As it turns out, there were no geographical limits to Thursday's travel, but we'll get to that a little later.
Upon boarding the Continental Express Jet, which can only fit the U.S. Gymnastics team comfortably or there needs to be some weight loss by yours truly, thoughts began to race through my head about the best defensive tackle prospects seen over the years in the state of Texas.
Would Derek Johnson fit the mold of some of the best seen in the last 10-15 years in the football hungry state that has produced several NFL'ers? Names such as Casey Hampton, Shaun Rogers, Ty Warren, Tommie Harris and others immediately come to mind. If a defensive tackle is going to take the top spot from Hampton, who to this day, is still easily the most dominant tackle watched by these eyes, one will have to be a dominant force with a motor and want to be great that rarely exists.
The flight was without turbulence, which is lucky for the nice woman seated next to me. As the plane closed in on Memphis, thoughts of the famous city came to mind. As always, there is Elvis Presley, Cybill Shepherd, FedEx, native Kathy Bates swinging the sledgehammer in Misery and Beale Street. Those are a given. After the legends came the thoughts on athletics. The Albert Means saga, the movie Blue Chips for some reason, 2003 PGA Championship winner Shaun Micheel, Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway and the disaster that is the Memphis Grizzlies.
One thing that stayed the same from Houston to Memphis was the chill of the day. Jacket not optional, the wind chill was in the mid-twenties.
After a quick trip on the shuttle to Enterprise, it was time to head northwest to Hoxie, Arkansas. A little more than halfway to Hoxie, the town of Jonesboro and Arkansas State University appeared. While the Arkansas State win over Texas A&M gave me a chuckle, my thoughts were suddenly of dismay thinking about John Brady and the LSU Tigers beating Texas in the 2006 Elite Eight.
As the Pontiac rental cruised down Highway 63 just north of the posted speed limit, looking either way was cotton field after cotton field and metal grain silos.
Around 11:10, the Hoxie city limit sign came into sight and the population read 2,817. Hoxie sits just south of athletic rival Walnut Ridge.
Ole Hickory appeared to be the lunch destination of choice as the parking lot was full upon arrival and departure more than two hours later.
The size of the town was expected; the size of the school was expected at about 1,200 students from K through 12. What wasn't expected was the pint-sized press box at the football stadium and just how small the stands were as there couldn't have been enough seats to hold two thousand fans.
One thing is for sure about Hoxie, the people were friendly and were genuinely excited to have someone at their school to cover Derek Johnson. At times, there were more questions lobbed my way asking about Texas high school football, the University of Texas and a number of the big time players on the football team.
After interviewing Johnson, head coach Tom Sears and an assistant coach, it was time to hit the road and make my way to Paducah, KY.
A quick peek at the map and it was simple. Simple for some, but too easy for a person that always thinks there is a better way and a prettier drive.
A little over an hour later, the Missouri state line approached. My first thought was how bad OU was going to destroy the Tigers on Saturday and the home of the nation's best college basketball player.
If you are keeping count, that's four states by 2:30 pm - Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri, and a lot of cotton fields, cattle and one big ‘ole defensive tackle prospect.
In the tiny town of Maiden, MO, a turn onto Highway 62 heading east was made and a few miles later, I-55 was in sight. The winding roads and small town were in the rearview mirror. A few short minutes later, it was decision time. Take the easy route and head east on Highway 80 about an hour and ten minutes west of Paducah or take the scenic route.
Scenic route it was and that is where the fun began. After hitting I-57 a couple of miles up the road, the realization set in that the drive was going to be a little longer than desired. As the Illinois state line drew closer, two things became clear. This was not a scenic drive and the bridge over the Ohio River into Kentucky was going to be an adventure.
Let's just say the two-lane bridge had very tight lanes with concrete walls on both sides about a foot from the white lines and a number of eighteen wheelers headed my way. Speed limit 25? More like 15 claustrophobic miles an hour. Is it too late to buy insurance for the rental car? Two hands gripping the wheel like Sergio Garcia's Sunday death grip of a putter in a major, the task at hand was to not make the long trip a real expensive trip as well.
The Pontiac made it through and after wiping a bead of sweat off the forehead, the speed returned to 65 miles an hour. After a short drive to Wickliffe and a turn onto Highway 60, what appeared to be a cat raced across the two-lane road still on the outskirts of town. After hitting the breaks and taking a closer look, the critter crossing the road was a black and white piglet with a collar.
Someone's pet pig was nearly a post Thanksgiving feast for a pack of buzzards.
The final few minutes of the drive to Paducah were not as eventful as the prior hour. It was almost time for Kentucky high school basketball at its highest level.
Upon arriving in Paducah, there was little doubt one had entered SEC country. With an Arby's and Hardee's within a stones throw of each other, an early dinner was a difficult decision. It was too tough to pass up the Beef N' Cheddar on a sesame seed bun though.
If one is following along and counting the states of my geographic demise, it would be six states in one day. Just to update the state line board, it was Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky.
The following two days were just awesome as the Marshall County Hoopfest again proved to be a rousing success. After spending two full days at the tournament, there is little doubt that the love for hoops in Kentucky favors very comparable to Texas high school football and quite possibly with more passion and excitement.
About 4:30pm, an hour before the first game of the session, the gym began to fill up. The attire was that of blue and white dominant with some cardinal and white and Tennessee orange mixed in.
To my surprise, there were even three or four Longhorn fans sporting a hat and shirt. On Saturday, there was a Longhorn fan decked out from head to toe in Texas gear. Of all of the fans wearing their favorite school attire, the Longhorn fan stood out the most.
The crowd had a genuine appreciation and understanding of the game that few possess. The refs caught some heat in every game, except for the trio that took away a potential win from Obion County Central out of Tennessee as host Marshall County would only be whistled for a foul that could have been filed on and brought to trial in some states in the final three minutes coming from behind to literally steal a victory.
A late night visit to the Kountry Kastle followed the first night of games. The accents were a lot of fun, the food was great and the music was perfect for any country fan.
Saturday was one of the longer days in memory. The first game began at 9am, arrived at 8:30 to secure my seat on press row, and the last game was scheduled to begin at 11pm. After future Longhorns Tristan Thompson and Avery Bradley took home MVP's the final two games with the final game concluding at about 1:30 AM Sunday morning, it was time to close the book on Kentucky high school basketball and all it had to offer.
After two and half hours of sleep, it was time to head south to Memphis for a return flight to Houston.
The drive to the airport was a quick one and maybe too quick as it explained by the police officer with flashing lights that pulled me over in Covington, the hometown of the late Isaac Hayes. Sure 74 in a 55 was a little over the limit, but the speed limit signs change in that area with the regularity of SEC head football coaches.
Luckily, the officer was a high school basketball fan and he allowed me to go on my way to the airport with a warning, which I didn't really expect being zapped at 19 over the posted limit.
About 45 minutes later, it was time to turn in the rental car and make tracks to Continental.
With time to spare, the time was available to reflect on the three-day trip. Of the thoughts that were running through my mind, Derek Johnson and Texas basketball were of the upmost importance.
Derek Johnson is a big time young man with a lot of ability and the respect and well wishes of every schoolmate, teammate and coach. He is a very nice and mature youngster that appeared to be driven to succeed. While Casey Hampton's spot is still secure as the best defensive tackle prospect seen with these eyes in person, Johnson will come to Texas with a lot of potential.
The Texas basketball program is just about to get really good. While the past teams have had their fair share of success, the Texas teams of 2009-10 and 2010-11 have the chance to be special. Avery Bradley and Tristan Thompson are special talents and Shawn Williams will complement each very well and be a productive four-year player for the program.