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January 8, 2012
Perhaps no city outside the Alabama and Louisiana borders had as much interest in Alabama's 21-0 win over LSU in Monday's BCS championship game as Buford, Ga., a town about 40 miles northeast of Atlanta.
Buford High School has two players verbally committed to each of the schools that squared off for the national title Monday in New Orleans. Offensive lineman Vadal Alexander and long snapper Reid Ferguson will suit up for LSU next season, while tight end Kurt Freitag and linebacker Dillon Lee head to Alabama.
"You can't put a premium on the excitement and pride that our school community feels about it," said Buford athletic director Dexter Wood, who lettered as a wide receiver for Alabama from 1970-72.
The fact that the school has four seniors heading to two of the nation's top college football programs exemplifies Buford's emergence as a Georgia football dynasty. Buford won four consecutive state championships from 2007-10 and has captured seven state titles in the last 11 years.
"Many times, people have come up to me or have come up to other coaches and players and said how closely Buford's program resembles a college program," Ferguson said.
The Wolves' bid for a fifth consecutive state title ended last month with a 27-24 overtime loss to Calhoun in the Class AA championship game at the Georgia Dome.
Even after that heartbreaking defeat, Buford (14-1) still finished 60th in the RivalsHigh100 national rankings. Buford, coached by former Auburn tight end Jess Simpson, went 14-1 and placed 99th in the 2010 RivalsHigh100.
"The reputation is that Buford has an outstanding weight-training program, and when you see the kids, you believe it," said Keith Niebuhr, a Southeast recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "Buford players look bigger and stronger than just about any team you'll come across at that level. That puts them further along than a lot of kids and maybe better prepared for the next level."
Indeed, Wood said Buford has the type of state-of-the-art weight room that could match many college facilities.
"We have the facilities and we've got kids who are committed to year-round development, and we have coaches there who are so passionate and view weightlifting as just as important as coaching any scheme on the field during the season,'' Wood said. "We like to say that we win championships in the offseason.''
Wood coached Buford through the 2004 season and led the Wolves to three straight state titles from 2001-03 as well as appearances in the 2000 and 2004 state championship games. Simpson, a former assistant on Wood's staff, has built on that momentum since taking over the program in 2005.
Along the way, Buford has produced an assembly line of Division I talent that includes former Notre Dame running back Darius Walker and ex-Florida State wide receiver P.K. Sam as well as current Florida defensive tackle and former five-star recruit Omar Hunter.
But the school has never produced a senior class quite like this one.
"With our senior class, everyone is just best friends," Freitag told TideSports.com last month. "We all have fun at practice every day. We have a small school, so we have almost every class together. We see each other in the halls. We've really played well as a senior class."
Buford has a total of eight seniors verbally committed to FBS programs, with CB Ryan Dillard (Air Force), CB Paris Head (Vanderbilt), CB C.J. Moore (Virginia) and LB/FB Nathan Staub (North Carolina) joining the Alabama and LSU duos.
That's a remarkable total for a public school with fewer than 200 students in its senior class.
"A Dillon Lee or a Vadal Alexander, you knew pretty well in eighth grade they were going to be special players and have their choice of where they wanted to go," Wood said. "They just had all the size, speed and talent at an early age. But there were others like Kurt Freitag who were late bloomers. You didn't know what level they might get to play. Then they have growth spurts, develop and here they are committed to Alabama. Reid Ferguson, you'd have never thought in ninth grade he'd be going to LSU. He was an undersized lineman. He didn't have any of the measurables. But he found a specialty. He found something he could do really, really well.''
Considering that Alexander, Ferguson, Freitag and Lee grew accustomed to winning championships at Buford, it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise that they chose the two programs that competed for this year's BCS title.
Ferguson and Lee made their selections even as family ties suggested they'd choose other SEC programs.
Lee is the younger brother of Dallas Lee, a Buford alum and a sophomore guard for Georgia. He still opted for Alabama in May and stuck by his commitment even as Georgia continued to chase him.
Ferguson's parents each attended Tennessee, which recruited him along with San Diego State. Ferguson's respect for LSU head coach Les Miles and special teams coach Thomas McGaughey lured him to Baton Rouge.
"[Miles'] style of coaching is just so different from anyone else you could find," Ferguson said. "The way he treats his players, the way he gets along with his players, it's something that really attracted me to LSU."
Having two players each committed to rival schools dueling for the national title naturally has led to some teasing. There was a little bit of trash talking before LSU's 9-6 overtime victory over Alabama on Nov. 5, though Freitag didn't verbally commit to the Crimson Tide until early December.
But even after the rematch was set, the current classmates and future rivals didn't engage in any friendly wagers or gentlemen's bets.
"We were kind of going back and forth almost every day before the [regular-season] game on who would win and those kinds of things, just being playful with each other," Ferguson said. "After we found out it was going to be for the national championship, there wasn't as much talk, but I think whoever wins will have bragging rights."
Most of that bragging won't occur at Buford, since three of these four recruits already have graduated.
Alexander, Ferguson and Lee are early enrollees who will be on their college campuses in time for spring practice. Freitag, who picked Alabama over Florida, is the only one of these four recruits staying at Buford for the spring semester.
Of course, in this technological age, that won't stop the two recruits from the winning team from discussing the result with their classmates after the game.
"There will probably be a lot of text messaging and social media kind of stuff," said Alexander, who chose LSU over Alabama and Auburn. "We'll definitely be communicating."
That communication figures to continue next season when they're competing for the trip to the Georgia Dome they used to make together.
These Buford teammates made state final appearances in the Georgia Dome an annual tradition during their high school careers. Now they'll spend the next four years battling for the right to represent the West Division in Atlanta for the SEC championship game.
"I was thinking that if we got to the championship - and LSU's definitely going to get back there while I'm there - then I'd have a lot of experience there since I played in the Dome four years," Alexander said. "I definitely know how it feels to be in the Dome."
And he certainly knows how it feels to play for a championship. That's just part of the education at Buford, where players inevitably win at least one title before earning their diplomas.