Low key, not laid back

BATESVILLE, Miss. -- One need look no further than the giant billboard on the side of the interstate to see that South Panola football is an important aspect of the Batesville, Miss., community.

The sign may be a bit tattered, but it still exclaims the pride in the tradition-rich program that boasts multiple state titles. Now there's another tradition beginning in Northern Mississippi.

When safety Antonio Conner became the second South Panola player in two years to be selected to compete in the Under Armour All-America Game, that pride in the Tigers was ramped up once again. Conner should give a hearty thanks to former South Panola defensive tackle Isaac Gross, who was the first player from the school selected to the annual event in Florida. Gross not only played in last January's game but was often dominant against his fellow all-stars.

"That goes a long way with these kids here," assistant coach Jaime Easley said soon after Conner was presented with his Under Armour Game jersey as part of the American Family Insurance Selection Tour. "Of course, we've had success at South Panola. They see all that success and they want to be like that next person. It goes a long way with them. It sure does because they see what they can accomplish.

"There's not a whole lot around this community. Football is very, very important to this community and to the kids. You can go down to the elementary [school] and they're talking about being a Tiger football player."

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Conner is the next great one at South Panola. He is rated the 25th-best prospect in the nation, the second-best safety and the top prospect in Mississippi. Yet a conversation with Conner won't reveal any of that.

The soft-spoken safety would rather talk about getting his team back on track after a down year in 2011. Actually, he'd rather not talk much at all, but he'll do so -- reluctantly.

That quiet demeanor makes one wonder what it's like for Conner when he walks into a local restaurant and everyone knows who he is and wants to talk about last week's game. Conner handles it in style. He has earned the notoriety.

"Our fans love the game of football," Conner said. "We go out and practice hard during the summer ... every day ... hard ... out there in the heat. Most teams, they'll go in. We continue to practice, practice. Practice pays off. Got to keep it going."

Conner's work ethic is part of the reason college recruiters are so interested in him. He has listed five finalists: Ole Miss, Mississippi State, LSU, Georgia and Alabama. He said he'll take an official visit to each school. He's already traveled to see the Rebels, Bulldogs and Crimson Tide and will visit Starkville on Saturday to see the Mississippi State host Tennessee.

Recruiters, however, shouldn't expect to glean too much, even if they get Conner on campus. He'll talk about as much there as he does to those around him at South Panola, who are quick to say they have no idea where he'll end up playing college football.

Don't, however, mistake low key for laid back. Easley said South Panola's star player comes alive and is a vocal leader during games. But it's his attitude off the field that has helped him stay grounded in recruiting.

"His demeanor. His work ethic. His attitude," Easley said. "Just start writing good stuff down, good adjectives and that describes Antonio."

That's something for South Panola to be proud of.