BALTIMORE - Kids are young, impressionable and need guidance. Who they get that guidance from often leads to what road they take. In Lester Cotton's case, he chose to take the smart route with the guidance he was given.
Cotton is a 6-foot-4, 318-pound offensive guard out of Central High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and committed to Alabama in February. The Crimson Tide are a natural fit for Cotton, who grew up eating meals at Bryant Hall, the dining hall at Alabama where his mother still works.
It was those meals in Bryant Hall where Cotton befriended players on the Crimson Tide who offered him advice and demonstrated what it took to be successful. D.J. Fluker, a first-round pick of the Chargers in 2013, was one of Cotton's mentors. Cyrus Kouandjio, a second-round pick of the Bills last month, was another, as was Kouandjio's older brother Arie, who will be a returning starter for Alabama in the fall. All three play offensive tackle; Cotton projects as a guard at the next level, but all were happy to help him develop his game and discuss what it takes to play at the next level.
"The stuff they told me put a motivation in me," Cotton said. "They talked to me about how it was at camp and how to feel comfortable. They brought me in as a little brother and taught me how to be a leader. If I showed them something, they'd tell me if I wasn't doing the right thing and I listened."
Not only did Cotton listen to the advice, he apparently acted on it as well. He's currently the nation's top offensive guard and No. 34-ranked player overall. He plays with a mental and physical toughness instilled by Fluker and others, and he said he'll enter Alabama in 2015 with confidence he may not have had otherwise.
How his confidence will translate to success on the field remains to be seen, but if Cotton plays at the level Fluker did, he'll take his game to the NFL.
"Basically," said Cotton, "I was like, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' He's a big role model to me, so everything he does, I look at. I watch his film and see where I need help. I look at what he does and I know what I need to do to get better."
Cotton said he'll reach out to Fluker and continue to lean on him during his time at Alabama. Also, he'll see a familiar face in the cafeteria when he's eating at Bryant Hall and won't mind a bit having an extra positive role model around.
"I feel real lucky because I can be at school and my mom can check on me," Cotton said. "She can make sure I'm eating right and that my grades are right. She's someone else to push me harder than I'm pushed when I'm on the field."
Cotton said when he's eating in Bryant Hall as a Crimson Tide football player in the coming years and he comes across a kid wanting to learn the ropes, he'll be glad to pass down the advice he was given and act as the mentor.
"I'd tell them everything they'd need to know," Cotton said. "The same thing I was told when I was in their shoes."