JACKSON, Miss. — C.J. Hampton had four hats sitting on the table in front of him.
The four-star prospect from Meridian High School had narrowed his list to Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida State and Alabama. He had a hat representing each school at his college announcement in December.
At the end of the press conference, after Hampton put on an Ole Miss hat and re-committed to the Rebels, the other hats were gone.
"They looted him," said Calvin Hampton, C.J.'s father. "They took every hat from him."
Hampton's event was open to media, players and members of the Meridian community. Hampton's father planned to keep the losing hats in C.J.'s room as a way to remember the recruiting process. But at least three Meridian fans thought otherwise.
"He didn't expect them to take them," Hampton said. "After the press conference, we were cleaning everything up and local people just took the hats. For one of the schools, I think the guy just wanted to just have a hat to wear."
With National Signing Day on Wednesday, many other top football players will hold press conferences like Hampton did, with a hat for each of their finalists sitting in front of them.
Hampton's story prompts the question: What happens to the other hats? The caps for the losing schools, where did they end up?
In Hampton's case, there could be a man walking around Meridian right now with the Arkansas cap that was purchased for the December announcement. But tracking down the actual destination of the other hats is a better mystery than an Agatha Christie novel.
South Panola coach Lance Pogue has had a few players use hats in their announcements. The whereabouts for the losing-school hats remain unknown.
Yancy Porter, a veteran Scout.com recruiting reporter, guesses he's seen hundreds of hat announcements over the years, but he's never followed up on what happened to the other hats.
"I'm sure they keep them," Porter guessed. "Unless they gave them to a little brother or a relative."
That's the case with Mississippi State commit Jesse Jackson who now has Ole Miss and Auburn visors somewhere in the back of his closet. Jackson says it's the only Ole Miss and Auburn paraphernalia he owns.
Hat announcements gained mainstream recognition when ESPN started televising them in the early 2000s. ESPNU started televising recruiting announcements in 2006 and televises 25 a year, according to senior coordinating producer Shawn Murphy. He estimates 20 to 23 of the announcements involve hats and the majority occur during the Under Armour All-America Game and National Signing Day coverage.
"We are covering these kids' announcements, but we don't orchestrate any of this," Murphy said. "One time, there was a young man announcing and his parents were like 'Do you supply the hats?' We're like 'No, we don't supply the hats.' We are going through the schools and we are there to cover the announcement, but in no way do we encourage them to do this stuff or orchestrate it."
Murphy said ESPN stresses to recruits to not be disrespectful to other universities when making a hat announcement.
It doesn't always work the way ESPN expects. When Isaiah Crowell picked up a bulldog puppy to announce he was going to Georgia in 2011, producers were pleasantly surprised. On the other end of the spectrum, five-star basketball player Cliff Alexander of Chicago drew criticism when he picked up an Illinois hat only to drop it and commit to Kansas last November.
One of ESPN's ugliest televised recruiting announcements occurred in 2006 when Antonio Logan-El picked Penn State over in-state Maryland at a Baltimore ESPN Zone packed with Maryland fans. He picked up the Maryland hat, dropped it, picked up a Penn State hat and then took out a photograph of Joe Paterno.
What happened to the Maryland hat he didn't pick?
"That thing probably got burnt," said Forestville coach Charles Harley, Logan-El's high school coach. "It got so crazy, so fast."
Harley experienced the downside of hat announcements. Coaches at Florida and Tennessee, schools Logan-El was also considering, told him they wouldn't step foot in his school again after Logan-El's televised stunt. Harley remembers getting "barbecued on message boards" and said it embarrassed his school.
College coaches have mixed feelings about the hat announcements. No coach wants to go through getting embarrassed on television, but the benefits of free publicity when a recruit announces for your school are often too good to pass up.
Mississippi State recruiting coordinator Tony Hughes told The Clarion-Ledger he's fine with them as long as he knows the result ahead of time.
When Ole Miss assistant Derrick Nix was a highly regarded running back prospect coming out of high school, his parents wouldn't let him have a hat announcement. Now, as a coach, they bring him anxiety.
Since ESPNU first started televising them, the hat announcement has evolved. A popular move now is to pull a single hat out of a bag instead of all the hats on the table. There have also been props like puppies, T-shirts and even babies, as was the case for Mississippi State linebacker Richie Brown, in place of hats.
One thing is clear: Signing day hats aren't going out of fashion.
"Some form of the hat, putting it on or anything, will be there," Murphy said. "Just like in the NFL Draft and exposing the jersey of the team that just drafted them."