Along the recruiting trail, Stamford, Conn., High School linebacker prospect Khairi Fortt crossed paths with a lot of other blue-chip college football prospects, including New Jersey tight end Kevin Haplea and Manheim Central defensive end/linebacker Dakota Royer.
"I met Dakota at Notre Dame,'' Fortt said. "I met Kevin at the U.S. Army All-American Combine.''
It was the bonds he made with players like those - both of whom committed to Penn State - that might have made the difference in Fortt, rated the No. 30 prospect in the 2010 recruiting class by one national scouting service, picking the Nittany Lions over Georgia as his college choice. He made his decision known at the end of a press conference Monday to announce his selection for January's U.S. Army All-American Game.
"What played a big factor was how I got along with the players. I felt I connected more with the players, the other recruits in my class and the recruits from the class of 2009,'' Fortt, rated the second-best outside linebacker prospect in the country by Rivals.com, said Monday evening. "I even got to know some of the other students there and felt I connected with them as well.''
Fortt is also close friends and workout partners with running back Silas Redd, one of Penn State's earliest commitments in a class that now numbers 19. Redd vowed to try to help the Lions gain Fortt's pledge when he himself announced for Penn State in May and was at Fortt's press conference Monday.
"He kept asking, kept texting me [leading up to the press conference]. When I announced, he was like, 'Whoooooo! Yeah!'' Fortt said. "Kevin Haplea and Dakota Royer were in touch. They asked, 'How does it feel?'
"We all had offers from everywhere, and we're all going to the same place.''
The 6-foot-3, 227-pound Fortt had 34 offers when he chose to shut down his recruitment. He narrowed his schools to Penn State, Georgia and North Carolina before settling on a pick between just the Lions and Bulldogs. His offer sheet also included USC, Florida, Michigan and Ohio State.
"He's big and fast and he runs very well. He's the kind of guy Penn State is used to having. He's been clocked anywhere between 4.5 and 4.6 at the combines,'' Stamford coach Kevin Jones said. "I think the number one reason he's gotten such hype was that college coaches don't have to project where he'll end up. He's a gym rat. He's into nutrition. Obviously, he's gotten some gifts from a higher power.''
Jones has some insight into how college programs recruit. A former player at Central Connecticut State, Jones has been an assistant at Boston College and Minnesota. He uses Fortt inside in Stamford's 4-4 alignment, but thinks he projects as a weakside linebacker because of his ability to stuff the run, rush the passer and drop back into coverage.
In fact, Fortt's coverage skills have been considered perhaps his strongest asset.
"High school kids all want to crush the quarterback,'' Jones said. "To me, though, the greatest play I remember him making was last year in a game we were up more than seven points and we just needed a stop. He dropped into the middle and slid over to the numbers while the ball was in the air to pick off a pass and took it to the house.''
Fortt said he really wasn't even a big football fan until eighth grade, when his middle school team won its league championship and he began going to camps, among those Penn State's.
"Me, my brother and my cousin would play. I found out I liked to hit people,'' Fortt said.
Fortt, who said he likes to emulate Brian Urlacher, will enroll at Penn State in January. His high school was originally against the move but has since given in, and he'll have a week after playing in the All-American Game in San Antonio before he'll head to University Park.
"He'll miss his prom and some things like that. But I always joke that seniors don't seem to do much of anything the last half of their senior year anyway,'' Jones said. "He's going to be so far ahead because of that. I really believe he can contribute in some way early.''
Fortt said he tried not to let his friends like Redd influence his decision, but they made a strong pitch for him to join Penn State.
"A couple of months ago I told him I had to be happy wherever I was going, but he did dazzle me with a lot of Penn State gear and about the Penn State fans. I've been hearing it constantly,'' Fortt, who had 118 tackles as a junior but has been limited by a mild ACL sprain the first three games this year, said.
"I know this is Linebacker U.,'' Fortt added. "I'm willing to work hard and show everyone that I can be a linebacker at Penn State. I just want to do my best.''