High School sports

The next big thing?

Wearing slightly faded jeans that hang low but comfortably over white sneakers, Tavon Austin glides through the busy hallway of Dunbar High.

Under his left arm, he carries a notebook and a binder. On his wrists are names tattooed in dark, cursive lettering. His grandmother's name, Louann, is on his right wrist. His mother's name, Cathy, is on his left.

Girls walk up to him and pull at his oversized hoodie, which drapes loosely over a lime-green collared polo shirt. They giggle as they say his name. He can't help but smile.

Farther down the hall, some football players lean casually against dark blue, rusting lockers. The afternoon sun shines through and illuminates their laughing faces.

When Austin approaches the group, he blends in easily, trading barbs and slapping hands with friends. Austin is soft-spoken, but when he talks, everyone listens.

It's good to be Tavon Austin.

College coaches are enamored of Dunbar's superstar running back, and they hope to bring his skills and speed to their campuses in 2009.

Dunbar faculty and alumni watch him with pride, as his ability shines a spotlight on the program. His classmates and teammates cheer him on and want to see him one day play in "The League."

They all gravitate toward this 17-year-old because they wonder what he can become. Will he be The Next Big Thing?

This scene plays itself out across the United States, from California to Maine. Austin, a junior, is trying to join an exclusive group of athletes who carry that "wow" factor. He's the type of athlete who could be the next LaDainian Tomlinson or Reggie Bush.

Austin stands just 5 feet 9 and weighs 160 pounds, but with a football in his hands he's one of the most exciting players in Baltimore.

"He's the type of kid, when you put the ball in his hands, he's going to score," Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith said. "That's a luxury for a coach, knowing that anytime he touches the ball, we may get six out of it."

He looks effortless doing it.

Against Lake Clifton on Oct. 12, the Poets faced fourth-and-20. Rather than punt, they gave the ball to Austin. He weaved through the Lakers' defense for a 52-yard touchdown.

"The first time he touched the ball, the first practice of his freshman year, I knew he would be special," Smith said. "His vision was remarkable. His speed and vision, you just can't teach that."

In demand
When the final school bell rings, Austin leaves the loud and crowded hallways and steps into Smith's office.

Stacks of envelopes and letters await him.

Austin's smile fades and his expression becomes serious when he starts sifting through the envelopes, with return addresses from universities like Alabama, Illinois, Ohio State, Auburn, Syracuse, Arizona State and Florida State. In each envelope is a letter from a football coach or athletic director asking about him.

Managing his future has become a full-time gig.

"Every day, all day long, coaches call and ask how he's doing," Smith said. "It's a 24-hour job."

The attention hasn't put extra pressure on Austin. He has been the best athlete on the field since his days in a Pop Warner league.

"As far as the field, I don't feel any pressure," Austin said. "The only pressure on me is these grades now, these books."

Austin has a 2.3 grade point average. He has yet to take the SAT, but according to the NCAA sliding scale at ncaaclearing, with his current grades he would need to score a 900 to be eligible to play college athletics.

That's why after meeting with Smith, Austin's next stop is a free SAT prep course after school. How he performs on math, verbal and writing assessment tests might decide when he can play college football.

"The SATs, that's my biggest fear right now," Austin said. "I'm trying to get better with this prep course and tutoring."

Staying humble
After school, meetings and classes, Austin can go where he is most comfortable - the football field.

That's where he excels. He has had video game-like performances this season, including a 344-yard, four-touchdown effort against Edmondson on Oct. 6. He scored five touchdowns Thursday - three rushing, one receiving and one on a 78-yard kickoff return -in a 44-34 win over Poly.

"He's the most exciting athlete I've seen in a long time," Edmondson coach Dante Jones said. "He's a problem for opposing defenses."

As heralded as he is, Austin is humble, a quality taught to him by the women whose names are tattooed on his wrists.

He lives with his grandmother, Louann Green, and an uncle in a three-bedroom house on Tioga Parkway in Baltimore. He only moved out of his mother's two-bedroom townhouse because it was getting crowded. His half siblings - Nashyia (13), Jatia (11) and Curtis (4) - live there.

His mother, Cathy Green, lives on Elgin Avenue, a two-minute drive from his grandmother's house. He sees her several times a week and still plays the role of big brother, taking his little sisters to school every day.

He got the tattoos three months ago.

"It helps me keep them in my heart," Austin said.

Cathy, Louann, Nashyia, Jatia and Curtis can all be seen cheering on Austin at his football games. But one person is noticeably absent: Austin's father, Carlos.

"He promised me he would be around more, but I never see him," Austin said. "He never calls me. I always have to call him."

Missing Eaton
But there was always a father figure around for him - Dunbar coach Ben Eaton.

Eaton's unexpected death this summer has affected everyone at Dunbar, including Austin.

"Coach Eaton was like a second father to me," Austin said. "I think about him every day. I always keep him in my heart. He always had this big smile. I miss that big smile."

With Eaton gone and Austin getting older, the voices from the street corners are getting louder. Austin admits there are drugs and drinking in his neighborhood, making family support that much more important.

"He has friends that may have went to jail or had babies, and I use them as examples," Cathy Green said. "I don't really have to make anything up because it happens around him every day."

Fortunately, with school, meetings, tutoring, practice and games, Austin doesn't have a lot of time to get into trouble. Plus, he has a lot on his mind.

He's thinking about the playoffs and the opportunity to repeat as state champions. He's thinking about college. And he's thinking about how good he can be at the next level.

Austin has received much from football. He has the chance to show people what he can do with the ball in his hands. He likely will have an opportunity to go to college for free. He has gained a family through the sport.

But Austin says there's one more thing he wants from the game: "I just hope to become a man out of football."