The past year has been full of thrills and surprises for Vonn Bell and being selected to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's annual Super 11 team ranks among the bigger ones.
That's because Bell, rated as the No. 3 safety prospect in the nation by one recruiting site, doesn't live in Georgia.
In fact, he is the first Super 11 selection from Tennessee ... or any state other than Georgia. He plays at Ridgeland High in the hills of Walker County, about a 40-minute commute from his family's home in Ooltewah, Tenn., a little town outside of Chattanooga.
"I feel like a Georgia boy somewhat after going to battle with my Georgia team every Friday night,'' Bell said. "It feels like home. My coaches welcomed me with open arms.''
Living outside school-district lines is common for Georgia athletes. Living in another state is not.
Bell's mother, Vanessa, has worked as a special-education inclusion instructor at Ridgeland for four years. Like many school systems, Walker County allows the children of faculty to enroll in its schools regardless of address. The Georgia High School Association normally requires transfer students to move into the school district to be eligible for sports, but it makes exceptions if the legal guardian is a teacher, coach or counselor at the school.
The move was Vanessa Bell's idea. She was concerned that Vonn's former school, Chattanooga Central, was changing head coaches for the third time in three seasons. And she also thought Georgia football was stronger.
After playing in Georgia for a season, the son agreed.
"We play against a good D-I prospects every Friday, and you get to see what you can do against them,'' Bell said. "Coaches look for how players respond to competitors like that.''
Bell joins a Super 11 group that includes the nation's No. 1 recruit, Grayson defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who has committed to Clemson. The Super 11 list also includes players who have committed to Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Georgia Tech, UCLA and Vanderbilt. Bell is one of only two who has not made his college choice. Dooly County's Montravius Adams, the No. 1-rated defensive tackle in the country, is the other.
Ridgeland was 7-5 last season. The Panthers were eliminated from the playoffs by Peach County, which featured 2012 Super 11 receiver Demarcus Robinson.
Bell was credited with 180 tackles in 2011. He had five interceptions and five fumble recoveries, three returned for touchdowns. He had more than 1,000 all-purpose yards.
"Please help me pass his name to people who need to know,'' Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis wrote in a December e-mail that nominated Bell for all-state. "Transferred to us from Tennessee school, so his name in Georgia is not out there yet. Will be major D-I player.''
Mariakis was right, although Bell had no scholarship offers at the time. Mariakis sent out highlight tapes. Bell's older brother, former college basketball player Volonte Bell, made one of his own and posted it on YouTube.
Georgia's Mark Richt was the first high-profile head coach to respond. He offered Bell a scholarship based on the tapes alone.
"I'll never forget the day, Jan. 7,'' Bell said. "Coach Richt called my coach. That's when he offered me a scholarship. It took off from there. Once an SEC school offers, they're all going to offer.''
Vanessa Bell has a scrapbook that keeps the business cards from college coaches she has met since Jan. 7. She has 29 of them. Bell is now a five-star recruit, according to scout.com.
Vanessa says living in the Chattanooga area and working at Ridgeland doesn't seem unnatural, that a friend teases that she has lived as a nomad all her life. She was born in Kansas, reared in Kentucky. Her husband, Vencent, grew up in Mississippi and played football at Murray State, where the couple met. They've lived in Texas and Alabama ... and now 10 years in Tennessee.
Bell has narrowed his college choices to Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Texas and Clemson.
"I wasn't expecting this, but I always dreamed of it,'' he said. "Now, I'm living it, and I'm very thankful.''