The mascots beckon: tiger paws and turtles, buffaloes and bruins, cardinals and cavaliers. The colors tantalize: orange and blue, maroon and gold, green and red. The college insignias on the envelopes are almost as eye-catching as the come-ons within.
The correspondence addressed to Ambrose Wooden, arriving by post and overnight delivery, says the same thing regardless of postmark. Come, play football and lead us to glory.
There's a mountain of mail piled in a cardboard box in the Woodens' living room in East Baltimore. Just the other day, six letters arrived at once, touting Virginia, Florida State, Colorado, Northwestern, Illinois and North Carolina State.
The box of solicitations gathered since January weighs 24 pounds. The postage alone would help put a kid through college. A number of letters offer Wooden, a quarterback at Gilman School, a full ride: tuition, room and board. Connections for life.
This is the hard sell going on across the country as Division I colleges court the nation's best high school football players. In the months leading up to their senior year, the pursuit quickens. Colleges want athletes to make up their minds so their rosters will fall into place. Athletes want colleges to ease off, drop the sales pitch and show their true colors.
"If colleges are telling me what they think I want to hear," says Wooden, "then I've got to separate that from the truth."
For instance, Syracuse suggests the 18-year-old could be "the next Donovan McNabb," its brawny alum-turned-NFL star. In reality, Wooden - who is also African-American - probably lacks the size to be a big-time college quarterback.
At 6 feet 1 and 180 pounds, he expects to play defensive back. Wooden, known as "Mo," has played both positions in high school, but earned stardom directing Gilman's offense.
All-Metro first team last season, Wooden ran and passed the Greyhounds to a 6-4 record, a No. 3 area ranking and a share of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association crown. His stats (six touchdowns rushing, 11 passing) aren't as telling as what some say about the command Wooden shows on the field.
"He's the kind of guy who, when you look in his eyes in the huddle, you know everything will be OK," says Tim Holley, Gilman's athletic director. "When he calls a play, everyone believes it's going to work."
Colleges weigh Wooden's leadership, speed (4.23 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and grades ("A" average) and shower him with entreaties like these.
"Ambrose, I want you to be part of our team," wrote coach Carl Franks of Duke, promising a four-year scholarship.
UCLA's offer arrived with a personal missive from coach Bob Toledo: "This is a very big deal to me as I don't write very many of these letters." The sentence fairly leaped off the page; it was typed in bold face.
Iowa took a familial tack. The Hawkeyes sent one scholarship letter to Wooden and another to his mother, Robin Petty, with whom he lives in a tidy row home off Erdman Avenue. Petty is an insurance account analyst, divorced, the mother of three. Wooden's father, Ambrose Sr., drives a bus for the MTA.
"I looked at that [stack of mail] this morning and thanked the Lord," Petty says. "I don't know how I'd have been able to send Mo to college."
Wooden, in fact, has prepared on his own for a college football career since he first cradled a Rawlings at age 6. He followed older brother Warren through the rec leagues in Rosedale and Overlea, turning heads and winning hardware.
The Wooden living room is filled with shelf upon shelf of his trophies - 65 in all - for football, baseball and track.
Some of his talent Wooden got from his father, who played football at Morgan State 30 years ago. Ambrose Sr. had three medals himself and recalls the first time his son saw them.
"Mo said, `I'm going to get more than you.' Well, he accomplished that by the time he was 8."
Though inundated with college offers, Wooden has winnowed the possibilities to 14. They are, in no special order, Notre Dame, UCLA, Penn State, Southern California, Ohio State, Maryland, Virginia Tech, Duke, Syracuse and Boston College. The final four - Stanford, Virginia, North Carolina and Michigan - are in the chase but have yet to make a bid.
"The kid is basically being recruited by everybody," says Keith Kormanik, an assistant coach at Gilman. "Some [schools] made offers at the end of last [football] season." Colleges are allowed to correspond with athletes as juniors, and the high school becomes both a conduit and sounding board.
"He is not only making a college football decision, he is making an academic one, a lifelong decision. The connections he'll make through college will shape the rest of his life," Kormanik says.
An athlete and his family must keep a sensible outlook while being subjected to a barrage that escalates in May of junior year. Then, mail gives way to phone calls, placed mostly by persuasive head coaches.