Colin McGovern, a 6-foot-7, 292-pound offensive tackle at Lincoln-Way West in New Lenox, never dreamed that college recruiting would be like choosing a date for the prom.
By his own admission, McGovern was "blown away" when he received a scholarship offer from Wisconsin. He was impressed when Alabama coach Nick Saban also extended an offer and invited him to attend the annual spring game in Tuscaloosa.
Then he decided to visit Notre Dame.
It wasn't supposed to be anything special, just another unofficial campus visit. He and his father had already visited 10 schools, including Michigan and Northwestern. After Notre Dame, they planned to visit Ohio State and Wisconsin. Stanford was about to become the 15th school to offer.
"In the beginning, I didn't have a game plan. We weren't expecting this to blow up like this," McGovern said. "Once all the attention started to come in, we adapted to it and picked up a game plan. I was surprised by all the attention. I didn't know what to expect.
"Then I went to Notre Dame and fell in love with the place. I wasn't planning to commit when I showed up on the campus. I'm not sure there was one thing that convinced me. It was everything together...education, tradition, beautiful campus, how they set you up for a major, the fact that kids were staying for an extra year rather than getting drafted in the NFL."
He met a group of offensive linemen, his future teammates. A bunch of stand-up young men, he thought to himself, easy to get along with. Later, during a casual conversation, coach Brian Kelly asked McGovern if he could imagine himself playing at Notre Dame.
"I said I wanted to commit," McGovern said.
"I was surprised that he committed. It was his first trip to Notre Dame," said Dave Ernst, Lincoln-Way West's first-year coach. "But he has a good head on his shoulders. He has been very focused on recruiting since the season ended. He wanted a great academic institution and a great football program. And that's what he got."
Perhaps what was most surprising was how fast McGovern developed into a blue-chip prospect. Ernst projects him as "the next Eric Steinbach," comparing him to NFL lineman whom he coached at Providence. His dream is to be an offensive left tackle in the NFL, maybe the next Anthony Munoz, a Hall of Famer who is universally regarded as the best ever at the position.
As a sophomore at Lincoln-Way Central, he played in one varsity game. It wasn't a pleasant experience. "I didn't play too hot. I was sloppy. I didn't dominate anyone. I wasn't impressive. I didn't want to keep that film," he recalled.
Last year, he transferred to Lincoln-Way West. Prior to his junior season, he put in a lot of hard work over the summer. For the first time, he began to take the game more seriously. He enjoyed playing for his new coaching staff. He took on a whole new work ethic. He didn't miss one practice or one weight-lifting session in the off-season.
McGovern finally realized how good he could be, how much potential he had and what he could do with it, during Game 4 against Andrew.
"That's when it clicked," he said. "On the last two drives of the game, we ran behind me on every single play. I blocked for the game-winning touchdown. I realized I could do something with football. Until then, I never thought I'd have an opportunity to play on the major Division I level. Then the offers came in."
But Ernst and former Lincoln-Way West coach Mark VanderKooi already had seen how good McGovern was going to be.
"He was as good as any offensive lineman I saw (in 2011)," VanderKooi said.
It took only one play, the very first one of his junior year, for Ernst to predict future stardom for the youngster.
"Because he played in only one varsity game as a sophomore, people didn't know who he was as a junior. But in his first game against Joliet Central, he did some incredible things," Ernst said.
"On the first play, he knocks his guy off the ball about 10 to 15 yards and chases down the tailback. Here's a 6-foot-7 lineman running stride for stride like a high school tailback, looking for other people to block. We started sending tapes early."
On the first day that colleges could extend scholarship offers, Northwestern assistant Adam Cushing was at the door. "It took off from there. He got 14 offers. If he had waited, he would have received more. But he decided that Notre Dame was it," Ernst said.
"The No. 1 thing is you are happy for a guy like him because he is who he is, a great person, humble. He hasn't changed with all this stuff. He is the same kid he was when he walked in the door last June.
"What gives him an edge over other kids? His athleticism. He is a big guy who can move. He is very flexible in his hips. He is a knee-bender. He can move quickly from a power position with a wide base. I think he is the next Eric Steinbach. Eric was a 6-foot-7, 220-pound defensive end and tight end at Providence. He ate himself into an offensive lineman at Iowa. But Colin is 6-foot-7 and 292 pounds. He is ahead of Eric at this stage as an offensive lineman."
McGovern has been on a training table for the last several months. He weighed 278 pounds when the 2011 season ended. Now he weighs 292 but he is thinner and leaner and stronger. He squats 525 pounds. He has 5.1 speed.
"He can do about anything he wants," Ernst said. "In my opinion, he was a Big 10 or SEC player as a junior."
But McGovern thinks he can be even better. "I'm looking to improve my running and pass-blocking technique. The most fun I have in football is being able to line up across from somebody and hitting him," he said.
Unlike many offensive linemen who count pancake blocks (how many defenders they knock on their behinds) as a measure of their ability, like running backs count touchdowns, McGovern thinks it is more important for an offensive lineman to have good footwork and athleticism.
"A guy might have a lot of pancake blocks but he might not be a good Division I lineman," he said. "An offensive lineman can always have size and a good frame and can add muscle. But you must be able to move and have good feet under you when you are moving. That's what I have going for me."