By Wright Thompson Staff writer/The Times-Picayune HEMPHILL, TEXAS -- They don't count calories at Fausto's Fried Chicken. They don't count minutes at the weathered old courthouse. And every time they count stoplights in all of Sabine County, the answer is always zero. Basically, only three things come out of Hemphill, Texas: Farm Road 83, State Road 87 and football players. Ben Wilkerson is the best player to come out in a while -- maybe ever. His parents' home, down a dusty gravel road, is a shrine to that success. Awards cover every wall. He was the best high school center in the nation last year and is a cornerstone of LSU's much-hyped recruiting class. Today, he and the rest of that class report. He's been in Baton Rouge all summer -- getting bigger, stronger and more well adjusted. He's put on 15 or so pounds of muscle. And he's figured out that college is a lot different from high school. "You have to be more dedicated to what you're doing," Wilkerson said. "Working out was a whole lot more intense." If you have a son, you'd like him to be like Ben. If you have a daughter, you'd like her to date him. He's a computer whiz, well spoken. He dotes on his baby brother. He teaches Bible class on Wednesday nights. He's a stud ballplayer, award-winning actor, salutatorian of his senior class. He's John Donne to his hometown's Brooks and Dunn. Around the courthouse is the town square, with businesses such as KC Drugstore, Western Auto, B&W Hardware and Jenny's Sugar Bowl. Ask for walking directions to the newspaper, and someone will give you a ride there instead. Home to 1,182 people, Hemphill is seven miles from Milam, which is a thousand miles from nowhere. Things are peaceful there; a hunting accident is infinitely more likely than a drive-by shooting. The city Vermykia Proctor, Ben's mother, worked as a technical specialist for the FBI in Houston. The rest of the time she devoted to Ben, then 11 and huge for his age. He was a constant reminder of mistakes she'd made in her own life. She, too, left high school at the top of her class; she, too, got a scholarship to college. But with her future just on the horizon, she became pregnant with Ben. Her life changed. "If I could back up, you wouldn't be here," she would jokingly tell him later. Something else changed, too -- her priorities. By the early 1990s, she was doing OK for a single mother. She and Ben lived in an apartment building near Houston's Eisenhower High School. They got by, although she had entertained thoughts of leaving the city. At work, she'd hear the agents talking about how the gang problem was getting worse all the time, literally tearing the community apart. The thought of her baby in a gang terrified her. Then, one day, Ben walked down to the Stop-N-Go to pick up a snack. Outside the store, he was approached by a young kid, 10 or so, who was smoking a Swisher Sweet cigar and wearing a gang bandanna. He wanted Ben to "meet some of his friends." He wanted to introduce Ben to some gang members. Eleven-year-old Ben ran home and told the whole story to his mother. That was on a Saturday. The following Monday, Proctor put in her two weeks' notice. She was leaving Houston and her good job behind, pay cut be damned. Her boy's future was too important. She would get him somewhere safe, somewhere nurturing. "If I didn't get him out of there, they would intimidate him into joining because of his size, or they would hurt him," she said. Her friends would say, "I can't believe you are giving up that good job." She always responded, "There are some things more important than money." Proctor had grown up in the tiny town of Hemphill. Whatever else it was, it was a safe place to raise a family. After a year in nearby Lufkin, Texas, she and new husband Charles Proctor moved to Hemphill for good. The school Before Wilkerson set foot in Hemphill, his mother laid down the law. "You are going to get involved," she told him. "And not just sports." Right away, Wilkerson showed his dramatic tendencies. In eighth grade, he won an acting award for his portrayal of Hercules. He would win many more, gaining the (infamous) distinction of being able to do old men. One of his favorites was Homer Smith in "Lillies of the Field," the role played by Sidney Poitier in the 1963 film. His life was a lesson in time management. "I want you to be able to know you can juggle stuff," his mother would tell him. He'd throw the shot put, then be met by a teacher to go to an academic competition. He would be passed off like a baton from coaches to teachers, sometimes at 2 a.m. or later, to take him to one event and then drive him toward another. Even then, his mother was preparing him for college. She wanted him to be more ready than she was. "You've got to put something in him that he can take with him," she said. And then there was school. Ben was a natural. Or, as LSU quarterback Rohan Davey said, "He's smart as hell." Once in high school, a science teacher came to Proctor after class. She wanted to talk about Ben. Uh-oh. "Has he always been like that?" the teacher asked. "What's wrong?" Proctor said, worried about what her boy might have done. "Has he always been like that?" the teacher asked again. "He's a step ahead of the class. He's analytical. . . ." She went on and on about how Wilkerson could figure things out. Things just made sense. That's why the teachers, more times than not, would come running to him if a computer broke. Ben, can you fix this? Oh, and he was nice. People looked up to him, wanted to hang out with him. "Even the rednecks liked Ben," said Myra Bass, his high school drama teacher. As graduation day approached, Ben began work on the salutatorian's speech. One piece of poetry by Pamela Melanie Ogilvie grabbed his attention. He also wrote Bass a note. He signed it, "your athletic thespian." The book Get one thing straight. Just because he's smart doesn't mean he's soft. And he might be nice in the hallway, but pity the fool who makes a mistake on the field. "If somebody fumbled, dropped a pass or missed a block, he'd get in their stuff pretty good," high school coach Larry Upshaw said. "(I'd tell him,) ‘Relax. Don't let it eat you up because kids make mistakes.' " He didn't understand why they couldn't do it when he could." Wilkerson made everybody's all-everything list his senior year. Coaches lined up in tiny Hemphill to visit. Texas A&M Coach R.C. Slocum, who was salivating over Wilkerson, even ate at the Proctor home. The coaches liked the power Wilkerson showed on the offensive line. He created a zone where no opposing players could go on every play. He would run over people and sometimes get called for holding -- East Texas officials didn't believe anyone could be that powerful. Upshaw was able to redraw some of his plays, because Wilkerson didn't do what an ordinary lineman was supposed to do. Running back Leon Maxie, who averaged around 10 yards a carry behind the behemoth, remembers other teams showing up late. Scared. Scared of getting bruised, battered and broken by Ben. Hemphill would run the same play -- 64, 65, smash left or smash right -- over and over. Maybe as many as five times in a row. "Usually by the third or fourth time, we've already scored," Maxie said. And remember: this is Texas, where high school football is good. Wilkerson became a star in the tiny town. One morning, he and Maxie were eating breakfast. When they went to the register to pay the check, they were informed that the bill had been taken care of. By the local sheriff. The chase After a quick look at Wilkerson on tape, coaches were sold. The letters began pouring in from everywhere. A note from Florida State, with an oh-by-the-way scribbled in at the top: "You have a scholarship offer to Florida State." We offer this letter as our commitment of a scholarship to you and consider it imperative that you commit to an official visit to Purdue soon. . . . I am extending an offer of a full athletic scholarship to you for the fall of 2001 to the University of Colorado. . . . Would like to offer you a full scholarship to The University of Tennessee. There were literally hundreds of letters, more than 30 scholarship offers. One coach wrote more than most. LSU's Nick Saban came after Wilkerson hard and heavy. With a lack of depth on the line, Wilkerson thought he might be able to play soon. Maybe even now. Wilkerson cut his list to five, then verbally committed to LSU around Christmas. But that didn't mean the recruiting stopped. He got a phone call from Oklahoma Assistant Coach Jonathan Hayes the day of the Orange Bowl -- the national title game Oklahoma would go on to win. Hayes was at the 50-yard line. "You think it would make any difference now?" the coach asked. "I've already made up my mind." Wilkerson said. He was going to LSU. He finished his senior year, collected his honors and gave that salutatorian speech. He concluded with the Ogilvie quote. "You will tread the uncertain waters with caution, knowledge and respect. For although you can't see the ocean floor, you have the courage to look deep within and make the changes you know you can, the knowledge not to disturb the good that is already there, and the self-respect to be the best that you can be." With that, Wilkerson ended his speech and high school career. With that, Wilkerson began a new life -- one filled with a new set of difficulties, a new set of friends and a new home. Safe Hemphill in the rearview. Real life dead ahead.