Naples Daily News – Feb 06, 2007 – Jason A. Dixon – Wednesday is the day a lot of high school football stars finally get to make their college intentions official.
It started with a letter of recognition sent from Ohio State before Aaron Henry’s junior football season at Immokalee High School. The letter has since been buried inside one of three bags full sitting inside his bedroom.
Two of the bags are tied together and lay in a corner near his door. The other one rests in his closet. Each bag is overflowing with recruiting letters, from schools big and small. One open letter, dated months before everything in those bags became a daily reminder of the life of a big-time football recruit, invites Henry to use his imagination.
Inside the doors of this weight room is where you will make your body ready for greatness.
Henry, a 5-foot-11, 169-pound senior cornerback, suddenly stands on a threshold. No more recruiting visits. No more text messages or phone calls from coaches at South Carolina or Iowa.
On Wednesday morning, Henry will sign a letter-of-intent to play at Wisconsin Ã¢â‚¬â€? the same school that addressed the open letter Ã¢â‚¬â€? and put an exclamation point on his future plans.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment since I stepped foot on a football field,” Henry says. “God has truly blessed me and my grandmother. I’m just extremely excited.”
He is one of more than 100 high school recruits in Southwest Florida and thousands across the country who are going to make their college choices official on National Signing Day.
It is the first day that a high school recruit can sign their letter-of-intent to attend a school. It is a day set aside for the rich to get richer; a day football programs see as a chance to build the foundation for immediate and long-term success with the additions of up to 25 signees.
Some recruits get last-minute jitters and change their mind from the non-binding verbal commitments. For others, signing day is a formality that seals the deal from a handshake that may have taken place over a year ago. National Signing Day is one the most popular subjects for alumni and fans alike.
Allen Wallace, the National Recruiting Editor for Scout.com and publisher/editor of SuperPrep magazine since 1985, says it’s like Christmas Day for college football fanatics.
“It’s a big deal in sports now,” Wallace says. “There’s a lot of tensions involved. Recruiting’s the life-blood of football and any promises that they make up to letter-of-intent day are not enforceable.
“Until that day comes and goes, college staffs don’t really know who they have.
Imagine you are a college football coach whose job depends on the deliberations of 17 and 18-year old males. You have “verbal commitments” from guys you’ve been targeting since their junior year.
Imagine that you have gone through every aspect of the process in the proper manner. You have contacted the recruits over and over, just to be reassured that he will sign on the dotted line on that fateful February Wednesday.
Steve Helwagen, who is the managing editor for Bucknuts Magazine which covers Ohio State athletics, says many college football coaches are in favor of an earlier signing period. He says signing the letter-of-intent in November would take some of the pressure off what happens in January.
“Let’s say you’re looking at the top 100 prospects in the country, only maybe 30 or 40 of them are still undecided,” Helwagen says. “Then, the pressure really goes up on those 30 or 40 players to find out where they’re going. I think a lot of these kids are starting to wilt under the pressure and the only thing they’ve done wrong is take their time to pick their college.”
Basketball has addressed the issue with an early signing period.
Georgia Southern associate head basketball coach Carl Nash says there are pros and cons to their sport having an early signing period. If the team has a senior leaving, Nash says it gives the coaches time to fill the void immediately.
He says it also prevents them from going throughout the year having to estimate what they need.
“Once you sign a kid early,” Nash says, “it alleviates the stress and pressure of trying to get a kid late. You might be on a kid all year, and then all of a sudden you might lose him to a major Division I school that comes in late.”
“After you sign them, you’re actually able to have more dialogue.”
Bowling Green (Ohio) football coach Greg Brandon says college football coaches around the country are split in half on the debate.
Brandon, who served as an assistant coach at BG under Florida’s Urban Meyer from 2001-02, says moving signing day to December would especially benefit mid-major football programs.
“Maybe a kid has committed to Ohio State,” he says. “Well if he signs early, that gives us a little direction on who’s still out there and those types of things. I believe 80 percent of kids that sign D-I probably know where they’re going to go or at least where they want to go well before the contact period starts.”
Naples High football coach Bill Kramer and Immokalee’s John Weber agree on this fundamental fact: Technology has changed recruiting.
J.C. Shurburtt, a recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, says their Web site is a valuable resource but not the only one college coaches use.
The process of getting information on the Web site is done in a number of different ways. Student-athletes send in questionnaires. Recruiting analyst watch tape of prospects throughout the country. They also attend combines and camps in the spring.
Shurburtt says a lot of the evaluation and film study is done during a prospects junior year.
“I think that our rankings are projections, they’re our opinions,” he says. “They’re valid and we certainly stand behind them, but when you’re recruiting for a football team, you have different needs and different types of student-athletes from different parts of the country you like to recruit.”
Dave Doeren, the co-defensive coordinator, linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator at Wisconsin, says the Internet has made recruiting more public.
“The arena that people can follow it in is maxed out,” Doeren says. “The actual recruiting process has changed, but signing day has always been a day where nine, 10, 12 months of work comes to fruition for the kids and for us.”
Peaks and valleys
The long and tedious process of recruiting can cause enormous amounts of pressure. Barron Collier’s Matt Clements can’t think of a moment when he felt it.
Not after taking his official recruiting visits. Or the time he received voice messages from 10 different college football coaches in one day. Even when a coach from West Virginia called after Clements verbally committed to South Carolina, he remained steadfast in the decision.
“He was like ‘Is it true that you committed?'” says Clements, who will sign with the Gamecocks on Wednesday, “and I was like ‘Yes sir, I did.’ He was like ‘Oh man, we’ll still be coming after you.'”
Clements says the persistent approach from recruiters never affected him. It did not keep him up at night tossing and turning. It did not stop him from enjoying trips to different parts of the country.
Most importantly, Clements says, is that it did not stop him from being honest.
Dr. John Murray, a sport psychologist and internationally-known business consultant, says communication and honesty are two key components that help student-athletes avoid stressing over the pressures of recruiting.
“The pressure comes from making a decision that’s going to affect you for the next four years,” Murray says. “It’s a good pressure to have, if you have multiple schools after you.
“It’s a time where the stakes are raised and I think everybody needs to relax a little bit more. It’s important to be prepared for it and anticipate what’s going to happen a little bit.”
Shurburtt says the real worry comes from those recruits who aren’t being offered scholarships and are forced to sit and wait.
Estero High School’s Caleb Nemitz knows the feeling all too well. After a record-breaking senior season in which he eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing and passing, Nemitz has received very little interest from colleges.
He’s sent out game tapes to a handful of schools. He’s filled out questionnaires. Nemitz says the next option is to attend a recruiting fair later this month at Cape Coral High School.
Until then, the anticipation, worry, and suspense builds for Nemitz and all the student-athletes in his position.
“You’re just waiting,” he says. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s hard not knowing what you’re going to do and what options you have. What I want to do is play Division I in Florida, or somewhere in Florida.”
Richard Barry remembers the phone calls he made to college coaches letting them know his son, Mike Barry, was no longer interested.
“With some of them it felt like they just lost a loved one,” Richard says.
He, too, remembers being on the other end of that conversation. The coach from a Patriot League school called to say they were no longer interested in Mike, a student-athlete at Barron Collier.
“He said ‘We know that he’ll go to a great school. He’s a great player, we just hope he doesn’t go to an Ivy League or Patriot League school because we don’t want to play against him,'” Richard recalls. “I said ‘Thank you so much for calling me. We hope our son does play for an Ivy League or Patriot League school because we’d like to get to meet you after a game.'”
Mike Barry will sign a letter-of-intent to play football at Colgate University, a Patriot League school in Hamilton, N.Y.
For Richard, the nine-month recruiting process consisted of hours on the computer researching schools. Plenty of one-on-one conversations with coaches. Plenty of times when he and his son sat together and talked to coaches through speaker phone.
“There were a lot of times when you felt disappointed,” Richard says. “There were a lot of times when you were happy. It was a daily thing with me.”
While the decision to attend Colgate ultimately came down to Mike, Richard says he and his wife were forthcoming about their hopes to see Mike sign with a school known more for its academics rather than football success.
Dr. Robert C. Eklund, an associate professor for educational psychology and learning systems at Florida State, doesn’t fault parents who are involved extensively when their student-athletes are being pursued by college coaches.
“College football ends at 22 or 23 for most players and that’s really the end of football, period,” he says. “Some go on to the NFL and do very well, but those are the exceptions. I’m sure that once you have a son 18 years of age, you’re not entirely in a position to dictate what they do or don’t do.
“But I strongly suggest that parents help their student-athletes also consider the long term implications of career path ways and education.”
Ereck Plancher stood outside his dorm room at the University of Central Florida, shocked by the thousands of students walking across campus.
He trudged from one brick building to the next with his map in hand, trying desperately not to be late for his first college class.
But then he realized.
“While I was following my map, I noticed that I had already gotten lost,” says Plancher, a rising freshman on the football team. “Luckily, one of my teammates was there and he got me to all my classes. It was an eye-opener that first day.”
When Plancher decided to graduate a semester early from Lely High School and enroll at UCF on a football scholarship in January, he essentially traded the most comfortable four months of his life for a long stretch of uncertainty and anxiety.
He left behind family, friends, two jobs and a chance to a sign a letter-of-intent with his teammates. The NCAA doesn’t require freshmen who enroll at a university early to sign a letter-of-intent before practicing.
Plancher’s decision centered around this logic: Enrolling early will give him a chance to contribute immediately and graduate early.
From the academic course load to the weight lifting schedule to the team meetings to the study halls, Plancher’s transition overwhelmed him at first.
For the thousands of recruits enrolling in the summer or fall, the beginning of a college football career means the end of just about everything else.
Jim Hamad, an academic counselor for the University of Pittsburgh football team, says student-athletes experience the same problems as regular students do once they get on campus.
“Let’s say a kid comes from Florida to Pittsburgh,” Hamad says. “A lot of times he’s going to get homesick. He might have a girlfriend that he’s missing or he’s maybe not adjusted to the weather. So these issues, especially those first two semesters of that freshman year, really factor in to whether or not they’re going to be content up here.
“People think just because a guy’s on scholarship with a big school that he’s got the world in the palm of his hand. They get overlooked from just the normal population, and the normal football fan doesn’t realize that.”
Hamad says more and more student-athletes across the country are choosing to enroll during the summer to make the transition easier going into the fall semester.
“I would recommend that everyone get that early start,” Plancher says, “because it’ll give you a chance to get your degree earlier. It’ll give you something to fall back on, because not everyone can make it to the NFL.”
Fulfilling a dream
Every day, two or three times a day, Henry thinks about where he’s going. Every day, two or three times a day, Henry thinks about where he’s been. And yes, every day, two or three times a day, Henry thinks about winning a Big Ten championship and a national title.
When Ohio State sent the letter of recognition, Henry thought he’d be achieving those goals with the Buckeyes.
Really though, Ohio State never stood a chance against a you man’s intuition.
“From the time Wisconsin started recruiting me, I always felt in my heart it was the right place for me,” Henry says. “It’s been a long and tiresome process and I can’t wait to sign that letter-of-intent.”
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.