For four decades, the high school football program at Wyomissing Area has been the keystone of a community, a source of civic pride and the sort of team that inspires lifelong devotion in the kids who play there.
Nestled on the western border of Reading, Pennsylvania, Wyomissing is a town of a little more than 10,000, a close-knit community in a football-mad state.
Bob Wolfrum has been the coach for 31 years, presiding over a program that has resisted the temptation to "recruit" talented athletes from schools with less tradition, a favored tactic of storied programs all over the country.
"They really like the fact that they’re homegrown and that they play together from the time they’re little," Wolfrum said. "They take pride in that, that they play against the teams that bring guys in from outside."
Under Wolfrum, the Spartans have been successful enough and produced enough talent that he hasn't needed to look elsewhere. Dozens of players have been good enough to land college scholarships, and offensive lineman Ross Tucker and quarterback Matt Lytle made it all the way to the NFL.
But nobody inspired the kind of feeding frenzy that descended on Wolfrum's practice fields as Alex Anzalone did, placing the young linebacker into the pressure cooker of modern, high-profile recruiting and the expectations attached to that kind of attention.
"It was a little whirlwind at first, but it kind of settled down, and I just learned from the experiences," said Anzalone, now a rookie with the New Orleans Saints. "There’s not many 16-, 17-year-old kids that are able to say they experienced everything I did."
Life comes at you fast
Anzalone shot to the top of recruiting boards across the country in the course of a single offseason.
Always athletic, Anzalone started for Wolfrum as a 6-foot-1, 160-pound sophomore, part of a bumper crop of athletes that eventually produced 12 college players.
His skills were obvious, but he was skinny. Fully dedicated to football, Anzalone committed to turning himself into a prime recruit at the end of that sophomore season, and his family hired John Schaeffer of Winning Factor Sports Sciences Training Systems to shape and mold him.
When Anzalone returned to the field for his junior season, he was 220 pounds.
"He had worked that hard at it," Wolfrum said. "The big college coaches came in, and it was, 'Oh, boy, this guy’s special.' So you know, (he went) from a sophomore year where he’s just a decent player to we’re getting calls from everybody and their brother."
Calls started coming in to Wyomissing from college coaches all over the country. By the time Anzalone's junior season ended, Rivals.com and 247Sports.com rated him a five-star prospect, and the race was on.
Wolfrum looked around one day and saw coaches from Alabama, Ohio State and Penn State watching his practice. For a second, he marveled at the attention, then realized the presence of college coaches had become the norm.
"We had had some D-I kids; hadn’t had one for a while. And when I had the last one, the process was nowhere near what it is now," Wolfrum said.
College coaches have been chasing blue-chip recruits hard for decades, but the coverage of recruiting has exploded. Given the surge of recruiting services and the team-specific websites those outlets offer, a five-star prospect like Anzalone can find himself taking calls from dozens of reporters.
The attention gets even hotter when a prospect changes his plans a few times.
Anzalone originally committed to Ohio State in the spring of 2012, but a bizarre situation torpedoed that commitment. A month after his decision, a 31-year-old from Kentucky named Charles Waugh took pictures with him and other players, including now-Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa, at an Ohio State recruiting event and posted them on social media.
When it became public that Waugh had been convicted on child pornography charges four years earlier, Anzalone and his family decided to pull his commitment, shocked that someone with Waugh's background would be allowed near recruits.
Anzalone then committed to Notre Dame in November, only to start hearing rumors that Irish coach Brian Kelly was flirting with the Philadelphia Eagles. Two days before he was supposed to report to Notre Dame as an early enrollee, Anzalone changed his mind again, heading to his father's alma mater, Florida, because of Kelly's dalliances.
Fan bases have little patience for high-profile recruits who change their minds, and a mixture of vitriol and message-board rumors erupted every time Anzalone altered his decision. Fans speculated that his father, Salvatore, a pediatrician, was too involved in the process.
Another controversy took the presence of a single reply to a picture of Anzalone and then-Notre Dame star Manti Te'o — now a teammate in New Orleans — that drew a comment from an account belonging to Lennay Kekua, the online identity created to build a phantom relationship with Te'o, to be the reason he decided against Notre Dame, rather than the real concern over Kelly leaving.
All of the heat failed to leave too many burns.
"I have a good family," Anzalone said. "We just kept distractions out of it, which is how we handled it."
The player who showed up for Wyomissing that fall was the same player who had grown up with his teammates since their first days in youth football.
"He had a year and a half of everybody and their brother calling him and visiting from all the colleges, and you never would have known that he was any different from anybody else," Wolfrum said. "Everybody else on the team was just as important as he was. He was getting a lot more press than they were, but I never saw any jealousy or envy from the rest of the kids at all, and that was because of the way he handled it."
With Anzalone roaming the field and delivering awe-inspiring hits, Wyomissing finished 16-0 and knocked off iconic western Pennsylvania program Aliquippa in the final to win the school's first, and so far only, state championship.
Shouldering the pain
But the end of the recruiting process offers little relief from the heat bearing down on a prospect like Anzalone.
Fans expect five-star recruits to produce immediately, but the body Anzalone built so strong in Wyomissing let him down.
Enrolled early at Florida, he suffered a shoulder injury in spring practice as a freshman, then tore the labrum in his right shoulder while trying to make a tackle on a punt against Georgia Southern.
Anzalone returned to play in all 12 games as a sophomore backup and, after a coaching change brought renowned linebackers coach Randy Shannon to Florida, he entered his junior season as the prime player on the Gators defense.
But his shoulder didn't hold.
Two games into the 2015 season, Anzalone suffered a shoulder injury that stemmed from the repair of his labrum in 2013. Forced to take a redshirt on a Southeastern Conference defense that included future NFL draft picks Antonio Morrison and Jarrad Davis at linebacker, Anzalone ran the risk of becoming the high-profile recruit who faded away, unable to overcome injury.
"Especially being a bigger recruit, going to Florida with all of the expectations and not being able to perform to those expectations, it was disappointing, and it was hard times," Anzalone said. "I just kept grinding through all the injuries."
What fans couldn't see were the things Shannon saw in meeting rooms and on the practice field during the offseason. Shannon has coached 18 linebackers selected in the NFL draft, a list that includes Ray Lewis, Jonathan Vilma and Jon Beason as well as six other players taken in the first three rounds.
Shannon, who was promoted to defensive coordinator this offseason, begins preparing his charges for the NFL right away. He asks all his linebackers to learn all three positions — something Saints linebackers coach Mike Nolan has been doing during training camp this year — so they better understand how the entire defense functions.
"What I try to do in preparing the guys is that, if they have a chance to play in the NFL, they'll understand the game when they get there," Shannon said. "We did a lot of film study together in the offseason."
Shannon asks his linebackers to do homework off the film. After he went through video with Anzalone and Davis (a first-round pick by the Detroit Lions this year), he would ask each player to email him 10 to 12 "steals" from the film — tells that can be used to produce big plays in-game.
"Maybe we can get five or six negative run plays a game, because I can get a tipoff of a formation or somebody’s stance or alignment," Shannon said. "How can we get an interception? Just give me something, you know? Is it (easy to tell) run or pass?"
Anzalone had surgery to repair the leftover complications from the torn labrum and, when he finally returned to the field last season, Gators fans saw why he had generated so much hype.
Working with Davis, Anzalone piled up 53 tackles in eight games, sprinkling those performances with plenty of stolen plays: four tackles for loss, three sacks, two passes defended and a fumble recovery.
Then he broke his left forearm against Arkansas.
By then, it was clear Anzalone might have a chance to forego his final year of eligibility and enter the NFL draft, but he still tried to return for Florida's Outback Bowl appearance against Iowa.
"That’s what you want from a guy," Shannon said. "A guy like him, he could have said, 'I’m done; I’m not playing.' But he came back and tried to play in that bowl game. That tells you a lot about a young player."
Young, but mature
Anzalone's decision to avoid the risk of another injury and enter the NFL draft early paid off when the Saints selected him in the third round in April.
Seeing Anzalone go to the Saints sparked something in Shannon. When he needs a comparison for Anzalone, a Saints Hall of Fame member comes to mind.
"You know how smart Jon Vilma was?" Shannon said. "He’s smart like Vilma. ... But he plays differently than Jon; he's not flashy or flamboyant. You never notice him in the game, but all of a sudden he’ll have three tackles for loss, a sack and maybe like 12 tackles."
The bevy of veterans in the Saints' linebackers room has taken notice.
"Alex is a young player who’s really mature," Te'o said. "When I say 'mature,' I’m talking about his football IQ, his ability to take things from the classroom and apply it on the field."
Anzalone also benefited from Florida's defensive scheme, an advanced system that overlapped quite a bit with what he's learning in New Orleans.
Unlike other rookies who struggle with the mental transition, Anzalone is often a step ahead before the snap.
“He’s a guy that’s tough to fool," coach Sean Payton said. "The one thing he can do is to see a formation, begin to break it down and understand what he is going to get — run or pass.”
All that football knowledge has allowed his athleticism to flash on the practice field in training camp. Big and rangy at 6-foot-3 and 241 pounds, Anzalone ran the 40-yard dash in 4.63 seconds at the NFL scouting combine and placed among the top linebackers in all of the drills designed to test a player's ability to change direction quickly.
"I like his length as a linebacker, because a lot of times you’ll see these guys in contested situations down the field, but yet, with a lack of length, it’s hard to make the play," defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "I’d say he’s a little bit further along in pass coverage and he still has some things to improve in the run game, but I like his progress so far."
Two weeks into training camp, Anzalone is in the mix for a starting spot. The team's decision to release Dannell Ellerbe left an opening at weakside linebacker, and Anzalone has taken turns rotating with veteran Craig Robertson and 2015 first-round pick Stephone Anthony in the starting lineup.
Working with the second team in Thursday's preseason opener at the Cleveland Browns, Anzalone acquitted himself well, making three tackles and an acrobatic deflection of a pass downfield.
"He’s somebody that doesn’t shy away from competition, and I think that’s the biggest thing for any rookie coming in here — not getting stage fright," Te'o said.
Anzalone, who has been on the stage since his junior year of high school, has taken it all in stride, handling questions from the media in a calm, professional style, eschewing flashy sound bites in favor of a steady, measured approach to this training-camp competition.
He's handling it the way the people of Wyomissing would expect him to.
His family moved to Naples, Florida, after he enrolled to be close enough to see him play, but the community where he was raised left an indelible mark.
“I really realized it in college," Anzalone said. "Not everyone had the discipline, because of the family and the community support that I had. There’s a lot of good people coming out of Wyomissing, and I think that helped build me as a person."
The kind of person who won't be fazed by the glare of the spotlight.