Frozen in time

IT WAS EARLY IN THE FIRST QUARTER on a calm November Friday night in Southern California, and the crowd at Los Alamitos High was preoccupied with things other than the man walking the aisle in front of the home-side bleachers. In retrospect, like witnesses trying to reconstruct a crime scene, they say his stride might have seemed a bit hurried, his demeanor anxious. There was no reason to pay him any attention until he reached midfield and faced the home team's sideline.

The man leaned over the railing, cupped his hands around his mouth and screamed at the kid wearing No. 5 in the home red. "Cody! Cody Paul!"

The kid looked up, startled. The guy yelled, "You're my hero. I drove all the way from North Carolina to watch you play."

In the stands and on the sideline, there was a noticeable pause. The world stopped, the mood changed. Wait ... what did that guy just say?

A stranger called down to the best player on the field and ... did he say he drove from North Carolina? Did he really say "hero"? Paul's parents, sitting no more than a few rows above the man, laughed first and then shrugged and grimaced. Paul's grandmother whispered to Paul's mother, "Michelle, who is that?" "Mom," she replied, "I have no idea."

You have your normal. Paul has his. The divergence began five years ago, when he was 12, when a 4-minute, 3-second video tossed him into the bizarre and vaguely creepy world of instant Internet fame. There have been times when big chunks of his existence seem like out-of-body experiences, moments for which he has no warning and no response. But this, this grown man lunging over the bleacher railing to tell Paul he just traveled across the country for the sole purpose of watching him? This is outside even the capacious borders of Paul's normal.

What's the proper response under such circumstances? Parents can spend years guiding their sons and daughters through the churning waters of social discourse without considering such a scene, but Paul found a quick solution:
a nod and a wave. The man, apparently satisfied, returned the wave and walked away.

"As I watched, two thoughts ran through my head," says Paul's stepfather, Gary Collins. "I thought, That was kind of cool ... and kind of strange."
Kind of cool ... kind of strange. That captures it.

Because this cross-country traveler was chasing a memory, an image on a screen. In the 17-year-old Paul, the man sought the 12-year-old Paul, a kid he had watched -- who knows how many times -- on YouTube. The man was there to see someone, or some thing, that no longer exists.

IN 2006, Paul was a 12-year-old running back for the Los Alamitos Pop Warner Pee Wee Griffins. Tiny, strong and fast, he was good in a way that makes everyone else look bad. Physically mature for his age, he made the gangly, prepubescent competition appear to be playing under the influence of psychedelics. Paul scored three or four touchdowns a game and displayed the kind of body control that had him walking on his hands as a 4-year-old.

That year, he scored four touchdowns in the Pop Warner national championship game and asked his older brother to make a video to post online for relatives in Utah. Jon Paul laced together a slick, professional set of highlights and backed it with age-inappropriate music ("Make It Rain" by Fat Joe). He posted the clip on MySpace through YouTube, which these days sounds a little like turning a hand crank to start a car. It was 4 minutes and 3 seconds of kind of cool ... kind of strange -- a little boy running around without a care in the world to the strains of a man rapping about throwing money at hos. Within a week, Cody Paul received a message from MySpace announcing that his highlights were that day's featured video. "Next thing you know, it became this monster," his stepfather says.

Paul became a meme, a character in online scripture. Soon the video had a million hits, then two, then three and now nearly nine. Meme-mapping would show a line starting in Southern California and reaching Utah followed by nine million tentacles covering the globe. Soon Paul would reside in the Internet pantheon with Dramatic Chipmunk, Chocolate Rain and Charlie Bit My Finger.

Everyone seemed to know him. Paul turned 13 after the national championship season and joined a youth basketball team. After one game, a kid on the other team asked him, "Are you that Cody Paul kid from YouTube?" Told that he was, the kid asked, "Can I get a picture with you?" Slightly embarrassed, Paul said yes, and the kid turned around and yelled, "Mom, get over here." A moment later, the word spread, and eight people circled Paul, waiting to have their picture taken.

Not long after that, Collins, a UPS delivery driver in Huntington Beach, drove a package to a hotel, where a couple of guys, huddled around a computer, beckoned him to their screen. "You've got to see this kid," one of the guys said. It was Paul, and the guys howled every time he made some hapless 12-year-old flop to the ground. "Guys, that's my son," Collins said. They didn't believe him.

The video was entertaining, but Paul and his family soon discovered
a more serious, even troubling, side. Paul symbolized a trend, one that, if we're being perfectly honest, ESPN The Magazine has helped fuel -- the quest to find ever-younger athletes to celebrate and project for future stardom. It was a catechism of hype, and into the yawning maw Paul went. He had acquired an Internet nickname, White Reggie Bush, and it became nearly mandatory for every subsequent little-kid football video to reference Paul to draw hits -- "The Next Cody Paul," "Better Than Cody Paul." Links popped up on sports blogs and college recruiting sites, where people debated whether his 40 speed was hand-timed or electronic. ("You know Pete Carrol's [sic] already taken that kid out to Chuck E. Cheese," one commenter wrote on BuckeyePlanet.com, while a mathematically challenged member of a South Carolina site titled his post, "Heisman Winner 2019.") University of Washington freshman Travis Gass started a Facebook page titled "Cody Paul for starting UW running back."

Paul's fame followed him everywhere. He went to a college combine at USC after his sophomore year, and several Trojans coaches came up to him and said, "Cody Paul? Oh, my god! I've seen your video."

In a game against Newport Harbor this season, Paul was serenaded after every carry with "Not today, YouTube." His best friends, Daniel Tyler and Kyle Roberts, call him Mr. YouTube. Asked how often he hears it, Paul sighs and says, "Not a day goes by ..." He sounds like an old man resigned to his rheumatism.

THERE'S AN ENTIRE WORLD inside that light-up box. It whirs to life and provides infinite tributaries of the useless and useful. There's a cat eating peanut butter, a professor giving a lecture and a 12-year-old hurdling a safety. Is it a reflection or a distortion? Where do you live: inside or out?

Life inside the box calls for Paul to play college football at a big-time school, win a Heisman and move on to the NFL. Inside the box, Paul is forever 12, forever untouchable, forever a projection of the viewer's imagination.
Life outside the box is different. Paul was a precocious talent, but his precocity came with a catch: He didn't grow. His height held at 5'5", so he compensated by hitting the weight room. After a junior year in which he ran for almost 700 yards playing spot duty, he became a member of the Los Alamitos 1,200-Pound Club, an honor reserved for those who can bench press, dead lift, squat and clean that much weight.

He built his body up to around 170 pounds, and today he benches 310. Wide shoulders, strong legs -- he looks like an NFL running back viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. He ran for nearly 1,300 yards his senior season and was his league's offensive player of the year. He loves football.

But the projections haven't come true. Washington never called. Oregon sent a letter but failed to follow up. USC, despite the coaches raving about Paul's video at camp, didn't express any interest after that. There are indeed two lives -- one in the box and the one in which Paul lives -- and he knows they don't bleed into each other. The guy in the box was him but not him. Paul accepts the reality: a few inches too short and a few pounds too light for the big time. "Not much I can do about that," he says, palms up.

IT'S TEMPTING TO FASHION Paul's story as a cautionary tale, a rush to make kids adults. The idea of all this -- investigating how a 17-year-old feels about chasing the ghost of his 12-year-old self -- feels like asking the 8-year-old beauty queen about the hooked nose that came with puberty.

But this cautionary tale has a fundamental problem: It isn't true. These projections that tail him? They've never been his. Instead, they are the disembodied, external predictions based on the giddiness of discovery. Paul's been too savvy to fall for that. When his stepfather says, "I never realized how big the Internet is," you can almost feel Paul stifle a laugh. In his life, there has always been an Internet. What adults might find overwhelming -- the eternal Big Brother accessibility of the video and the hype that attends it -- is just life to Paul. That kid on the screen, he's a moment in time, nothing more. Asked when he watched it last, Paul pauses. "It's been awhile," he says. "At least a few months." Did he read the comments? "No, people tell me some stuff, but ..." His voice trails off. He shrugs.

"I never had to shield him from anything," Michelle Collins says. "He never took it seriously, the good or the bad."

To Paul, the video is a diversion, not an affirmation. It told him what he already knew, that he was a phenomenal 12-year-old running back. "I would
get through the line and be like, 'Wow, this is cool,' " he says. In the subsequent five years, he's never felt he was chasing an ideal created by the video or trying to fulfill anyone's expectations but his own. And what are they? Simple: He wants to keep playing football. He will play, somewhere. Bryant University, an FCS program in Rhode Island, has shown interest. He'll consider the junior college route, and on the last day in November, he's excited about an e-mail from Robert Morris in Chicago, an NAIA school with a new program.

"They want me to send them my senior highlights," he says. Collins sits up a little taller. "Well, we've got that," he says.

They do. They're preparing one final blast to colleges to create interest in Paul, and the first thing they did was ask older brother Jon to make -- wait for it -- a video. They're planning to use it to get his name out one more time, to rekindle the old magic, to let people see he's still got it. Let them know Cody Paul is still Cody Paul.

The clip opens with a dark screen and the words: And Now the Moment You've All Been Waiting for ... Five Years Later.

What follows is 6 minutes and 38 seconds of the smallest kid on the field breaking tackles and finding holes. The opponents are bigger and stronger, but for another moment frozen in time, Paul makes them look 12 again. It's 6 minutes and 38 seconds to make people believe that what once was could be again.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.