August 24. That date is indelibly etched in Clifton Garrett's mind. No, it isn't his birthday. Or his girlfriend's. Or the anniversary of the day that Ohio State assistant coach Mike Vrabel called to offer a scholarship.
"It's the day we play Bolingbrook, our season opener," Garrett said. "I'm excited about that game. I want to play against (Illinois-bound quarterback) Aaron Bailey. I'm looking forward to the challenge. It will show how I match up against a big-time prospect."
Garrett is a big-time prospect, too. Plainfield South's 6-foot-2, 225-pound linebacker is one of the leading recruits in the class of 2014, with Marist tight end Nic Weishar, Prairie Ridge tackle Shane Evans, Bolingbrook defensive back Parker Westphal and Providence tackle Logan Plantz.
"I've seen him on film and he is one of the three top prospects in the sophomore class in Illinois," said recruiting analyst Tom Lemming of CBS Sports Network. "He has size and speed and a great upside.
"With the talent in the class of 2014, the Chicago area could be going back to where it was in the 1980s, when it ruled the roost with California as the leading producers of high school football talent in the country."
Garrett has seen Bailey before. In last year's season opener, Bailey and Bolingbrook crushed Plainfield South 40-16. Bolingbrook went on to win the Class 8A championship while Plainfield South finished 5-5.
"I watched the state final," Garrett said. "Bailey is big and fast and he can run. He's an overall good athlete. I hate losing. I love winning. I'm a big competitor. I'm looking forward to getting another chance to play against him."
In the meantime, Garrett is traveling the recruiting trail and preparing for his junior season. He has come a long way in a short time. He started playing football with the Plainfield Junior Cats as a seventh grader. But his missed his freshman year with a torn meniscus, which he injured while playing basketball. As a sophomore starter on the varsity, he led the team in tackles with 79, despite missing one game with a concussion.
College coaches have seen enough to rate him among the leading prospects in the class of 2014. Illinois offered on May 3, then Indiana. Ohio State offered on May 16, then Michigan State. He has interest from Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Kansas State, Iowa State and Northern Illinois. It's only the beginning.
"My dream school is Ohio State," he said. "I've been watching their games since I was young. I like the way they play defense. I'm impressed by the Horseshoe (Ohio Stadium), the fans, coaching staff and new coach Urban Meyer. I've read a lot about him.
"But I'm going to take my time. I'm surprised by what has happened. I didn't think it would happen so fast. Now I see that all my hard work is paying off. I was very excited when coach Vrabel offered me over the phone. It says to me that I'm doing what I need to do, that they like me and I like them."
Don't be in too big a hurry to put Garrett in a scarlet and gray uniform, however. He will attend Illinois' camp on June 8, Michigan State's camp on June 16 and Ohio State's camp on June 21. He hopes to visit the Notre Dame and Michigan State campuses later this summer. He said he doesn't plan to commit until after his junior year.
"Everybody tells me to make sure I make the right choice, not because of the staff or school colors or reputation." Garrett said. "I want to choose the right fit for me. It is very important to go to a school that will prepare me for the next level. The NFL has been a goal since I started to play football. I know the odds are small. But I try to make the odds bigger for myself. I try to be above average in everything I do."
"As a sophomore, he has a great upside," Plainfield South coach Ken Bublitz said. "He is still growing and still learning the game. He will be even better in college.
"There are two things about him that drew the attention of college coaches: the way in which he finishes plays, the way he tackles. He is a hard hitter. When he tackles people, they go backwards. Also his ability to run sideline to sideline with his size and speed."
Garrett hopes college coaches have seen the BolingbrookLincoln-Way East game film, especially the clip when Garrett sacks Lincoln-Way East quarterback Blake Winkler for a loss and forces a fumble. "It showed my explosiveness, my tackling ability and closing speed," he said.
When he played youth football, Garrett wore jersey number 76 because he was a lineman. He would have worn number 25 as a freshman had he been able to play. But he switched to number 40 as a sophomore because his favorite player is linebacker Vaughn Miller, the former Texas A&M All-American who was the Denver Broncos' first draft choice.
"Miller is a big linebacker with great speed and versatility. I relate to him a lot. I think I'm a mixture of him and (San Francisco 49ers linebacker) Patrick Willis. I look up to both of them a lot. My game matches up to them," Garrett said. "I like Dick Butkus, too, but I'm not into old-school players as much. I also like Lawrence Taylor and Ray Lewis."
Whether Garrett will someday measure up to any of them is still to be determined, of course, but he knows he can get a lot better and he is eager to create a tradition at a high school that is only 10 years old.
"I want to break some records...tackles, fumble recoveries, interceptions, tackles for loss...and leave my mark at the school," he said. "The school doesn't have much of a tradition. But I have two more seasons to go. Every team's goal is to go to state. We have time to establish a tradition of our own."