Kaleb Brown and Henry Wilson have plenty in common.
They are both Division I-bound wide receivers who will line up for St. Rita if and when there is prep football in Illinois this school year.
Brown, a junior, is a year younger and, at 5-foot-11 and 177 pounds, not quite as big as Wilson at 6-0, 190.
And their paths to get here were quite different.
Brown burst on the scene as a freshman, when he was promoted to the varsity for the Prep Bowl playoffs, scoring four touchdowns in two games. He showed off his speed the next spring by winning three state medals as a sprinter in track.
His profile has continued to rise after a successful sophomore season and more highlight-reel catches on the summer 7-on-7 circuit.
Today, Brown is the consensus No. 1 player in his class in Illinois. He’s also the No. 6 wide receiver and the 44th-best player regardless of position nationally among juniors, according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings.
But like all prospects, his recruiting is in a strange place because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I only took one visit so far, that was Illinois,” Brown said. “Whenever it starts up (after the pandemic), that’s when I’ll get to it.”
In the meantime, he takes his share of phone calls and Zoom meetings with some of the highest profile coaches in college football.
One of Alabama’s assistants followed Brown on Twitter, set up a call to make a scholarship offer and 30 minutes later, Brown was chatting with Nick Saban.
The significance of that interest from the Crimson Tide is hard to overlook. Phillips grad Jahleel Billingsley appeared in nine games as a true freshman for Alabama last fall. He was the first Illinois native to play for the Tide since 1997.
“A lot of people don’t get Alabama (offers), so it’s a special feeling,” Brown said. “It’s just the start of a lot of good schools recognizing us and bringing Illinois back on the map.”
Another school in that elite category is Ohio State, whose coach, Ryan Day, offered Brown during a Zoom call.
Being on calls with coaches he grew up watching on TV is “a crazy process” for Brown, who is glad he won’t have to make a college decision anytime soon. He’s very much hoping he can make more campus visits and meet coaches in person before picking a school.
“It’s really a blessing being in the position I am, just to know that I do have time,” he said. “It’s a tough situation for those about to graduate. They didn’t really get (into) the process as good as they wanted to.”
One of those seniors is Wilson, who is committed to Western Michigan despite going down with a broken left tibia and fibula in Week 5 of his junior season.
The road back for Wilson — who’s the No. 36 senior in Illinois according to the 247Sports composite rankings — has been grueling.
He lost 25 pounds and had to use a wheelchair when he returned to school. Though students who suffer similar injuries may be at home for a semester, Wilson was back in class in two weeks.
“That was due to my mom,” he said. “(She) was trying to teach me to be self-motivated and how to fight back because a lot of kids, when they get in a traumatic accident, they get depressed.”
Wilson did experience that. “I was very down on myself, I thought I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “But she pushed me to get up and move around.”
He appreciates the tough love now.
“It made me look through a clearer lens and see how not to take things for granted,” Wilson said. “Something as simple as walking, that you do every day — I never would have thought it would be that hard to learn how to walk again. But it was.”
Now Wilson is back running routes along with Brown as the Mustangs, who are coming off a state runner-up finish in Class 5A, take part in fall contact days.
Wilson is glad to be doing football work after not being able even to jog for seven months after his injury. But he’s also itching to get real football back.
He and Brown are joined on the roster by multiple other Division I prospects, including lineman Bodie Turner, linebacker Michael Gaughan, running back Kyle James and receiver Isaiah Bragg.
“We were projected to be one of the best teams coach (Todd) Kuska has ever coached,” Wilson said. “It’s sad that we can’t (play) and this pandemic has been slowing us down.”