HILLSIDE — The jerseys hang on the wall at a popular crossing path in Proviso West High School. It's shocking there aren't more.
Five decades of Panthers sports. And just three pro athletes.
Flozell Adams is in his 12th year in the NFL. His No. 76 Cowboys jersey is the first of three. Next is Ray McElroy's No. 47. He spent six NFL seasons with the Colts, Bears and Lions. And finally, there's Awvee Storey's No. 20, which he wore for the Milwaukee Bucks in 2007-08. He was also with the Nets and Wizards.
But there's hope in the giant school (70 acres, 2,700 students) that No. 4 is coming soon. As early as 2013.
Kyle Prater wasn't born a superstar athlete. He's turned himself into one. And helped reopen the football doors at Proviso West along the way.
Sure, Prater had plenty of physical skills when he first arrived at the school. He was tall and had good hands.
But the strength and speed, such a big part of his game now, needed to be developed.
"I knew if he got faster, he could be special," Proviso West coach Famous Hulbert said. "Earlier in his career, he was more of a possession receiver."
Three years later, Prater is considered one of the top high school football players in the country. Rivals.com ranks him as the No. 2 player overall in his class.
As a senior, a speedier Prater caught 64 passes for 1,151 yards and 13 touchdowns.
"He didn't get caught this year," Hulbert said.
Fast and effective, Prater is the top player in Illinois, earning News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year honors.
It's the second consecutive year the award has gone to a receiver. Prater follows East St. Louis' Terry Hawthorne.
Prater didn't lead his team to the state title like Hawthorne. But Prater did something almost as important: He got the Panthers into the playoffs. For the first time.
"I just knew this year was going to be something special," Prater said. "It was an honor playing with these guys, making history."
In the school's first playoff game, Class 8A No. 13 seed Proviso West pounded No. 4 Chicago Taft 46-0.
"The sense of joy, excitement, pride and accomplishment can't be put into a few words," Proviso West Principal Alexis Wallace said.
The dream ended the next weekend, Proviso West losing 44-6 to Glenbrook South.
Still, 6-5 is big for a program that has had 10 winning seasons in five decades. The school had breakthrough wins in the West Suburban Silver, beating Elmhurst York for the first time since 1991. Against the current league schools, Proviso West is 37-216-1 all time. Two of the wins came this season. That's progress. With Prater doing his share.
"Kyle has helped change the perception of Proviso West football," Hulbert said. "A lot of the top players in the area, they go to the Catholic schools. Now, Kyle has those guys wanting to come here to be the next Kyle Prater."
"It made a huge difference in the atmosphere in the building," Proviso West athletic director Mark Schneider said. "It brought 11 weeks of excitement to the school that we've never seen before. When you're 2-7, it's not much fun."
The 10 communities that make up Proviso West, including Prater's Maywood, are starting to pay attention.
"We're on the rise now," Prater said. "We've put the school on the map this year. I was glad I was here to be a part of it."
The principal knows his name. In a good way.
Maybe that's not a surprise. Wallace has been at the school for 30 years. She's a big sports fan, who talked Hulbert into returning to the school as coach in 2006.
"I haven't missed a home football game since 1984," Wallace said.
She is a big fan of Prater.
"Kyle is a phenomenal kid," Wallace said. "The beauty about Kyle the kid is that there is an inner person who is as good a person as he is an athlete.
"It's student, then athlete."
Wallace has a motto for all of her students: "People may doubt what you say, but they will believe what you do."
Prater listens, Wallace said. She also asks her students to follow VISA, which stands for Vision, Integrity, Structure and Accountability.
"Kyle is the poster child for VISA," Wallace said. "He has a vision. Kyle knows what he wants to do."
Prater has a solid grade-point average, in the 3.2 to 3.3 range. He is graduating in a few weeks and will start college in January.
"He should do well," Wallace said. "As long as he stays focused."
Hulbert pushed the idea of an early enrollment to Prater.
"I wish I could have left early," said Hulbert, a top recruit in the early 1990s who picked Illinois. "I did not help myself by staying here the second semester of my senior year.
"It's a no-brainer. You don't stay here and try to motivate yourself. You go to that college campus and get thrown into the fire."
The role model
The big-time recruit, the star football player, could easily have an attitude. Or an ego the size of the gym.
"Kyle is a humble kid," Hulbert said. "He's been a pleasure to coach."
He's the kind of guy who makes Hulbert want to try that much harder. When Prater's parents couldn't take him to Los Angeles during the summer to visit Southern Cal, Hulbert went.
The coach wouldn't do that for every player. But Prater has put in the work. And deserves the extra attention.
"He's a relentless worker," Hulbert said. "He wants to be the best. He's driven."
It all starts for Prater at home. His parents, Johnny and Sonya, are no-nonsense when it comes to work, on and off the field.
"It's a pleasure to work with a young person who comes from a family that's as involved as his family," Wallace said. "His mom and dad are his biggest fans and his biggest disciplinarians."
Earlier in his career, Prater would catch bricks that his dad threw to him. It was an exercise they heard Jerry Rice used to do.
"Just to work on his hands," Hulbert said. "Kyle's hands are unbelievable. It was like he was put on Earth to be a receiver."
Prater has offers from Southern Cal, Alabama, Illinois, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Tennessee and a bunch of others. On Sept. 2, he seemed to end the suspense by picking the Trojans.
Of course, in recruiting it is never that easy. Word got out that his commitment was soft. The phone kept ringing. The recruiting rumors kept buzzing.
Prater didn't limit his official visits to Southern Cal, where he will travel this weekend. He was at Illinois on Halloween for the Michigan game. He was at Notre Dame for the Connecticut game, a loss that likely meant the end of the Charlie Weis era.
"I'm strong with my decision," Prater said. "I'm 100 percent going to USC. There's a reason I committed there in the first place.
"There was a lot of positive advice, and there was a lot of negative advice. You can't let everybody get in your head. I've got to go with my heart."
Hulbert would like to see Prater at his alma mater, Illinois.
"I can look everyone in the eye and say I honestly have done everything in my power to make sure the University of Illinois had a fair chance of getting Kyle Prater," Hulbert said. "Am I biased toward the University of Illinois? Yes. However, I have to do what's in the best interest of all of my players. They have to do their part as well. They have to give a kid a reason to go there. They have to show a kid enough where a kid can have confidence in going there. It's his life.
"I can't wait for the day where I can lock the gates and send all of my players to the University of Illinois."
Prater likes the Illini. He's a fan of Ron Zook and Dan Disch, who recruits the area.
"Illinois is a great school," Prater said. "They've been there since Day 1. I love all the coaches. I've got a lot of respect for them."
But the ultimate goal is to play in the NFL. And to Prater, right now Southern Cal is the best option.
There are currently three Southern Cal receivers in the NFL, with only the Giants' Steve Smith putting up big numbers. There have been plenty of Trojans to play in the league in the past, including stars Lynn Swann and Keyshawn Johnson.
"He has a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft if he goes to the right school," Hulbert said.
Kyle Prater is the first from Proviso West to earn All-State Player of the Year honors. Here´s a list of the last 32 years of News-Gazette honorees:
YEAR PLAYER SCHOOL POS.
2009 Kyle Prater Proviso West WR
2008 Terry Hawthorne East St. Louis WR
2007 Steven Filer Chicago Mount Carmel LB
2006 Robert Hughes Chicago Hubbard RB
2005 John Dergo Morris RB
2004 Jake Christensen Lockport QB
2003 Sean Price Maine South QB
2002 Pierre Thomas T.F. South RB
2001 Tim Brasic Riverside-Brookfield QB
2000 Casey Paus Lincoln-Way QB
1999 Ryan Clifford Naperville Central RB
1998 Jon Beutjer Wheaton Warrenville South QB
1997 Siaka Massaquoi Evanston RB
1996 Antwaan Randle El Thornton QB
1995 Marcus Smith Bolingbrook RB
1994 Quincy Woods Rich East QB
1993 Greg Williams Bolingbrook QB
1992 Robert Farmer Bolingbrook RB
1991 Chris Moore East St. Louis Senior RB
1990 Corey Rogers Chicago Leo RB
1989 Oliver Gibson Romeoville LB
1988 Randy Scianna Homewood-Flossmoor RB
1987 Frank Kmet Arlington Heights Hersey DL
1986 Kent Graham Wheaton North QB
1986 Eric Bush Quincy QB
1985 John Foley Chicago St. Rita LB
1984 Ronnie Cameron East St. Louis Senior QB
YEAR PLAYER SCHOOL POS.
1983 Matt Studtman Belleville West LB
1983 Jeff Martin Homewood-Flossmoor LB
1982 Bob Westerkamp Lombard Montini WR
1981 Tony Furjanic Chicago Mount Carmel LB
1980 Alvin Ross Aurora West RB
1979 Tim Marshall Chicago Weber DL
1978 Jimmy Smith Kankakee Westview RB
Want to weigh in on this year's team? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org