Mark Carrier, the dream of mothers and coaches, stood on the grounds of Long Beach Poly High School, and as the white sea gulls swooped in on their daily scavenger hunt, a girl in a cheerleading uniform swooped in on him.
This was not entirely unexpected, because here was a football hero known to all in a school known for football, and the excitement of homecoming was in the air. A campus rally had just concluded.
LaTonya Gale locked the hero in an embrace.
"He's my secret brother," she said. "All the varsity cheerleaders pick a star football player to be their secret brother. You bring them goodies on Friday night, eat pizza together, go to parties together."
She does not keep secret her adulation of Carrier.
"You don't call him conceited," Gale said. "He's good in academics, everyone looks up to him at school, he doesn't start any trouble . . . he's the nicest guy on campus."
Her praise gushed forth but Carrier's head failed to enlarge--it never has, to anyone's knowledge. He just stood there looking like the All-American boy in his neat clothes--slacks, shirt and jacket, his cheek next to hers, a smile beneath his mustache.
"He got 'Mr. Hunk' last year," Gale said. "See those legs."
Heavy Academic Subjects
Carrier, obviously the dream of the female students, too, finally tore himself away and went to his locker to decide what to study that night, studying being a major priority of his. The books inside were on chemistry, advanced international marketing, algebra and American political behavior.
Those subjects and football formations spin constantly through his mind, creating a pressure that he handles successfully. He has a B average in Poly's Center for International Commerce, a demanding college-preparatory program.
But it was time to put academics aside for a few hours. Carrier put a uniform and helmet on his 6-foot-2, 175-pound body and went to football practice, out on a scruffy field that has nurtured so many great players, and put "those legs," long and muscular, to work. Hard work.
"I want to be considered one of the great ones here," he said. He already is.
Carrier, a 17-year-old senior, is in his third season as the starting free safety for Poly, undefeated at 7-0 and the No. 1-ranked team in the Southern Section and ranked fourth in the country by USA Today.
Last season he was the Moore League's Player of the Year on defense. College scouts say he is one of the best defensive backs on the West Coast.
Offers From 15 Colleges
Fifteen colleges have told Carrier they want him on their campus, or more correctly, in their football stadium, next fall, including UCLA, USC, Stanford, Washington, Iowa and Notre Dame.
"I'm far away from a decision," he said. "I don't put heavy concentration on it; that's just added pressure."
He said he is looking for a school with a good football program and a good academic program. He is well prepared to master both and does not believe, despite how good everyone says he is, that in four years he will be playing for big money in the National Football League.
"Playing in the NFL is a dream," he said, "so I'll go for the career. If I have a chance to go pro, I'll take it."
He hopes, he said, that the career will be sports broadcasting.
"People say I have a good voice, I want to use it," he said in a voice rich and resonant. "I'm a sports nut. I love to study sports."
Carrier has many football talents.
In the lingo of Dick Lascola, who runs the Scouting Evaluation Assn. in Fallbrook, they include: "ability to run . . . very quick . . . aware of situation . . . plays under control . . . takes good pursuit angles (to ball carrier) . . . diagnoses plays well."
Hates Making Mistakes
Mike Maloney, who coaches the Poly defensive backs, said of Carrier, "Besides being a great athlete, he's probably the smartest person I ever coached. It's like having a coach back there. Mark's like the perfect kid. We kid around but he's all business when the game starts. He's a perfectionist. He hates to make a mistake."
Merle Cole, an assistant coach who played at Poly in the late 1960s, said Carrier "might be one of the best athletes (to ever play) here, and I saw Gene Washington and Tony Hill and all those guys."
"One word is very important around here: character," Cole emphasized. "We don't point fingers and say someone messed up. He's the ultimate player when it comes to character."
In the often-profane world of football, Carrier keeps his act clean.
"If he says, 'Damn,' he'll say, 'I'm sorry,' " said April Garrett, a junior at Poly and a student trainer.
Carrier has always avoided the trouble that can be found in the inner-city neighborhood around Poly, which is at 1600 Atlantic Ave.
Security Generates Safe Feeling
Security is tight at the school. Only one gate is open during the day; that beneath the sign that reads, "Enter to learn, go forth to serve." A guard there checks visitors thoroughly.