Aaron Bailey: He's got pull
Aaron Bailey passes the long line of photos every day. On his way from P.E. to chemistry class.
The framed portraits celebrate the Bolingbrook High School greats. His cousin — former Wisconsin basketball star Trent Jackson — is up there. So are ex-Illini Antoineo Harris and Eric Garrett. And state Players of the Year Robert Farmer, Greg Williams and Marcus Smith.
Bailey's going on the wall, too. He cleared a space by being named an All-State quarterback in 2011. While leading the Raiders to their first-ever state football title.
Yes, he's a big deal in a big school (3,600 students). Not that you'd know it from watching him in the hallways. On a midweek day, he wears a gray sweatshirt, jeans and tennis shoes. The opposite of flashy.
Adult-like. Mature. Poised. That's how folks at the school describe Bailey. And that's why they are so happy Bailey is a Raider.
Want some more reasons?
He studies (3.5 grade-point average), behaves himself away from school and keeps his language on a G level.
"When you start talking about the type of kid you'd let marry your daughter, he fits into that category," Bolingbrook coach John Ivlow said.
"He's very humble," Bolingbrook athletic director Alec Anderson said. "He doesn't look for the spotlight. He doesn't look for any special privileges or favors here in school. He just does what he needs to do. That's why people like him and respect him."
There's also football. As a junior, he ran for 1,983 yards and 30 touchdowns. He threw for another 1,039 yards and 10 touchdowns. Bolingbrook had plenty of talent in 2011, but it wouldn't likely have gone 13-1 and won a championship without Bailey.
"He is a difference maker," Ivlow said.
It didn't take a state title for colleges to notice Bailey. Before his junior season, he had offers from Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue. They were soon joined by Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The nation's No. 4-rated dual-threat quarterback had plenty of options.
On April 26, more than nine months before signing day, Bailey picked Illinois. It surprised some, including his head coach.
"I thought he was heading to one of the red schools: Ohio State or Nebraska or Wisconsin," Ivlow said.
"(Illinois) got the least amount of publicity when people wrote articles. I never heard Illinois mentioned once in an article other than he had an offer from them."
Looking back now, Ivlow realizes Bailey was most enthusiastic after his trips to Illinois. He visited the school twice, another sign of an early lean.
If you sign him ...
Ask Tim Beckman and he will tell you the recruiting reality: Illinois is behind in Illinois. Michigan, Notre Dame, Iowa and Wisconsin have picked off talented linemen in the state for 2013.
Of the nine players who have made a commitment to Illinois, four are from the state. Though Illinois has the No. 28-ranked 2013 class in the nation, according to Scout.com, it is just eighth in the Big Ten. And those are the teams it needs to beat from September to November.
But the Illinois coaches hope Bailey can change a few minds, open a few doors, give a few more guys a reason to check out the campus and the staff.
"He has that kind of personality that kids want to follow him," Anderson said.
Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, has seen quarterbacks have an impact in the past.
"I think a quarterback can be a real leader when it comes to recruiting, especially if he gets involved, reaches out to other kids and takes on that role," Farrell said. "Even if he doesn't, landing a top quarterback always gives a boost to coaches when they are out recruiting offensive players and sometimes even defensive guys."
Farrell's got a living, breathing example in the current recruiting period. Five-star quarterback Shane Morris made his commitment to Michigan more than a year ago. He has helped the Wolverines put together the top-rated class in the nation.
"He has embraced that role by getting on campus whenever there is a big visit weekend, reaching out to other recruits and keeping the current class connected and close," Farrell said.
It might be working already for Illinois. Since Bailey made his decision, four other players have picked the Illini. Including Belleville Althoff defensive lineman Merrick Jackson, who had offers from Iowa, Missouri and others.
Bailey is trying. But he won't be pushy. As he found out in his own recruitment, the decision belongs to the player and his family.
"If that's not their school, it's not their school," Bailey said. "But if it is, I'll try to help out the best way I can."
Illinois made landing Bailey a priority. He got attention from several coaches on the staff. And Bolingbrook teammate Robbie Bain, who signed with the Illini in February, encouraged him to consider Illinois. The two are close friends.
Historically, Bailey's school hasn't exactly filled the Illinois roster. Harris, Garrett and Sedrick Davenport are the only three Bolingbrook graduates to letter at Illinois.
That could be changing, too. Ivlow played football at Colorado State with Illinois co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales. He has respect for Illinois offensive line coach Luke Butkus, a former Chicago area star.
Ivlow said he has a good feeling about Beckman's chances to build the Illinois program. In time.
"The guy's a winner," Ivlow said. "The system will work. Good things are coming. They've got to be patient. Don't expect miracles overnight. It starts with kids like Aaron. Big strides are going to come once they start getting the Illinois kids back."
Making a list
Few expected Bailey to make his decision so soon. Maybe in the summer. Or even early fall.
Bailey and his family methodically analyzed the college choices. Bailey and his father "O" Carter visited the schools. When they returned home, they listed the pros and cons of each place.
One school kept earning the most "pros": Illinois.
"We felt so comfortable with that there was no point in waiting," Bailey said.
"I just like the whole atmosphere there."
He hit it off immediately with Illinois starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. They have similar ideas about academics, faith and citizenship. And like Scheelhaase before him, Bailey wanted to pick his own path.
Sure, there is more tradition at Ohio State. But the program is already set, with a two-time national champion coach and five-star recruits at every position. Bailey wants to build.
"I'm just trying to make a dynasty there at Illinois," Bailey said.
"I feel I can push them over the hump and get them to the next level."
"When he goes to Illinois, he's going to be the man once Nathan (Scheelhaase) is done," Anderson said. "At Ohio State, there are probably five or six Aaron Baileys. I think he looks forward to that challenge as far as trying to put Illinois on the map."
Former Urbana football coach Anderson sees similarities between Bailey and former Illini quarterback Juice Williams.
"Though I think Aaron has a better arm," Anderson said. "He's more accurate. He throws the ball a long way."
There is a long gap between now and signing day. The other schools that recruited Bailey have told Ivlow they are still interested.
"I told his dad. He said, 'Tell them don't bother,' " Ivlow said. "They're not even going to get through me to see Aaron."
Bailey's best friends? Easy, his younger brothers Orlando, Omarion and Chase.
If he's got spare time, he is hanging out with the 9-year-old, 5-year-old and 19-month old.
"We're all close, but Chase always wants to be around me," Bailey said. "When I went on college visits, he would go in my room and look for me."
The drive from the family's home to the Illinois campus is a little more than two hours. It will make it easy for Bailey's parents, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins to watch him play in college.
"It worked out best for all of us," Bailey said.
The family has been watching Bailey play sports for years. Early on, they realized he wasn't an average athlete.
"We want to stay humble, but he was a little bit above the kids he played with," Carter said.
As a kid, Bailey had a ball in his hand. All of the time. Still does. If he's sitting at home watching TV, he's likely to have a baseball or football in his hand.
"Just for no reason," Bailey said.
But if he wants to play sports, there is a price. It all starts with schoolwork. Keep his grades up and he can play. Let it slide, just a little, and he will be on the bench.
"That was something we instilled in him since he was a little boy," Carter said. "As he began to get older, he knows it's important to have an education."
It's the kind of rules school administrators wish all kids had at home.
"I think his parents have done a great job raising him," Anderson said. "Yes, he's very gifted athletically, but he knows what's important in life."
Faith is extremely important to Bailey, his dad, "O" and mom, Sharitah, and his three younger brothers. They attend weekly services at Monument of Faith in Chicago.
"He's one of a kind as far as his faith," Ivlow said. "He is Tim Tebow. That's his role model. What you see is what you get."
"I love God and I live for him," Bailey said.
He doesn't wear his faith on his sleeve, but you can see it on his wrist. One of his two rubber bracelets reads "Team Jesus." He was at Hobby Lobby, picking up supplies for a project. He saw the bracelet and had to buy it.
Bailey listens to jazz and gospel music. Not the typical tastes for a high school junior.
But his teammates and classmates don't give Bailey much grief.
"They respect him," Ivlow said. "He's a leader because he's so sincere. He's not going to make fun of you, belittle you."
His teammates do hassle him about his pro sports teams of choice. He doesn't go the usual Chicago way and root for the Bulls, Bears and Cubs or White Sox.
Favorite NFL teams?
"The Patriots and the Broncos," Bailey said. "I like the Broncos because orange is my favorite color. The Patriots, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, I like the mind-set that they have. I have nothing against the Bears."
"I'm a big Red Sox fan," Bailey said.
And the NBA?
"I like the Lakers," Bailey said.
There is room in the case for another big trophy. The kind that reads "State Champion: Football." Earning No. 2 is a goal.
But it won't be easy. While Bailey and a large chunk of the offense returns, the Raiders lost star linebacker Antonio Morrison to graduation. He left school a semester early and was a standout during the spring for Florida.
"I think we feel like we can repeat," Anderson said. "Offensively, we'll be tough to stop."
In his third year as the starting quarterback, Bailey can run the offense on his own.
"He doesn't need anything from us," Ivlow said.
To his credit, Bailey is trying to get better. He is working with quarterback guru Jeff Christensen to improve his pocket presence and timing. As a runner, he has few peers. In high school and beyond.
"He's tougher than any quarterback in the Big Ten," Ivlow said.