DANVILLE - The cap commemorating his selection to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl would barely fit atop Lamar Dawson's afro haircut on Thursday, but the star linebacker for Boyle County High School couldn't have been more proud to wear it.
With a gymnasium full of his classmates and teachers cheering, the school band playing and cheerleaders spelling his first name with their pompoms, Dawson was officially named as one of the 90 players in the nation's premier football all-star game.
"Having a whole pep rally just for me, it makes me kind of nervous," he said.
The game will be played on Jan. 8 in San Antonio.
"It was always a dream of mine," he said. "I always watched it on TV when I was younger. It's just a dream that I get to play in it.
"... Seeing all the other former NFL players get into it, it's a big honor for me. ... It makes me feel great about myself to be one of the top players in the country."
Dawson is the only Kentuckian selected for this season's game, and he's the 11th since the game was established in 2001.
Dawson, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound four-star prospect, is ranked the nation's No. 3 inside linebacker and No. 101 senior overall by Rivals.com. He is undecided on a college and is expected to wait until the winter to make his decision.
He said it's possible that he could announce his decision during the Army game's telecast, but he also might wait right up until signing day.
"I like (the recruiting process)," he said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Dawson listed a top seven, in no order, of Kentucky, Louisville, Tennessee, Florida, Michigan Oregon and Southern California.
"I went to Oregon on an official (visit for the Stanford game)," he said. "That was really nice, and I went to the Florida-LSU game (in Gainesville). That was a great atmosphere. I'm going to the the Kentucky-Georgia game (on Oct. 23)."
When he's at the UK-UGA game for an unofficial visit, he plans to look at "just (the Wildcats') style of play, just to see if I would fit in their defense."
Dawson was slowed in Boyle County's first few games by an ankle injury and a case of turf toe, but he's still made 71 tackles, including 11 for loss, for the Rebels (7-0), the defending Class 4-A state champions. He has three interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown, and six pass break-ups.
As a junior, Dawson had 176 tackles, and as a sophomore he had 160.
He said the strength of his game is "just getting to the football and making the tackle and playing aggressive."
"Lamar Dawson is a special young man, and they just don't come around too often," Boyle County coach Larry French said. "He not only represents what an athlete should be, but he's strong in the academic field, strong in our community. He's just an outstanding young man. He's one of those you'd like your daughter to bring home. ... Not only is he a great athlete, he has great character, too."
Dawson plays it close to the vest when discussing where he stands on his college decision.
He has long been considered the top target of UK and first-year coach Joker Phillips for 2011. UK linebackers coach Chuck Smith is a former head coach at Boyle County who won multiple state titles there.
Dawson said Thursday that he grew up a Kentucky fan but that he doesn't expect that to play a big factor in his decision, nor will distance from home.
"I don't get too much pressure," he said. "Different people tell me different things.
"... Just about every day everybody is asking me where I'm going. I'm used to it by now."
French said USC coaches are expected to come watch Dawson next week and that Michigan coaches are expected at practice on Monday. He said all the other teams in his top seven have watched him in person, too.
"I think he's probably narrowed it down to three or four schools now," French said. "What those three or four schools are, nobody knows except for Lamar Dawson. He's handled this situation pretty well for a 17-year-old kid. He takes our talk about it, then he'll form his own opinion and do what's best for him. I think that's the best choice for him to make."
What does the coach think of UK's chances compared with the rest?
"I think Kentucky is right there in the mix, and Coach Smith and Coach Phillips are two outstanding individuals and Lamar knows those people pretty well and knows that he can trust those people," French said. "And if Lamar wants to go close to home, I think Kentucky is right there at the top of his list.
"U of L could be right there at the top of his list. Coach Strong is an individual who's pretty strong and trustworthy and is going to build a good program at U of L. Florida is strong on Lamar's list. Michigan and Tennessee are strong on his list also, and he's made a trip to Oregon, and USC has been hounding him pretty good, too."