- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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OLATHE, Kan. -- For a guy who doesn't like to stand out, Willie Cauley continues to make decisions to separate himself from the crowd.
The latest? His pledge, confirmed Monday by Cauley, to sign with Kentucky next week as the early period opens for basketball.
"They have everything," Cauley said. "My thing was, do I have the confidence, right now, to be successful there? Standing up to the hype is the hardest thing about Kentucky."
Cauley, a 6-foot-10, 215-pound center ranked No. 32 in the ESPNU 100, picked the Wildcats over Kansas State, Alabama and Florida, accepting an offer to play in a pressure-filled environment on one of the sport's biggest stages. He joins guard Archie Goodwin (Little Rock, Ark./Sylvan Hills), No. 13 in the ESPNU 100, in this Kentucky recruiting class.
Still raw as a basketball player, Cauley wowed recruiters with his apparent room for growth and athleticism -- much of it groomed, improbably, on the football field.
UK coach John Calipari and assistant Orlando Antigua, in fact, got a final look at Cauley before his decision Friday night as his Olathe Northwest team clinched a playoff berth with a 56-28 win over rival Olathe North. Cauley caught a 57-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, surpassing the 1,100-yard mark in his ninth game to lead all receivers in Kansas' largest classification of football.
The choice of Kentucky represents another sign of growth for Cauley, who has spent much of his life simply trying to blend in.
Cauley stood out because of his height and his skin color in Spearville, Kan., population less than 800. Raised there by his white grandparents, Val and Norma Stein, Cauley said he didn't realize he was black or that he was tall.
Others noticed. They still do.
"It almost annoys me," Cauley said. "I'll be at the mall, and they always ask how tall I am or if I play basketball."
He began playing quarterback as a third-grader, and, as he grew to 6-6 at age 14, starred in basketball. Cauley joined the Mo-Kan Elite AAU squad, befriending Shavon Shields, son of Will Shields, the former Kansas City Chiefs great and 12-time Pro Bowl pick, and his wife, Senia.
After his sophomore season at Spearville High School, where Cauley played basketball and 8-man football, he moved 300 miles east to the K.C. suburbs to live with the Shields family.
Though he stayed close to his family across Kansas and his mother in Oklahoma, Cauley needed the structure Will and Senia Shields could help provide, particularly with his academics.
Without the move, Cauley likely would not have qualified to play major-college basketball. It also allowed him to spend more time with his AAU team, based in Kansas City, and gain exposure by playing at a larger high school.
"He's grown tremendously," said Senia Shields, who's sending Willie to Kentucky and Shavon to play basketball at Nebraska next year. "That next period of growth is to find that best fit, where he can mature and become a better basketball player."
Cauley found it at Kentucky, where basketball players have no choice but to embrace the limelight.
Giving up football never an option
Cauley wasn't immediately eligible to play sports at Olathe Northwest after his 2010 transfer. He sat out of football as a junior and joined coach Mike Grove's basketball team in January, averaging 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.
Recruiting picked up in the offseason. He got the offer from Kentucky in August, as football season neared.
A few observers and friends, Cauley said, asked the question that many considered: Why play football?
Cauley, while nimble for a receiver his size, gives defenders a huge target. He received messages through Facebook that opponents would take him out at the knees. And this was no 8-man game; Olathe Northwest plays 6A ball in one of the most competitive districts in Kansas.
"Selfishly, as a basketball coach, you look at that and think he has a lot to lose," Grove said. "I thought that at the beginning. But it's refreshing. He grew up playing football. I think it's good. He's enjoyed it."
The shoulders of his smaller teammates barely reach Cauley's waist. He's the most recognizable football player in Kansas and surely among the tallest receivers at any level.
The tallest ever to play the position in the NFL, Harold Carmichael, measured 6-8.
Despite Cauley's football success, the NFL is not in his future. The NBA remains a real possibility, but Cauley said he's not concerned about the injury risk.
"I don't necessarily like going across the middle," he said, "but it's something you've got to do. Now, if people call me soft on the basketball court, they have no idea. Football is a whole different level of physicalness."
Cauley blocked three kicks early this season. He delivered a few huge hits, too, including one block on a touchdown run right in front of Calipari Friday night. The basketball coach loved it, clapping his hands enthusiastically as Cauley unleashed a celebratory windmill of his arm for the visitors from Kentucky on his way back to the bench.
"We try to put him in situations where he can make plays," Olathe Northwest football coach Todd Dain said, "but he's not playing fullback. He's not your typical basketball player. He's got a football mentality, and I think it's helped the whole situation."
Meanwhile, opponents underestimate him.
"They think they can manhandle him," Northwest quarterback Dalton Rook said. "Yeah, he's tall, but he's big and strong, too."
According to Grove, the basketball coach, few players possess Cauley's mix of size and athleticism. And because of football, Grove said, Cauley has developed his feet, speed and coordination in methods unlike other big men.
"He's got unbelievable upside as a basketball player," Grove said.
Nothing wrong with standing out
Not even a year ago, Cauley said he was scared of Will Shields, the 40-year-old former offensive guard who played at 320 pounds and retired in 2006. Probably still is, Senia Shields said with a straight face.
His mother, Marlene Stein, was the first to greet Willie after the victory Friday night. Several other family members attended the game.
Will and Senia stayed in the background. Coaches at Northwest said the family has kept a low profile, remarkable for Will considering his larger-than-life status around Kansas City.
No doubt, though, they've played a key role over the past year in all aspects of his life, including the recruiting process.
"I never had a father figure in my life," Cauley said. "He's a very wise dude."
Will and Senia plan to visit Kentucky as often as possible next year, Senia said, between trips to Lincoln, Neb., to see Shavon and Springfield, Mo., to watch daughter Sanayika, who plays center at Division II Drury University.
For his part, the ex-Chief never discouraged Cauley from playing football.
"I'm more concerned about grades than anything else," Will Shields said. "If he has the grades, he should enjoy it. He's in high school. There's enough time to focus on one sport when he gets older, and you could hurt yourself by walking down the stairs."
Cauley's grades no longer pose a risk. Senia Shields said she's seen him grow to look at life through a broader lens. Following the win over Olathe North, Cauley showed concern for Rook, the quarterback, who left in the first half with a head injury, then went to check on a handicapped Northwest student who was knocked to the ground on the sideline late in the game.
Cauley said it's "kind of crazy" to go from Spearville, Kan., to this position as a recruit coveted by the likes of Kentucky. He attended Big Blue Madness on Oct. 14, and was awed to meet ex-Kentucky All-American John Wall, among other Wildcats who have moved to the NBA.
Things move fast in Lexington. Just two years ago, Wall was a freshman. This season, 6-10 freshman Anthony Davis arrives with expectations to play just one season and leave. Then, Cauley's up.
His time at Olathe Northwest has taught Cauley it's OK to stand out -- and that he's ready to face the next challenge.
"How much better he gets," Grove said, "is all going to depend on how much better he wants to get."
Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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