To Ambrose Wooden, it's all about the gold. The gold helmet he'll wear to play football at the University of Notre Dame. The gold-colored Jeep Cherokee he hopes to get from his parents at high school graduation. The gold standard he has set for himself, academically, once he sets foot on the South Bend, Ind., campus.
"I just have to go there and be the same person I've been - the student, the leader," says Wooden, 18. "That's what [Notre Dame] wants from me. I can't break stride; I like the road I've taken."
The Gilman School quarterback sent his letter of intent to Notre Dame last Wednesday, ending months of search and stress. The Sun began reporting Wooden's recruitment last summer, though the courtship started in 2001. Since then, Wooden and his parents, who are divorced, have sloughed through a sea of scholarship offers and pitches from dozens of coaches to pick his school.
"At first it was nice, with everyone saying, 'We want you, we want you,' " says Wooden, The Sun's Offensive Player of the Year. "But it got overwhelming to the point where I was sick of it. Recruiting 'analysts' would call four or five times a night ... . Same question, over and over.
"Whoever invented Caller ID, thank you."
Weep not for Wooden. His athletic skills won him a scholarship worth $32,000 a year. His father is a bus driver; his mother works two jobs.
"This was a real blessing. ... How would I have paid for his college education?" asks his mother, Robin Petty, who lives in East Baltimore. "I'd have had to pull out everything I had in my 401(k) [retirement plan], worked three jobs and taken out loans galore."
There are strings attached, experts warn.
"Parents' eyes light up; they think they're off the hook. What they don't realize is that Charlie's scholarship is not a free ride but a contract to work his way through school in a very difficult job," says Murray Sperber, an American Studies professor at Indiana University who has written books critiquing college football.
"You wake up at 5 a.m., lift weights and take all morning classes because you have to work out all afternoon. Add the endless hours of watching tapes and meeting with coaches before you start studying at 9 p.m. after having your bell rung pretty good in practice."
Choosing a college, says Sperber, is "maybe the most important decision that kids make in life. And the same way that schools don't tell the average applicant stuff, like how hard it is to get into classes, the coaches tell athletes even less about the nature of their job."
What coach Tyrone Willingham told Wooden about playing for the Irish was enough to turn his head. The coach offered a shot at wide receiver (Wooden's first choice) and a jersey with his high school number (2). He promised mandatory study halls, personal tutoring and a noted business school (Wooden's intended major).
Most meaningful to him, Wooden says, is that Notre Dame graduates 73 percent of its African-American student-athletes - sixth best in Division I-A.
What Notre Dame requires in return is that Wooden, 6 feet 1, 190 pounds, keep his weight down and his grades up - a minimum 2.0 average, though the recruit has set his sights higher. "They have their standards; I have mine," he says.
Also, Willingham seemed to emphasize being well-rounded. For example, the coach said, "It's not all about football." Then he asked Wooden, "Have you thought about running for student government?"
Petty took that to mean Willingham "will motivate Ambrose to be more than an athlete." She also liked that Notre Dame football players room among other students rather than with athletes.
On campuses and in Baltimore, mother and son learned firsthand about NCAA recruiting rules. On the visit to Boston College, for instance, they were told to buy a T-shirt rather than expect a free one.
Wooden and Petty each declined to speak about the incident involving Wooden's Gilman teammate, Victor Abiamiri, who was the subject of an apparent recruiting violation. Maryland assistant coach Rod Sharpless gave him money that was later returned, sources say. Instead of attending Maryland, Abiamiri also will go to Notre Dame. Sharpless later resigned.
Wooden, asked if he was offered money or gifts during his recruitment, declined to comment.
But his mother had one thing to say on the subject: "I told Ambrose when this [recruiting] all started, he wasn't to take anything from anybody."
She discovered early that "anything" includes transportation. Last spring, Petty asked a Boston College coach who was scouting Wooden at a track meet if he could give her son a lift home. Not permissible, the coach replied.
Eventually, she learned that a college's videotapes are regulated, too. When a Stanford coach tried to show one about campus, Petty's VCR failed. She wanted to keep the tape to view later but was told no. Petty says that Maryland also refused to let her have one of its tapes.
Petty walked a fine line during the decision-making. Trying not to overly influence Wooden, she still used her intuition and observations to determine which way he was leaning, and why.
Wooden had narrowed his choices to Notre Dame, Stanford, Maryland and Boston College, whose head coaches all visited last month.
Petty says her son's body language gave his thoughts away.
When Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen and Sharpless arrived at the home, Wooden distanced himself. The coaches sat on a sofa in the living room; Wooden retrieved a chair from the dining room and sat stiffly.
"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, is it this bad?' " Petty recalls. "That's when I knew Maryland was out."
Talking with her son later, Petty says, she concluded that Ambrose felt Maryland's assistant coaches seemed too eager. "He said, 'Mom, they'd tell me anything to get me to go down there,' " she recalls.
Wooden was warmer during visits by Stanford and Boston College, whose coaches took one couch as Wooden sat on another.
As for Notre Dame, "I could tell the chemistry was there," she says. "Coach Willingham and Ambrose sat on the same couch and looked each other in the eye and talked."
It seems a good fit, says his father, Ambrose Wooden Sr.
"I voted for Stanford, but he seemed to have more glitter in his eye, and more spark in talking about Notre Dame. It's his future, not ours."