Imani Cross sat on the couch in North Hall football coach Bob Christmas’ office. He leaned back against the seat and clasped his hands in his lap.
Looking relaxed, he inquired about how everyone’s day had been, and mentioned how unusually warm the weather was for the month of January.
He showed no signs of strain from the decision that was weighing on his mind, a decision he thought, a month before, he’d never have to make.
Cross, a running back who had gained nearly 1,800 yards and 24 touchdowns in his final season with the Trojans, was on the fence between two schools. Once committed to attend the University of Tennessee, he was preparing to host coaches from both Kentucky and Nebraska that very night.
He had just a few minutes for an interview, and was out the door, hoping to beat the traffic on his way home.
It was the culmination of a whirlwind month, a month filled with phone calls, college visits, and pressure from fans and coaches alike.
“This is the hardest part,” Cross said. “Actually making the decision.”
Cross thought that decision had already been made nearly a year ago. He committed to play for the Volunteers in February of 2011, despite not being fully healed from an Achilles injury that had sidelined him for the first half of his junior season.
But a road that once seemed clear to Cross, rated the No. 20 running back recruit in the nation by ESPN, became uncertain near the end of December, when he de-committed from Tennessee and began the stressful process all over again.
Suddenly the attention from college recruiters was back at a fever pitch. According to Cross, in addition to Nebraska and Kentucky, schools like Vanderbilt, Virginia, Maryland, East Carolina and Purdue were all in the mix during a quick one-month recruitment period.
“Once it got out on the internet that he had de-committed from Tennessee, I didn’t have to call anyone,” Christmas said. “They were all calling me.”
Even in the final days — and hours — when he had narrowed his choices down to the Wildcats and Cornhuskers, Cross still wavered back and forth.
Asked before he met with the teams’ coaches whether he was leaning either way, he would give no indication.
“I’m right in the middle, man,” he said. “They’re both great schools. (The decision) is harder this time. I feel like the door at Tennessee was kind of closed for a reason. Now, new ones have opened.”
Christmas described the craziness of the situation, noting the number of phone calls he was getting to ask when and where Cross would commit.
“I told him that he had to give me something,” Christmas said with a laugh. “I had phone calls from Rivals, Scout, ESPN and all kinds of other places asking where he was going to go.”
As a coach, Christmas said that he had only ever had about three players as highly recruited as Cross, and none in such a short period of time.
In the end, the North Hall senior selected the University of Nebraska with no fanfare. While National Signing Day and college football recruitment is often synonymous with drama (just ask the state’s top prospect, Josh Harvey-Clemons), Cross’ final decision came behind closed doors — no cameras, no reporters, no hats pulled out of a bag.
It was simply an opportunity for Cross to close the book on a hectic month.
“It was rocky at times,” Cross said of his recruitment. “But I’ve been blessed to have the experience.”
Those final words are significant, accurately describing the type of person Cross is and how he was able to handle such a difficult decision.
Cross said he relied on God to help him make his decision.
“We all have our personal ambitions,” he said. “But for me, I know I’m not smart enough to make this decision on my own.”
He also relied on family and, of course, Christmas.
“One thing I told him,” Christmas said, “was that he can take comfort knowing that he wasn’t going to make a bad decision either way. They are both great schools, and he had a great opportunity no matter where he went.”
Christmas said that Cross recognized more than most how blessed he was to have the opportunities. Cross demonstrated that fact in talking about the difficulty of his recruitment.
Asked if there was a lot joy to be taken from the process, Cross gave a look of shock and laughed.
“Are you kidding? That’s the whole part of it,” he said. “That’s the whole part. Not everybody gets choices. There are a lot of talented kids out there that get overlooked. I have choices. I feel very blessed.”