ST. MATTHEWS -- Even on a gray, rainy Tuesday morning, it takes 33 minutes to get from Columbia to the St. Matthews city limits.

In Los Angeles, if you drive 33 minutes, you're in, well, Los Angeles.

In Knoxville, if you drive 33 minutes, you're in, well, nowhere.

But if you take Bluff Road to Interstate 77 to Interstate 26 to State Route 6, you've gone from Williams-Brice Stadium to the seat of Calhoun County in four turns and a half-hour's time.

It's a geography lesson Alshon Jeffery knows well.

The prodigious South Carolina freshman receiver's compass pointed in other directions at one time or another.

But he eventually settled on a road less traveled to travel the shortest distance.

The humble hero

Right now, you already think that the Kentucky game is a moment, and a day, that defines who Jeffery is.

And, well, you're partly correct. The seven catches, 138 yards and three touchdowns he recorded in the 28-26 win on Oct. 10 most certainly illustrate the initiation of his athletic potential at the college level.

But let the rest of that day wash over you to understand who Jeffery is beyond No. 1 in garnet.

After the game, and after he'd been swarmed by a horde of TV cameras, microphones and questions, Jeffery hopped on a bus. That's right, a bus.

It was one of those fan shuttle buses. This one took fans from Williams-Brice to a parking area outside Colonial Life Arena.

After a performance that's a career day for most receivers -- it earned Jeffery SEC Freshman of the Week honors -- Jeffery boarded a bus to hang out with his brother and some old high school teammates.

Fans mobbed him, showering him with praise, once they figured it out. He shrugged it off.

Once at the arena, he caught up with friends and his high school football coach, Walt Wilson.

"He didn't think anything of it," Wilson said. "That's him."

Ecstatic at what had just happened, Jeffery's high school basketball coach, Zam Fredrick, hopped in the car and headed for Columbia.

One problem: Jeffery was already destined for St. Matthews. They passed each other on I-26.

Where did he want to celebrate the day?

"He's a homebody," Fredrick said.

That's not at all possible if you're in Southern California, or even East Tennessee.

It's so uncommon for Steve Spurrier to sing praises of his players. And younger players are hardly ever -- if ever -- talked about in lofty tones.

But Jeffery's case is abnormal. Spurrier senses something different about this 18-year-old.

"I didn't know he could do the things he's doing right now," Spurrier said Sunday. "He's a special player -- there's no question about that."

In the past three games, Jeffery has caught 19 passes for 382 yards and four touchdowns. In total, he has 24 catches for 443 yards and five scores through eight games.

His quarterback, Stephen Garcia, called him one of the best receivers in the SEC and country last week after an eight-catch, 161-yard night against Vanderbilt that included the game-winning score in the fourth quarter.

As it stands, Jeffery is probably the leader for the league's freshman of the year award.

Spurrier likes his natural instincts and his ability to snatch the ball from the air. He said Jeffery suggests plays on the sideline.

It's not just what Jeffery is doing. It's the fact that he's doing it right away.

Even Sidney Rice, whom the 6-3, 219-pound Jeffery is becoming compared to more and more, redshirted his first season.

"Alshon's not your average freshman," Wilson said. "No way, no how."

The commitment

Maybe it shouldn't come as such a shock that Jeffery is a natural at the college game.

Jeffery was a sophomore when he joined Calhoun County's team three games into the season.

The team's new coach, Wilson, heard Jeffery could throw well, but he didn't know what to make of the spindly kid.

After four days of practice, Jeffery was in his first high school game. He caught the Saints' only touchdown.

But, throughout that season, it was obvious that Jeffery was still a basketball player who happened to play football.

Late in the season, as Calhoun County played for the region title, a jump-ball pass went up to Jeffery. It was rainy and muddy and Jeffery gave a half-hearted effort to get the ball. He was fearful of hurting himself, with the basketball season just ahead.

Wilson knew he could've had the pass. And he called Jeffery on it.

"Son," he told him, "you're either with us or you're not."

Jeffery thought for a second and said, "I'm in."

The Saints lost the following week in the playoffs, but Wilson saw a difference as Jeffery made a couple of outstanding catches and almost returned an interception for a score.

Still, let's underscore just how good of a basketball player Jeffery is. Fredrick's eyes light up at that question.

"Right now, arguably, he's the best pure point guard on that campus," Fredrick said, repeating it two more times to drive the thought home.

That's big talk, especially coming from a former Gamecock whose son just played for the team, as well.

Nevertheless, in the offseason after his sophomore year, Jeffery came to Wilson. He said he realized his future was brighter in football. He said he wanted to play in front of "80 instead of 12" -- meaning, thousand.

His play backed up his change in philosophy.

"He caught fire," Wilson said. "He did what he wanted to do."

After 910 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior, everyone wanted a piece of Jeffery. Even Southern Cal.

The other options

Jeffery fell in love with Southern Cal from afar, watching the Trojans on TV.

USC -- the "other one" to folks around here -- had everything.

The affable coach, Pete Carroll. Beautiful girls and weather. Heisman winners and national titles.

Wilson said it was his "dream school."

But when the dream started becoming reality, when the Trojans were just as interested in him as he was in them, that's when his view gradually changed.

"You've got to be careful," Wilson said. "Sometimes we might get exactly what we ask for."

Jeffery had been to a camp in St. Louis before, but L.A. made St. Louis seem like St. Matthews.

The thought of being there for a number of years -- a dozen states and a long plane ride away from home -- set in.

Jeffery was torn. He wanted this team. But not 2,500 miles away from St. Matthews.

For so long, Jeffery's recruitment had been about a pair of USCs.

Suddenly, when Phillip Fulmer was out and Lane Kiffin was in at Tennessee, another USC surged onto the scene. Well, sort of.

Kiffin, the former offensive assistant under Carroll, was marketing Tennessee as the East Coast version of Southern Cal.

"Kiffin came in like a damn storm," Wilson said.

Jeffery wanted the Trojans, but didn't want the distance. Poof! That was Tennessee.

And it gave Jeffery pause.

The Volunteers went so far as to promise Jeffery a certain number of catches his freshman year. They were willing to tell him whatever it took.

"He'd be playing a ton for us if he were here," Kiffin said this week.

The first and final offer

South Carolina was in on Jeffery from the beginning. It was the first school to offer him.

And that's why, even after Jeffery had committed to Southern Cal, Wilson still took calls from Gamecocks recruiting coordinator Shane Beamer.

Plenty of other coaches from plenty of other schools were calling, but Beamer was the only one allowed a crack in the door to his prized player.

Because the Gamecocks were the first to recruit him.

"That means something," Fredrick said.

Because the Gamecocks were gracious about losing out to Southern Cal.

"(Coach) Beamer called him not to say why," Wilson said, "but to tell him he was still there for him and wish him the best."

And because the Gamecocks were 33 minutes away.

"If the kid changed his mind," Wilson said, "he needs somewhere where he can go, somewhere where he feels comfortable."

Beamer remembered the conversation, in October 2007, when he directly asked Jeffery if he could continue recruiting him.

Jeffery said yes.

Then Wilson got on the phone.

"I said, 'Coach, trust me,'" Wilson told Beamer. "'You're closer than you think you are.'"

So the Gamecocks kept recruiting him. They took half the coaching staff -- Spurrier, Beamer, Steve Spurrier Jr., Eric Wolford and Jay Graham -- to the in-house visit, at Jeffery's grandmother's house.

"I'm not big on chasing guys committed to other schools," Spurrier said. "But Shane Beamer thought he was worth hanging onto."

He took his official visit to South Carolina, and that's when the Gamecocks really gained ground.

The wild night

The final hours of Jeffery's recruitment, with teammate Eric Mack and Wilson, inside the walls of a room at the Fairfield Inn in Orangeburg, have been pretty well documented.

"I knew it was going to be a wild night," Wilson said, conceding he didn't realize just how wild Signing Day eve would be.

Actually, Fredrick says he believes Jeffery's mind had been made up for months. He had decided much earlier that he was going to South Carolina.

But, at various points in time, each of the three schools thought Jeffery would be playing for them.

Until the end, Southern Cal really believed he was still coming. Trojans sources confirmed it again this week.

And Kiffin said this week, "He had told us he was coming at one point, and (we) just lost him in the end."

Beamer said he talked several times that night with Jeffery. He went to bed just after 1 a.m., feeling pretty confident that Jeffery was going to be a Gamecock.

Southern Cal and Tennessee kept talking, though.

The calls continued until just after 3 a.m., with Southern Cal and Tennessee pushing Jeffery to know why he was turning them down.

Frustrated, Kiffin told Jeffery that he'd "wind up pumping gas" like other former Gamecocks. First reported by ESPN.com, multiple sources confirmed this week to The Post and Courier that those comments were made.

"The gloves were off," said Wilson, who, like Jeffery, declined this week to say anything about the pumping gas matter.

To understand why things played out the way they did, why Jeffery didn't just shut off his phone, you have to go to back to the shuttle bus anecdote.

Jeffery is a good kid. Everyone says so.

Maybe he was too nice, in that moment.

"He didn't want to have to tell anybody no," Fredrick said, adding that it caused Jeffery anguish. "Folks had been good to him. Everybody was singing a really nice song that he liked. What really bothered him was he was going to have to tell a whole lot of people no.

"He never was really good at that."

Eventually he had no choice.

On signing day, he put on a South Carolina hat. He faxed his paperwork to Columbia. He was staying home.

And the Gamecocks play at Tennessee on Saturday, pitting Jeffery against Kiffin. Jeffery said it would not be personal, even if fellow receiver Moe Brown has since said otherwise. He just wants a Gamecocks win.

"If I have a great game," he said, "I have a great game."

The first domino

Wilson calls Jeffery a "trendsetter."

"What you'll do is you'll start something," Wilson told him, regarding his decision.

Just after Jeffery's commitment, word circulated that A.J. Cann, the talented offensive line prospect from Bamberg-Ehrhardt High, was strongly considering South Carolina.

"It's cool to go to Carolina now," Cann told his coach.

Cann has since committed to the Gamecocks.

Wilson said Jeffery being at South Carolina is making a difference in the recruitment of Mack, the offensive line prospect whom Wilson says is still "solid" in his commitment to the Gamecocks, despite rumblings about Auburn.

Then there's Jeffery's little brother, Shamir. The receiver and safety prospect is a junior this season.

Wilson said it's going to be extremely difficult to keep little brother from joining big brother in Columbia.

But it all runs deeper than individual kids and their college decisions.

When Jeffery was still in high school, he received a letter from the neighboring town of Elloree.

A 4-year-old boy, with his dad's help, wrote Jeffery to tell him that he was his hero. It's a view shared by residents a lot older than 4.

The reality is this: We're only seeing the first ripples of Jeffery's impact at South Carolina, both on and off the field.

It's an impact that simply could not be felt if he'd landed in Knoxville or Los Angeles.

You cannot put a value on that. No, not here.

"They always talk about sports being able to bring all people together," Fredrick said. "In our county, it's very important. These are not the best times in Calhoun.

"But we've got one common thing that brings everyone together, in a pleasant and positive way. It's young kids and older people. Everywhere you go -- the barber shop, the grocery store, the church, wherever -- everybody's talking about it. About Alshon.

"It's a beautiful thing."

Just as much as Alshon needs home, home needs Alshon.

You can figure that out in less than 33 minutes.

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com

and check out the South Carolina blog at www.postandcourier.com/blogs/gamecocks.