This fall, over a million young men across America are suiting up to play high school football. For most, it is the only organized football they will ever play. For a select few, playing under their hometown Friday night lights is only the beginning.
THE GAME OUTSIDE THE GAME
The competition for one of the approximately 2,500 full-ride, athletic scholarships awarded every year by the top college football programs, for the chance to play on Saturday, is fiercer than ever, now a year-round gauntlet of camps, combines, travel tournaments, and showcase events.
Among the 120 member universities of the NCAA Division I FBS, the competition to land the top recruits is fiercer still. They are seeking the next game-breaking athletes to star in one of the most-watched, highest-grossing sports leagues in the world.
On this stage, where success can swing a university's reputation, branding, fundraising, and enrollment, the coaching staffs know that the difference between winning and losing almost always comes down to the talent on the field. And for these men, the difference between keeping their job and being fired comes down to recruiting that talent onto campus.
This is the game outside the game and it is played by the college recruiters and by the young men being recruited. It is a game with a thick NCAA rulebook and very few referees to enforce it. For the recruits, it can last for years, starting early in high school or even before. For the college recruiters, the game never ends, just starting over with next year's class after every National Signing Day. For both, it is how you play this game that can make all the difference.
On a typical day in Fontana, California, Devon's primary concern is keeping his smartphone charged. As one of the most sought-after recruits in the country, he needs it to manage the steady stream of calls and texts from college coaches, media members, and his self-described "management team" of family, coaches, counselors and trainers. And of course, his faithful Twitter followers receive no less than a dozen tweets a day.
With scholarship offers on the table from USC, Oregon, and Alabama to name a few, Devon is entering the final stretch of what has been a years-long process for him and his family. His list is narrowing and the top schools are coming on strong. Most days, Devon just wants to announce his choice and be done with it, but his family's plan is to see the process through all the way to National Signing Day. As his mother Ayanna, a teacher with a Masters degree, says, "It's like buying a luxury car. You want to test drive them all."
In Claremont, CA, Daniel begins every school day with a 7 a.m. religious studies class, part of a heavy schedule of school, football, church, and family commitments that leave him barely any time at all to play NCAA Football on his Xbox 360. But Daniel, the youngest of six, doesn't mind. It's all part of the program in his devoted, tight-knit family.
As a 6'4", 220-pound quarterback who can make all the throws, Daniel passes the eye test, but injuries and a late start on the circuit of combines, camps and showcase workouts has Daniel entering his senior year without a single scholarship offer. His father Brad, himself a first-round draft pick by Cincinnati Reds, believes in his heart that Daniel has what it takes to play at the next level. But every Friday night, as Daniel tries to play his way up the recruiting boards, Brad can only watch nervously from the stands and wonder just what Daniel has to do to get noticed.
More than anything, Aaron, a hard-hitting defensive back, wants an offer from a major conference school, preferably the Pac-12. To him, the four solid offers he already has from small conference schools are just a fall back. But after a heated post-game confrontation between Aaron and an assistant football coach, Aaron suddenly finds himself transferring out of his small, suburban, Pomona, CA., high school three games into his senior season and enrolling at a football powerhouse in the inner city of Los Angeles.
Now, the challenges of a new environment, a new school, and a new team are stacking up. Already on the bubble as a NCAA academic qualifier, Aaron's performance in the classroom will determine just as much as his performance on the field. He will have to grow up quick if he hopes to keep his dreams of playing at a major university alive.
The NCAA rulebook states that it is not until a certain day every year in early February that a high school senior may officially accept a university's offer of an athletic scholarship by signing a National Letter of Intent. This day is called National Signing Day and it has become much more than a date in the NCAA rulebook.
For the fans of college football - the university students, the alumni, the boosters - it is the day when they finally learn if their school landed its stars of the future or got left out in the recruiting cold. In the media and on the internet, it is the must-see climax of a story one year in the telling, a narrative spun across all mediums in hopes of reaching every viewer, enticing every click, and selling every piece of product possible. In the local high schools and communities across the country, it is a day to celebrate and congratulate, to look back and look ahead. It is a day when hard work becomes achievement, a day when promise finally becomes payoff.
For Aaron, Daniel, Devon and their families, Signing Day is the day when a simple sport played for fun becomes something greater, the day when football becomes more than just a game.