Before Ben Higgins became perfect, before he became, arguably, the hottest single man in America, he was a selfless guy stuffed into a furry Tigger costume trying to bring smiles to the faces of disadvantaged kids.
He was a high school quarterback in Warsaw, Ind., battling through knee injuries and teaching Sunday school at church.
He was a sweater-wearing goof at Indiana University tagging along with the likes of Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo.
He was a missionary, doing charitable work in Honduras.
“This was Ben when Ben was just Ben — when Ben was a nobody,” said Tracy Furnival, director of Baker Youth Club, where Higgins transformed into Tigger and volunteered countless hours. “He is extremely down to earth, very caring. To us, he’s still a nobody.”
But, of course, Higgins isn’t a nobody. The 27-year-old Warsaw native is set to debut as ABC’s “The Bachelor” Jan. 4. He’s getting ready to hand out roses as he sees fit to 28 gorgeous, ambitious, smart women. He’s getting ready to take over television screens in households across America.
The words “Perfect Ben” are splattered across promos for the show’s 20th season. A commercial boasts: “There have been many perfect bachelors, but this season we’re giving you the perfect 10. I mean perfect Ben.”
Perfect? None of that makes sense to Higgins, say the people closest to him.
“Above all else is his humbleness. He’s a very humble guy,” said Troy Akers, Higgins’ high school football coach and close family friend. “He is the kind of kid, I just can’t see him ever losing his head.”
As an athlete in high school, Higgins was a coach’s dream.
Not only did he have raw talent in both football and basketball, he was big and strong — 6-4 and 190 pounds. And he was sharp, a top-of-the-class scholar.
But injuries plagued Higgins’ high school career. He had two knee surgeries, which ended his basketball playing. He did recover to become Warsaw’s starting quarterback his senior year (2007-08).
Higgins led the team to a 7-5 record, throwing nine touchdown passes and completing 72-of-168 attempts. He was ranked the 78th best quarterback in the state.
“Had he not had injuries — Ben had good mechanics, he went to all the right camps — (and) chosen to play college football, I don’t have any shadow of a doubt he would have (had the opportunity),” Akers said.
Because he didn’t play college ball, Higgins ended up at IU with close friend Kory Barnett from Rochester, Ind., who walked on to the IU basketball team.
Higgins roomed with Verdell Jones and Barnett his senior year; a rare situation of a non-player rooming with the athletes.
“He is the nicest, most genuine person that you will ever meet,” said Barnett, who is now director of scouting and player development for UCLA basketball under coach Steve Alford. “He was and still is an amazing friend who is always there to listen, has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I have ever met.”
“The Bachelor” hasn’t consumed Higgins’ life, said Barnett. In fact, it’s almost an aside.
“Even with all the craziness that surrounds him with the (show), every time he calls me, the only thing he wants to talk about is UCLA basketball,” Barnett said, “and what is going on in my life.”
Zeller recalled Higgins back in his days at IU.
“Whenever us basketball guys would hang out, Ben would tag along and I got to know him pretty well,” Zeller said. The two struck up a friendship, Zeller often joking about all the sweaters Higgins owned. Lots of sweaters — ribbed, turtleneck, crew.
When the spotlight hit Higgins this year with “The Bachelorette,” he reached out to Zeller, who is now an NBA player with the Charlotte Hornets and also in the public eye.
“He had a lot of questions on ‘How do I deal with the spotlight?’ ” Zeller said. “His intentions are pure. He has a lot of people that want to be around him because of his famous status.”