

Propst quicklydecided that the best way to make Hoover a power was to run a wide-open,no-huddle, spread passing attack, so he asked Kentucky head coach Hal Mumme,who ran the offense Propst hoped to install, if he could be an observer duringthe Wildcats' spring practices. Mumme agreed. The only catch? Propst, who hadto be at work in Hoover each weekday morning to coach and teach, had to figureout how to get to the afternoon practices in Lexington, 411 miles away, andback home again a dozen times during a four-week span.

"Turns out wehad a guy here in Hoover who had his own plane, and he gave me a ride,"says Propst. "It became clear real quick how committed this community is toits football team."

Once on theKentucky campus, Propst shadowed Mumme and Wildcats offensive coordinator MikeLeach--now the head coach at Texas Tech--during practices and sat in on alltheir film sessions. Mumme even opened his playbook and film room to Propst,who spent hours studying the Wildcats' offense. "Rush couldn't get enoughof talking ball," recalls Tony Franklin, who was an assistant at Kentuckyin '99 and is now the offensive coordinator at Troy. "I thought the offensewould be perfect for high school. Kids don't like to play smashmouth footballlike they used to. But if you play pitch and catch all day, the athletes willcome out."

Before his firstpractice at Hoover, Propst approached one of the school's top athletes, DannyRumley, a speedy 6'3", 210-pound basketball star who had never tried outfor the football team. "You come down to the field and don't wearpads," Propst told Rumley. "Come on now, give me a chance."

The next dayPropst unveiled his pass-happy offense. In the first 30 minutes of practice,Rumley, playing wide receiver, caught about 50 passes in drills simulating gameconditions. Afterward he excitedly asked Propst if he could be on the team."That's when the flood began," says Propst. "Once Danny toldeveryone that he was going to play, all the best athletes in school cameout."

As Propst taughthis players the intricacies of the offense, he also spread the gospel of hispassing attack to the Hoover football community. Propst invited everyyouth-league football coach in the area to the Hoover High campus for a two-dayclinic, during which he diagrammed the offense he had learned from Mumme andencouraged even the coaches of fourth-graders to use the same plays andterminology Propst would be calling out on Friday nights in the fall. If he wasgoing to build a long-term winner, Propst told the coaches, he needed them toteach his offense and his defense to the kids in the youth leagues.

One of thecoaches at the clinic was Parker Wilson, a fifth-grade coach who had two youngboys--an eighth-grader named John Parker and a fifth-grader named Ross--whowere already displaying big-time arms. "I put in Rush's offense," saysWilson, 47, a sales director at Lucent Technologies. "The kids loved hisstyle." That fall, footballs began flying through the air all over Hoover.In Propst's first year the Buccaneers had their first winning record since1995, finishing 7--3. A year later they won their first state championship, andthey haven't lost more than one game in a season since.

At least once aweek Hoover athletic director Jerry Browning gets a call from a parent wholives in another school district--sometimes even in another state--and wants toknow how his or her son can transfer to Hoover to play football. There's noopen enrollment in Alabama, which means all of Hoover's players must live witha parent or guardian within the school district. "We get accused ofrecruiting kids all the time," says Browning. "But kids want to playfor winners, so we get a lot of calls from students looking totransfer."

On March 7Browning got one of those calls. Army Lieut. Col. Samuel Clear had phoned tosay that his family was moving to Alabama from Williamsburg, Va., because hehad been reassigned, and his two sons were interested in playing for Hoover.When Clear mentioned that his twin boys stood 6'5", weighed about 210pounds and ran 4.5 40s, Browning nearly swallowed his phone. Brandon was a widereceiver who'd already caught the attention of college coaches; Byron was adefensive lineman who'd been invited to several top scouting combines. That wasone of the better days for the Hoover football program.

"I wanted toget my boys into a program that would develop their talent," says Clear,who will be stationed in Montgomery, Ala., which is 83 miles from Hoover, whenhe begins leadership training at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Basenext month. "I don't consider it a sacrifice that I have to drive a ways toget to work. This decision was a no-brainer."

The Clearbrothers, who began their senior year at Hoover on Aug. 9, first heard aboutHoover football when the Bucs pounded Nease (Ponte Vedra, Fla.) High 50--29last Aug. 27 in a game shown on ESPN--the network's first high school footballbroadcast. As Brandon--who has offers from Stanford, Syracuse, Duke andArmy--watched Bucs quarterback Ross Wilson fling the ball all over the field,he called his dad into the living room. "That's the kind of offense I wantto play in!" Brandon yelled.

A few monthslater, when Clear told his sons that they were all moving to Alabama, the twinsknew immediately where they wanted to go to school: Hoover.

Ross Wilson isdriving his mother's silver BMW through the sleepy back streets of Hoover, anaffluent community of 67,500. As the blond-haired, blue-eyed Wilson approacheshis house on this rainy summer evening, he ponders the fact that he is daysfrom becoming one of the most famous high school seniors in America. Beginningon Aug. 23, MTV will feature Wilson in a new reality series called Two-a-Days.MTV cameras followed Wilson's every move last season--both on and off thefield--as he led Hoover to its fourth straight state championship, and thenetwork has edited all that footage down to eight shows that will air eachWednesday until Oct. 11.

"I'm one ofthe only guys who didn't like all the cameras," says Wilson. "I reallyjust like being a normal kid."

Propst remembersthe first time he saw Wilson throw a football. Wilson was in fifth grade,running Hoover's no-huddle offense at one of the fields at Hoover EastBallpark, where many of the youth leagues play. "Man, he was winging thatball everywhere, showing no fear," says Propst.

Wilson beganpracticing with the varsity players in informal workouts the summer before hestarted seventh grade--alongside his brother, who was the team's starting QB bythe end of his sophomore season. As a junior last season Wilson completed 67.3%of his passes for 2,950 yards and 31 touchdowns. He may be short, but he seldomunderthrows his receivers--he can heave a ball 70 yards without mucheffort.

That arm strengthwill be tested on Sept. 1 when Hoover travels to Tulsa to play Union High,which has a 57-game home winning streak. The trip to the Sooner State for thetelevised game on Fox Sports Net will cost Hoover, whose players and coacheswill fly on a chartered plane, $108,930. Hoover spends an average of $450,000 ayear on football, including travel expenses, meals, uniforms and pads. All ofit is comes from gate receipts, concessions and fund-raising. Although Nikesupplies the coaches with shoes and apparel, Propst is constantly pounding onthe doors of local businesses asking for donations. "We do spend a lot ofmoney," says Parker Wilson, who is president of the Buccaneer TouchdownClub, founded in 1999, which has close to 300 members and raises roughly$450,000 annually. "But we do it to create a championship atmosphere."Hoover operates more like a big-time college program than a typical high schoolteam; Bucs players sometimes stay in hotels the night before home games, enjoylavishly catered pregame meals and receive a police escort to and from HooverMetropolitan Stadium, where the Buccaneers play most of their home games."Here at Hoover we do everything first-class," says Wilson.

With his baseballcap pulled low on his forehead, the Crimson Tide's starting sophomorequarterback squints into the hellish Alabama sun and watches his brother takeon Shreveport, La.--based Evangel Christian Academy, the defending Class 1ALouisiana state champions, in the semifinals of the seven-on-seven tournament."It's like playing at a college when you're at Hoover," he says."You get to school before class in the morning, and you watch film withcoaches. You watch more film after school. And then you work your tail off inpractice. Hoover totally prepared me to play at Alabama."

Out on the fieldit's another track meet for the Bucs. The younger Wilson is firing the ballleft and right, deep and short, connecting several times with his newestreceiver, Brandon Clear, who looks like a budding Randy Moss as he leaps overdefenders for acrobatic catches. Propst strolls along the sideline, intenselyfocused, nodding his head in approval after each completion. The fans rise totheir feet when the final whistle blows; Hoover wins an atypically low-scoringgame 19--17 and advances to face Shiloh Christian of Springdale, Ark., in thechampionship. (Lightning later forces the title game to be canceled--and deniesHoover the chance to defend its title.)

After the gamePropst is sitting in his office. On a shelf behind him rest the five statechampionship trophies he's won at Hoover. "After winning consecutivetitles, we sometimes have trouble finding motivation around here--but not thisyear," he says. "This is the best team I've ever had at Hoover. We'realready talking about going 16--0. Nothing short of perfection will betolerated."

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More than 60% of Hoover's starters have earnedDivision I-A, I-AA or II scholarships since 2001. Even two nonstarters gotI-AA scholarships.

The Clears first heard about Hoover when itplayed on ESPN. "That's the kind of offense I want to play in!" Brandonyelled.

Propst invited every youth coach in the area to aclinic to learn his offense. That fall, footballs began flying all overHoover.



Photographs by Gary Bogdon

RARIN' TO THROW Wilson's prolific arm will be tested when he and Hoover take on Union (Okla.) High on Fox Sports Net on Sept. 1.




Photographs by Gary Bogdon

BIG LITTLE MAN At 5'11", Wilson is considered too small to be a big-time prospect, but he's a celebrity in his hometown.


Photographs by Gary Bogdon

FAMILY BUSINESS Football's a way of life for the Wilsons, clockwise from left: Ross, John Parker, Marlo, Susan, Peyton and Parker.


Photographs by Gary Bogdon

TWIN KILLING Transfers Byron (left), a DL, and WR Brandon Clear gave Hoover more size and speed on both sides of the ball.


Photographs by Gary Bogdon

RING LEADER Propst brought Kentucky's wild spread passing attack to Hoover in '99 and already has five state titles.


Photographs by Gary Bogdon

 ASENIORS MOMENT Propst (center) believes his veteran team--starring, from left:Byron Clear, OL Ryan Pugh, DL Kerry Murphy, Wilson, OL Patrick Crump, DL JoshChapman, LB Michael DeJohn and Brandon Clear--is his best ever, and capable ofgoing an unprecedented 16-0.