Letts' latest move truly was his best
Author(s): Joe Bush Daily Herald Sports Writer
Date: September 29, 1995
Section: Sports Extra (High School)
Preston Letts spent the first 12 years of his life moving from state to state, from one sport to another; that's why his weekly autumn hunting trips from one sideline to another seem so effortless. Though the Hinsdale Central senior inside linebacker says his roots in the football-loony Southeast aren't very meaningful, the connection can't be overlooked. There has to be some gridiron karma, some sense of 100-yard destiny when you consider:
His father John is a Tennessee grad, his mother Jan an alumnus of Auburn, so it's a wonder they were married at all. Preston was born in Atlanta, then lived in North Carolina, returned to Georgia, then moved to Louisiana for five years and finally, Illinois in 1991. Most of his relatives live in Atlanta, and that's the city he calls home.
His brother Hunter is a sophomore at Auburn, and Preston is convinced Hunter stayed after his freshman year because of the football hoopla.
"That's all he talks about," Letts says.
Preston has scheduled an official visit to Vanderbilt, a Southeast Conference school in Nashville, Tenn. His lucky charm is a Tennessee shirt he wears under his pads.
He washes it after a loss, and lets it grow after a win. It's been moist since Sept. 15, when the Red Devils beat Oak Park 41-13. They won their second straight last Friday.
"It's been washed three times this year," Letts says. "It's hanging in my locker right now. It's pretty crusty."
Still, Preston speaks without a hint of an accent, and was held back from football by a father who is not the stereotypical Southern good 'ol boy, booster-club yee-haw. On the contrary, John didn't want Preston burned out on the sport which wasn't his favorite, but is now.
As a youth, Letts was a good enough basketball player to play on a sixth-grade team as a fourth-grader. Not until seventh grade did John allow Preston to try out for football; he was promptly cut after tryouts.
After the move to Illinois, Letts made the eighth-grade squad as a tight end and safety, and basketball has been an afterthought since.
"This has been my love," Letts says. "I used to play year-round basketball until I started playing football. Then I kinda shifted towards football. I just like the contact."
Then he can thank the Red Devils' varsity staff for wondering if the abilities Letts used to great effect as a freshman and sophomore outside linebacker - sophomore coach Bob Daman reported Letts to be the best linebacker he'd ever coached - would be better served on the inside.
The actual experiment was forced on the staff. When senior Dan Ryan suffered a concussion in the second quarter of last season's first game, Letts was moved inside and never left. The then-6-foot-3, 180-pounder led the team with 114 tackles, 39 ahead of the nearest defender and four shy of the Red Devils single-season record. All-WSSC and Daily Herald all-area second-team honors awaited.
"Coach (Ken) Schreiner told me they were gonna try me there, and I was like, I'm a little skinny for that," Letts recalls. "I told some of the older guys and they kinda laughed at me.
"I played in the first game, and it felt so natural to me. I didn't feel nervous at all. I just got in there and did what I was supposed to do."
The logic was, teams can run away from an outside linebacker; it's not so easy to flee someone in the middle. Letts' athletic ability is summed up in the fact that as an emergency backup quarterback he ran for more than 200 yards in the West Suburban Silver sophomore championship game with Oak Park after learning the offense in one week. He has 4.6-second speed in the 40-yard dash.
"That covers up a lot of sins," Schreiner says. "He's able to do things athletically that other kids can't. If he's inside, he can help wherever the ball is."
Hinsdale South coach Jim Kirwan can attest to Letts' affect on a gameplan. Though the Hornets beat Hinsdale Central 9-7, Letts collected 6 tackles, including a tackle for loss and a sack. To date, he leads the team with 52 tackles and 8 stops behind the line.
"He's the best linebacker we've played," Kirwan says. "There's no one close. In talent, speed and hitting ability. He's very aggressive and very fast. He doesn't stay blocked. We developed all our schemes for that game for him."
Letts has improved in all areas of football and school in his quest for a scholarship. He quit basketball - in which he played on the varsity as a sophomore - last winter after a tiff with coach Bob Mueller three games into the season, and dedicated himself to preparing for college football.
"He's doing whatever he can to present a complete package," Schreiner says. "He's making himself more marketable."
Letts has raised his grades to honor-roll status, joined track last spring and finished third in the WSSC in the 300-meter intermediate hurdles, and under assistant coach Chris Korfist's guidance, put on 25 pounds of muscle while becoming the team's resident weight-training and strength-supplement expert.
"If I had a big tackle coming at me (junior year), I'd just kinda juke my way around him," Letts says. "This year I can take - the strength and the weight."
The speed is paying dividends on offense as well. Letts, who gained 238 all-purpose yards and scored 2 touchdowns in 1994, thus far has 3 catches for 112 yards and 2 TDs.
He's got four posters of 49ers future Hall-of-Fame receiver Jerry Rice in his bedroom, and admires Chargers All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau for his ability to "put guys on their backs."
Letts and Mueller have come to terms, and Letts will play basketball again this winter. He'll also keep putting on weight. The schools he's talked to - Vanderbilt, Ball St., Northwestern, Southern Illinois - like him at linebacker.
Though Letts has been on the move all his life - on and off the field - opponents can always expect to run into him come the weekend.
"He's a force," Schreiner says. "I think people know where he is."
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