A legend, in everyone else’s mind

GRAHAM, Wash. – Irish Illustrated travelled here to see perhaps the best high school prospect in the history of this state. That’s how analysts and coaches feel about Foster Sarell. It’s not how Sarell describes himself.

GRAHAM, Wash. – It takes work to see arguably the best prospect in Washington state history.

Let’s say you’re a Midwest-based recruiting reporter. Or Harry Hiestand. First, it’s a four-hour flight from Chicago to Seattle. Then you’re staring at an hour’s drive south, fighting I-5 traffic, into an area only loosely associated with the Emerald City.

Now you’re off I-5 and heading toward Graham. Mount Rainier looms large. In fact, you’re closer to that snow-capped volcano than you are to Seattle.

Graham-Kapowsin High School offers a stunning view of Rainer as you wind your way into the parking lot. And it’s here you can find Foster Sarell, a five-star offensive tackle ranked higher than any prospect Washington has produced in at least the last decade.

“Probably the last one like that was Jonathan Stewart,” said Brandon Huffman, the national director of recruiting for Scout, who’s based outside Seattle. “He was the No. 1 running back in the country his senior year. Typically the big-time kids that have come from Washington have been from Bellevue, they’ve been from O’Dea. They’ve been from Seattle-area schools. It’s not very common to have a kid that far away really become as legitimate a national prospect as him.”

Stewart starred at Oregon before becoming a first-round pick of the Carolina Panthers. Drew Bledsoe is probably the most well known player born in the state, but when he won the starting job at Washington State as a freshman, Notre Dame was only two years removed from its last national title.

In the last 10 years the top-ranked prospect in the state has topped out at No. 7 overall. Jacob Eason hit that last year and is now the starting quarterback at Georgia. Max Browne, now USC’s starting quarterback, was ranked No. 8 overall in 2013. Jake Heaps, another Seattle-area quarterback, checked in at No. 21 in 2010 before a disappointing college career.

Sarell has surpassed them all. He’s No. 2 overall on Scout for the Class of 2017 and has made a legitimate push to overtake running back Najee Harris, an Alabama commitment, for the top spot.

Pam Sarell, Foster's mother, got her first clue of what was to come when her son was two years old. At that routine doctor visit the physician projected Foster’s future height at NBA power forward size. Pam couldn’t believe it.

“I was like, ‘No way,’” Pam said. “He’s a solid 6-7 now. I said, ‘No way is my kid gonna be 6-8.’ Never believed it. And then it kinda came true. Size 18 shoes.”

As Foster grew, the Sarells could hardly keep up. At one point in his childhood, Foster had taken to shuffling his feet while running. It was hardly the look of a future elite football prospect.

Another trip to the doctor revealed the reason: Foster’s feet had grown so quickly he needed new shoes. Get a kid into the right size shoes and watch him gain a different kind of momentum.

“We used to kind of tease him about it,” Pam said. “I was like, ‘Our kid can’t even run.’ We took him into the doctor and he was in the wrong shoe size. Too small. That’s why he was shuffling. You take the foot in the right shoe size and then you can run better. Then it was basketball that really got him started. He was very athletic in basketball.”

Foster harbored hoop dreams through middle school. But by his freshman year in high school, it started to become apparent football would take him farther.

As a freshman, Foster played varsity and Eastern Washington became his first scholarship offer. Washington came into the picture early. He’d become a legitimate prospect before freshman year ended.

College coaches confided in Graham-Kapowsin head coach Eric Kurle that they would have taken Sarell into their programs right then. Lofty praise for an offensive tackle who had originally hoped to be a quarterback.

Foster’s physical gifts were evident — size, strength, quick feet — and that didn’t cover a technically refined game at a young age.

“I don’t usually say it,” Kurle said. “But he’s the most athletic kid I’ve ever been around, especially for his size. He’s probably as close to a no-brainer as you’re gonna find in making it to the highest level. He had that ability as a freshman. Colleges said then they’d bring him right in as a freshman. He’s got a mature body, upper body. He’s still got a little baby face like any kid.

“But he’s in shape for a big guy at 315 (pounds). He’s not fat. He’s got a motor, good in school. He’s special in everything he does.”

Eventually, Foster blossomed into a national prospect.

Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and USC are among the heavyweights on his offer list. Foster has narrowed it down, at least unofficially.

Nebraska hosted him on an official visit earlier this month. Notre Dame will get Sarell on campus for the second time next month when it hosts Stanford. Alabama is scheduled for an Iron Bowl visit in November. Washington remains in the mix as does Stanford, which has been the presumed leader in recent months.

Washington head coach Chris Petersen and offensive line coach Chris Strausser attended Foster’s game last week, flying over in a helicopter. Stanford is expected to make an appearance soon as well.

Huffman sees an easy comparison in former Stanford offensive lineman Joshua Garnett, an Outland Trophy winner who was a first-round pick of the 49ers last spring. Garnett was also a Pacific Northwest product.

Yet Foster is a better prospect at the same stage. He showed as much with a virtuoso performance against other national recruits at The Opening Finals at Nike back in July.

“I was surprised at how dominant he was,” Huffman said. “I thought he’d do well. He’s been our No. 1 tackle for a year. I always felt he was gonna withstand. When he was at The Opening (regionals) in Eugene his junior year, he started off really well then hurt his knee. He might’ve gotten into The Opening (Finals) last year. When I saw him in Seattle this year it was so easy for him. I thought it would be even better for him because he’d be in pads. I didn’t expect him to be as dominant as he was. That’s what I think surprised me, how easy he made it look.”

All this praise, yet Foster embraces almost none of it.

He’s always gracious, but he’s not much for interviews and the family only deals with a select few reporters when it comes to updates on his recruitment. Pam is essentially the family spokesperson, except when somebody shows up at practice or a game for some quotes.

Scan the five-star’s Twitter and you’ll find little mention of Foster’s pseudo-celebrity. It’s mostly retweets of friends and very little about football.

“He hangs out with the same guys,” Kurle said. “My son and those guys, they’ve been hanging out since third grade playing youth football together. They’ve all been hanging around since I can’t even remember. We’ve coached them playing baseball and basketball. He’s never changed.”

It’s that part that pleases Pam most.

Many believe Foster is capable of starting in college next September. Others think they’re watching a future first-round pick.

Yet perhaps the best high school prospect in the history of his home state doesn’t see it that way.

Neither does his mother.  

“Being the mom, he’s just my baby,” Pam said. “My husband knew, not me. I’m still in denial. I still don’t look at this like it’s real. My husband knew earlier than I did and I’m still not sure I realize all that’s going on and everything that’s happening.”

All it takes is a cross-country trip to Graham to see for yourself.

Because in the case of Foster Sarell, it’s definitely happening.

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