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The national hero wasn't ready for his close-up. How could he have been? Kaleb Eulls never imagined TV trucks would roll past the dried cornfields and boarded-up general stores of rural Mississippi to find him in Pickens last week. Never expected he would be miked up by a producer in front of his family's trailer for NBC's Today before the first bell rang at Yazoo County High. Never realized the relentless appetite of a news cycle could devour a feel-good teen angel as a side dish to Wall Street scoundrels and the gloomy recession.
Lots of high school stars in our American Idol society crave attention, and they post highlight clips of their peacock moves on YouTube, but Eulls—a 6'4", 255-pound senior who is rated as one of the state's best at quarterback, defensive end and kicker—has never indulged in the fame game. (He declined to hold a press conference in July when he committed to Mississippi State, turning down Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss and Tennessee.) And yet there is a YouTube moment of Eulls that is unlike any other player's. Now up on the Web: footage from a security camera mounted in a Yazoo County school bus on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 1.
In the video a 14-year-old girl stands up amid seats filled by five- to 18-year-olds and pulls a semiautomatic handgun from her flowered tote bag. She begins walking up the aisle, threatening revenge for being bullied. In one of the backseats Eulls had been lulled to sleep by his MP3 player. "My [16-year-old] sister woke me and said, 'Kaleb, a girl has a gun,'" explained Eulls by phone last Wednesday without any drama in his voice. "The first thing I did? I grabbed my glasses hanging on my shirt." The second thing? He got up and, with the bus stopped, opened the rear exit for kids to escape. On camera he eases toward a girl he'd seen before but didn't know. He tries to calm her as she waves the chrome-plated gun and children scatter for the front and rear doors. "She got distracted, kind of blinked," Eulls said. That's when he tackles her, the handgun hitting his leg before it falls to the floor. He grabs the gun. "I got it," he says on the audio. Crisis over. Lives saved. Legend made.
Glory was never so exhausting—or so disillusioning. A week that began last Wednesday morning with cake in Eulls's Spanish class to celebrate his quick thinking morphed into days with dozens of interviews and community appearances. "It overloaded him," Yazoo County coach Matt Williams said late last Friday night. Williams was sitting on the steps of the Junior ROTC building, used as the makeshift locker room for visiting teams that play Velma Jackson High in Camden, Miss., a town marked only by a brick post office. Williams had just watched his Panthers lose 47--14, with Eulls steeped in a fog while an ESPN camera chronicled his night. He ran for a touchdown and threw for another but was a step slower than normal, limping from a thigh bruise, weary from all the attention. "I told him [afterward] to keep his head up," Williams said. "He doesn't ever have to make another touchdown or tackle to be a hero. Right now, he's good."
With our obsession over celebrity, no overnight sensation is kinda, sorta in the spotlight. A pedestal can quickly turn into the trapdoor of a dunk tank—just ask Susan Boyle from Britain's Got Talent after her rise and meltdown. As soon as the clip from the bus hit YouTube, hateful comments about black-on-black crime were posted on the site. While Eulls was being feted by many as a symbol of what's right in the world, opposing players mocked his instant fame. "People are going to talk," said Williams, who didn't detail the jabs Eulls heard during the game.
Often, a snarky dig is the preferred language of the threatened. What Eulls did to disarm the troubled teen—"If someone was going to get shot, I'd rather it be me than a child," he said—had people asking if they would have taken the same risk. "Think about it: Here is a high school senior with good grades [a 3.4 GPA last year], who is a special player, one of the best in the state, and he's riding a bus [45 minutes] to school," says Paul Parker, whose son Bryan has played with Eulls since youth league. "He doesn't have all the advantages and doesn't ask for anything special. Really, it's a miracle he was on that bus."
The residue of this bravery formed what Williams called a circus in a tiny patch of Mississippi. So Eulls relented to those who believed sharing his story would be good for the community when all he wanted was to ace a test he had last Friday. The more he gave, the more depleted he became. "He probably felt he had to be the hero for the media," said Williams.
After the loss in Camden, Eulls walked off the field and into the darkness. As his teammates filed onto a bus, an officer pointed Eulls toward the front seat of a Yazoo County sheriff's sedan. It wasn't a perk but a precaution against any postgame clowns who wanted to get too close. One day Eulls will probably look back and remember the Crayola-signed thank-you cards from the children he saved. But after a week of the hero treatment, the sheriff's vehicle must have felt less like a ride back home and more like a getaway car.