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All the right moves

Andre Hall, USF's star running back, approaches life like he does a game of chess, which he grew to love.

By GREG AUMAN, St. Pete Times Staff Writer
Published August 21, 2005

TAMPA - He could choose the king, and you'd understand completely.

He could answer with the queen, the most powerful piece on the board, and you'd have no reason to argue.

But ask Andre Hall what his favorite chess piece is, and it's that rare question to which USF's record-setting running back answers without hesitation.

"The knight," Hall says, smiling. "You never know if I'm going to go left or right, front or back. You never know. As a knight, you can do many things. You can cover eight spaces. At my position, I have to wear a lot of hats, so it represents me the most."

Take a step back, think of a knight's unique L-shaped moves across a chessboard, and you can picture the shifty running back making cuts, leaving a defense in, well, pieces.

And if it seems unbelievable that an all-conference star would be as at ease talking chess as he is football, you don't know unbelievable. Just ask Hall about the time he beat Jim Brown - yes, that Jim Brown - in a chess match ... the night before a game.

For Hall, chess and football are much the same game. Some athletes visualize themselves in sports video games - and Hall does that, too. But more often, he sees himself on a chessboard. He sees chess in football. He sees football in chess. He sees chess in life.

"I use chess for everything," Hall said. "For living. Make sure your next move is your best move."

* * *

Ask Hall if he could play chess with any four people, alive or dead, and his response is, initially, predictable.

"Bobby Fischer has to be one. He's the greatest," Hall says. "And I played once with Jim Brown. ... I actually beat Jim Brown in chess."

Wait a sec. Brown, like NFL legend Jim Brown? Hall of Famer Jim Brown? Maybe-best-football-player-ever Jim Brown?

"He's my idol," said Hall, a senior who turned 23 Saturday. "Him and Barry Sanders. They're both quiet. They get up. They don't celebrate. That's why I like them."

True story: Hall was a sophomore at Garden City (Kan.) Community College the night before a game at Butler County in El Dorado, Kan. The hotel the Broncbusters were staying at happened to be hosting a chess tournament with the winner earning a game against Hall's idol.

"You might not get an opportunity like this ever again, so I'll let you enter the competition," Hall recalled his coach telling him.

The coach helped get Hall into the tournament at the last minute, and not only did he play, he won, setting up the match with Brown. Hall promptly beat him.

"Time of my life," Hall said. "The whole time we're playing, I'm looking at his hands. His hands are so large. He's got the biggest hands ever. He shook my hand, and I felt like a woman. Like, "Please, try not to break my hand.' "

In November, Hall and USF will play at Syracuse, which will retire Brown's No. 44 jersey that day. Memo to coach Jim Leavitt: Keep close track of Hall - and Brown, for that matter - the night before the game.

* * *

Before Andre Hall, before Jim Brown, before even football, Ben Franklin wrote that the merit of chess is in three "very valuable qualities of the mind" strengthened by the game: foresight, "which ... considers the consequences that may attend an action;" circumspection, "which surveys the whole chessboard, or scene of action;" and caution, "not to make our moves too hastily."

Hall, like Franklin, finds the greatest value in caution, learned from the simple rules of chess. If you touch a piece, you must move it; if you put it down, you must leave it there.

Ask Hall a question, and he'll pause a split second, surveying a mental chessboard, making sure the words he has in mind are in fact the best ones he can offer.

He learned chess in St. Petersburg's Mel-Tan Heights neighborhood from an old man who played with friends in a nearby alley. Hall knows him only as Pops, but he has him to thank, in some small way, for the path that has led him to the cover of USF's media guide.

"I'd walk by him every day, and one day, he stopped me, said, "Young man, what do you want to do with yourself?' " Hall recalls. "I'm about 16, so I'm thinking, "What's this old man talking about?' He's got a long beard, dreadlocks. But he made me think. He said, "You're getting to the age you need to think about the future.' "

He taught the game to Hall, who soon was bringing friends to learn from Pops. They drew a makeshift chess grid on a table ("So you couldn't lose the board," he said) and kept a bag of pieces on the front porch of one house, playing marathon games.

"When I say all day, I mean starting at 3 o'clock, going to 11 at night," Hall said.

In watching Pops and his friends play, Hall was struck by the sheer silence of the game. This was the opposite of football; the only word spoken was "check."

"There was no talking, no back and forth," he said. "The focus I got from that, it helped you know what you had to do. I took that into my perspective on life."

Chess purists will tell you saying "check" is something of an insult, suggesting an opponent doesn't realize his king has been threatened or defeated. That said, Hall enjoys the game too much to yield to a sometimes stodgy code of conduct.

"He loves to tell you "checkmate,' " said Hall's brother, Johnny Barthel, who can remember when chess replaced Monopoly as the embodiment of a friendly sibling rivalry.

Give Hall a short break during a locker room photo shoot, and he takes the prop chessboard to the locker of safety Danny Verpaele for a quick game. The two were next-door neighbors last year, and when Verpaele left a chessboard out on a counter one day, Hall insisted on a game.

"He beat me in like 10 minutes," said Verpaele, who loses again this time as teammates gather around. "We played maybe three times. He killed me."

Barthel said chess has made his brother a better person, a more patient young man. Hall says he found chess about the same time he got himself together academically, getting his grades up enough to be eligible to play football his senior year at Dixie Hollins. That ultimately allowed him to come to USF two years later, and the same patience kept him with the Bulls this year.

After last season, Hall considered leaving early for the NFL draft. Instead of making any rash moves, he did what chess players call "sitting on your hands," getting advice from Leavitt and running backs coach Carl Franks. He wrote to the NFL's advisory panel, which told him he'd likely be taken in the fourth round.

The fourth round is the draft's second day. Second-day picks aren't knights in the NFL as much as pawns, and staying at USF not only would improve his draft position, but put him that much closer to a degree.

"It wasn't a big deal, wasn't the first day or anything. I'm sure I can do better," Hall said. "And they told me my weaknesses. Lack of home run speed, taking on bigger defenders, blocking. That motivated me a little more to work even harder."

* * *

On a chessboard, the knight is a stealth weapon, easier to hide than the linear attacks of a bishop or rook. It's the only piece that can attack a queen without first being vulnerable to being taken itself. Hall will not be able to surprise many opponents this fall.

A year ago, he was a largely unknown name, a coveted recruit lost by many programs through stints at two junior colleges. He started slowly, rushing for just a combined 98 yards in his first two games. He emerged with three touchdowns and 119 yards in USF's double-overtime win at Texas Christian then fully arrived three weeks later, rushing for 200 yards against Army.

If anyone hadn't noticed Hall, that ended Nov.3 on national television, when he rushed for a school-record 275 yards and two scores in a 45-20 road upset of Alabama-Birmingham. It opened a four-game stretch in which he rushed for 725 yards, ultimately finishing with a USF-record 1,357.

"He was the new kid on the block last year, not a name many people knew. He was still a novelty," Franks said. "This year, he's more of a target. He's the guy people know about. Defenses will be more geared to stopping him."

To counter that, Hall's dedication in the past year has been unprecedented. He had never played spring football before this year, never worked out in the offseason before this one, never volunteered for summer workouts before this summer.

"He realizes he'll have to be better than last year," Franks said. "He has to be stronger. But he's had a year's worth of hard training. He's stronger, more durable with a little more speed in him this year."

If Leavitt has concerns about Hall, they might be in how he's able to handle the spotlight now fixed on him and maintain his focus. Here again, chess is football's ally for the Bulls.

Along with foresight, circumspection and caution, chess has reminded Hall of humility, of the relative unimportance of any single piece. Queens are sacrificed in chess. Knights are traded for positioning on the board, and a pawn that sticks around long enough to reach the other end of the board can become a queen itself.

It's a game best played with pieces moving in concert, with the threat of one piece clearing the success of another in one coordinated attack.

"The most important thing for me is bringing everybody together, being a leader, making sure everybody's okay," Hall said. "I want to make sure everybody's on the same page. It's my job to be a good leader. I know I'm going to get it done, but it's about the team."