The Family Plan.

Joining I'Lario Vital at SJSU next fall will be older brother Mario, a defensive back from Laney College, and cousin Chris Baloney, a defensive back from Houston. Waiting in the wings are two more Vital brothers, both safeties.

Trophies overwhelm the little gray house two doors from busy Bancroft Avenue in east Oakland. They occupy the space over the mantel and the bookshelf in the hall.

``Sometimes I try to figure out how many of them there are when I'm dusting,'' Donna Vital said. ``But usually when I get to 100, I lose count.''

It's easy to lose count in this house. San Jose State football coach Fitz Hill paid a visit in hopes of landing one player and came away with three, maybe five.

The biggest trophy is I'Lario Vital, a 5-foot-11, 207-pound tailback from McClymonds High widely acknowledged as the best offensive player in the East Bay.

Joining Vital at SJSU next fall will be older brother Mario, a defensive back from Laney College, and cousin Chris Baloney, a defensive back from Houston.

Waiting in the wings are two more Vital brothers, both safeties. Ge'Nado, still in high school, and Jino, serving with the Army Reserve in Virginia, hope to join the others in 2003.

No wonder then that Hill, when asked to evaluate I'Lario's impact on the SJSU program, bites off a one-word answer: ``Huge.''

The respect cuts both ways. Although his high school coach suggested other campuses be visited, I'Lario shut down the process without accepting invitations from Tennessee, Louisiana State, Fresno State and Washington State.

Why San Jose State, a program struggling for more than a decade?

For one thing, the Spartans allowed Perry and Donna Vital and their sons to realize their dream of having the young men play on the same college team. And the school's downtrodden status helped, not hurt.

``We wanted to go, if I may say this, to an underdog school and try to build it up,'' Perry said. ``It was the way they treated my kids. It was like a family atmosphere. That what I wanted. My kids are from the inner city, but they're real respectable.''

Mario said: ``We didn't want to go to big-name colleges. We like to start small and build from that. Plus, they play nice opponents.''

Those opponents feature Ohio State and Washington next season and tentatively include Florida and Louisiana State in 2003.

Another factor for the family was Hill, one of four African-American head coaches among the 117 schools playing Division I-A football.

``I felt the presence of a fatherly figure,'' Perry said. ``In a sense it was because Coach Hill, as an African-American, can relate to my boys. But if he had been blue and he had that fatherly presence, I would have let my boys go there.''

Their paths first crossed last summer when I'Lario attended Hill's camp, where he won MVP honors despite a sprained ankle.

``We met the coaches and it was like a spark came into my heart,'' I'Lario said. ``I just thank God that all of us can enroll there together and make a big difference.''

The telephone rings as the family is gathering for a newspaper photo. It's Baloney, so close to the Vitals that he's like a fifth brother.

``I'm coming to San Jose State this year because I always wanted to play with my cousins,'' said Baloney, who has been timed at 4.3 seconds over 40 yards. ``I wanted to come out there and play with I'Lario in his senior season at McClymonds, but my mama wouldn't let me.''

Baloney used to be the surname of Perry and Donna's sons until, as Perry explains, the parents decided to marry five years ago. This was somewhat confusing to those who knew Mario when he was an outstanding quarterback at Oakland's Fremont High. Baloney one season, Vital the next.

One thing for sure: Mario could play. After a senior season in which he passed for 998 yards, ran for 750 and was named his team's MVP, he went to Prairie View A&M in Texas for one season but couldn't adapt there. Mario returned to his hometown and enrolled at Laney, where he was named the Mid-Empire Conference defensive player of the year.

Meanwhile, I'Lario wasn't enjoying his experience following his brother's footsteps at Fremont even though he earned all-state honors for two years as an outside linebacker and occasional quarterback. His parents took advantage of Oakland's open enrollment policy and transferred him to McClymonds. That turned I'Lario around because he met Coach Alonzo Carter.

``I'Lario was told he would have to do something on defense to earn the right to run the ball,'' Carter recalled.

After two games of watching I'Lario pop opponents' helmets off as a linebacker and strong safety, Carter gave him the ball. I'Lario ran for 1,674 yards and scored 36 touchdowns -- 32 running, two receiving and two on interceptions. He rushed for 250 yards against Piedmont and 282 with five touchdowns against Oakland Tech. And, as Carter added, ``He also can kick field goals and PATs and throw the ball 70 yards.''

The brothers use their spare time making a daily run up the Vital Hill, a steep grade that is walking distance from their house. This is the sort of dedication for which the Vitals are noted.

``I bench press 350 pounds, squat 595,'' I'Lario told a caller to his house.

``Please put that in the paper.''

Story Credit: This story contributed exclusively by Ron Bergman/Mercury News.

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