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Column: Watching Elder kid become a top prospect

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Posted at 8:00 AM, Feb 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-17 11:05:27-05

The phone has finally stopped ringing. The mailbox is no longer overflowing. His mother doesn’t have to leave a box on the porch for the excess any more.

The text messages -- those worthy of response -- are now manageable. Life is back to normal, almost.

“Oh, I still get a text now and then that says I will regret my decision,” he says. “That’s putting it, uh, mildly. But it’s nothing like before. Some of the texts were just -- weird! There are some strange people out there, really strange. I was kind of shocked at first. People get a little crazy about this stuff, the things they say. Besides, where did they get my number? Scary. Anyway, I’m glad it’s all over.”

He’s sitting in the living room, sipping a smoothie. His frame dwarfs the antique, wingback armchair he occupies. He’s 6-foot-6, 300 pounds, or so, with a wingspan like a Piper Cub.

This is Tommy Kraemer, one of the top football recruits in the country, a senior at Elder High School now headed to Notre Dame, where he’s already listed No. 2 on the 2016 depth chart at left and right offensive tackle, a direct result of his performance Jan. 9 in the annual U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio.

“Coach (Harry) Hiestand (Notre Dame’s offensive line coach) called me and told me,” he said. “Made me feel pretty good. I guess I did OK.”

Hiestand’s calls were always taken, always welcomed. “Here’s the thing,” he says. “Coach Hiestand cares about you as a person -- what’s best for you -- not just as a football players. I got that feeling from the start. He’s real. Great guy."

Other places, he says, it was apparent, despite the show and the smiles, you were a just another part, a piece in the process. “Like, if it doesn’t work out, then ‘Hey, nice knowing you.’ Then,” he says, “on to the next guy.”

Making The Choice

Life began to return to normal National Signing Day, Feb. 3. That day, Kraemer put his signature on the official document remaining steadfast to his oral commitment of 2015. He was headed to Notre Dame.

He was courted by Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Georgia, Kentucky, Northwestern, Duke, Boston College, Stanford, LSU and Vanderbilt. Letters came from every corner of NCAA Division I collegiate football. The lady who delivered the mail made jokes. Ultimately, she began stopping her van in front of his house to unload the bundles.

Kraemer occupied rare air. Not only was he a standout football player, his personal reputation was spotless and he was an honor student.

He was a favored guest at campuses across the country, and, for the most part, he was impressed.

“People were nice,” he said. “There was one situation, though, that said a lot.

“My dad (Mike) and I were at an SEC school. I won’t say which one. There’s no reason to. We had been walking around and we went to the players’ lounge.”

They were seated in large Barcaloungers having a soft drink. Players were drifting around. Some nodded, offering some recognition; others didn’t.

“Then, this one guy comes over,” Kraemer says. “He was kind of dressed-down, workout clothes. I’m not thinking anything about it. He walks up and says, ‘Who the bleep are you? What the bleep are you doing here?’ We got up and left. Never went back.”

Continuous Attention

He thought his oral commitment to Notre Dame would end the calls, the mail, the text messages. It didn’t. They kept coming. In fact, many from supporters, fans and “friends of the program” became more strident, almost threatening. “Some,” he says, “were just plain nasty. Shocking. I mean, who says this stuff to a 17-year-old kid? Come on.”

Official calls, from coaches, did lessen, though some continued to voice their interest. Kraemer had given LSU long consideration. “I liked LSU a lot and coach Les Myles is a special guy,” he said. “It was really hard telling him I was going to Notre Dame.”

But while most slowly faded away, Ohio State was relentless.

“Right up to Signing Day,” Kraemer said. “Kerry Coombs (former Colerain High School coach and OSU assistant) called every Thursday night. He said, ‘Tommy I’m going to keep calling you right up to the end just in case something changes. If something does change, you be sure and let me know.’”

Nothing changed.

“From the very beginning, Notre Dame just felt right,” he says. “Notre Dame is football. Seems like it’s where everything started. Know what I mean?

“Besides, if it doesn’t work out for me, or when football is over for me, I’m going to have a great degree. I couldn’t be happier with my choice. I’m glad it’s all over -- relieved, I guess you could say.”

A Young Man’s Growth

He stands, preparing to leave. It’s like having a tree in the middle of your living room. Everything looks small.

“You know, this whole process could be shorter -- this recruiting process,” he says. “It should be shorter. I mean, give guys some time to be a kid. But I learned a lot. I’ll say that for sure.

“Life changes. You have to watch every step you take. Be smart. You can’t do things other kids do. There are people out there just waiting for you to mess up. It’s been fun, for the most part, but I wouldn’t say it’s been easy.”

Tommy Kraemer used to be the little guy who lived down the street, delivered the paper, collecting every-other Wednesday, knocking at the door, bashful, cheeks flushed, smiling, using words like “mister” and “missus” and “thank you.” He cut grass for neighbors and did errands for people who were away or elderly and needed help.

He leaves us as a man with a unique skill set and a bit of a national reputation. And he’s still growing.

“Hey,” I say, as he heads for his car, “if the lights get too bright or you ever need a place just to hide out for a while, the door is always open. We got room.”

He looks back over his shoulder, smiles and laughs. “Thanks,” he says, “I might just take you up on that.”

Greg Hoard is a former reporter and columnist for the Cincinnati Post and Reds beat writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer. He later worked as sports director at WLWT and WXIX. He returned to writing in 2004 and is the author of five books, including "Joe, Rounding Third and Heading for Home," and "Voices In My Head, The Gary Burbank Story." His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Baseball America, The Sporting News, Baseball Digest and NFL Game Day. He is at work on a baseball memoir, "Baseline, A Life On The Fringe of The Game."

See more from Greg Hoard at GregHoard.com