College football scholarships are not free. Neither is the long, sometimes confusing and expensive journey to earn one for high school football families.
Ask the Graves.
Minor quarterback JaCure’ Jackson (his last name pays homage to his maternal grandfather) and his parents are in the midst of a four-stop, 2,800-mile Ivy League tour. The family football trip began Thursday afternoon as they departed Birmingham in a rented minivan. Next stop: Princeton – early Friday morning. Stops at Penn, Brown and Dartmouth are on the Northeast itinerary before Tuesday’s return home.
Estimated cost: $1,500. Even that price tag is for football camps and unofficial visits is supplemented by overnight stays with family in New Jersey.
“Exposure comes at a cost, whether be it time, gas, money,” said Curtis Graves, JaCure’s father. He’s also an assistant football coach at Minor.
Years before Birmingham’s top Friday night playmakers step on college campuses, tuition paid in full, their families often pay hundreds, thousands for access to football decision-makers via recruitment services; training which sharpens their talent toolbox; tutoring which improves classroom performance and standardized test scores; face time with college coaches and potential teammates.
Think of it as paying for the early rounds of a job interview process.
Some teenagers navigate this recruiting road without financial troubles. Their families, great at budgeting or financially flexible, can afford up-front recruiting costs years before their sons are granted official visits, free to high school seniors. Perhaps their footwork in the pocket, ability to shed blocks or catch radius is enough to attract college football coaching staffs to their high schools and homes.
Still, others must pay to perform in front of Alabama’s Nick Saban, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, UAB’s Bill Clark, South Alabama’s Joey Jones and others. After all, who wants to commit to a job – and college football is work – when you haven’t met your prospective boss (head coach) and co-workers (teammates) in person?
Why not wait until your senior year when official visits are free? If you don’t show up on college campuses as a junior, even a sophomore, and start the “courting” process, as Curtis Graves described it, some other prospect will.
Football camps and unofficial visits can be smart investments when families pick the right school. These trips often end with scholarship offers, months before National Signing Day.
Aim high, investing time and family funds to attract newfound interest from a Power 5 conference that as of yet, has not shown interest? Or aim for a lesser college football program that’s eager to earn your signature on a national letter of intent, although its level of play falls below your projected skill set?
So many camps. So many campuses. Now select one. Or pick a dozen.
“I advise my guys to do one-day camps, and to know where they stand,” said Bessemer City coach Martez Edwards. “If they are a (projected) Division II kid, I don’t send them to Alabama’s camp.”
Recruiting decisions, decisions.
Bill Clark, a championship coach at Prattville before entering college coaching, advises teenagers to honestly evaluate their skills while seeking exposure.
“Make sure if this is your dream (to play college football), make sure you’re putting yourself out there to various schools,” Clark said. “You’re not just going to SEC minicamps. You’re coming to us (at UAB), you’re going to FCS and Division II (schools).
“If this is your dream to play on the next level, you have to put yourself out there in front of a bunch of different folks.”
Colleges also invite prospects on campus to analyze their off-the-field persona, a result of increased public scrutiny following numerous crimes committed by college athletes.
“People can say, ‘That film is nice,’ but coaches don’t come to (all of) our workouts,” said Austin Brundidge, a rising senior (strong safety/running back) at Ramsay. “They don’t come to our meetings at school. Film can tell you someone’s football character, but not their everyday, walking-around character.
“No one wants to bring you to their campus (on a scholarship) and you become a liability, and not an asset.”
‘I THINK YOU DO YOURSELF A DISSERVICE’
This isn’t your father’s college recruiting experience. It’s even different than Yolanda Caver’s experience with her oldest two sons – Terrience and Erik. They played non-scholarship, NCAA Division III football at the University of the South and DePaul more than a decade ago. Her youngest son, Ryan, will be a freshman offensive lineman this fall at Calera.
The Internet changed the game. So has Hudl – the popular website that features player and team video. Twitter prospect profiles and also popular, creating an avenue for prospects to communicate with coaches football coaches. And recruiting services. And trainers. And fans. And alumni. And…
Perhaps that’s why Friday night performances don’t carry the weight they used to. Yes, playing for your local high school is still important, but it’s just the first step toward a scholarship offer.
“If you leave (your recruiting success) up to Friday nights,” Curtis Graves said, “I think you do yourself a disservice.”
Meanwhile, college football programs from the SEC to Division III are reaching farther from campus to flirt with prep talent – not always in person.
College coaches and their staffs still travel to places like Bob Jones and Jackson-Olin, but don’t expect them to attend every high school football game of a player they are recruiting. Their multi-year recruiting boards, after all, are filled with hundreds of names. Maybe thousands.
Game film, once as rare as the Buffalo five-cent piece, is now as readily available online as spam email.
“There’s so much film, there’s so many services, there so many places that are putting it out there. It is a different world for these guys,” said Clark, who is leading UAB’s return to college football in 2017. “They have a lot better chance of being seen than they used to.”
And with more than one million U.S. teenagers expected this fall to play high school football, less than 10 percent will earn college football scholarships. Less than three percent will play Division I football.
Greater player exposure has created increased competition. So to get ahead, or catch up, some high school football families tap into their recruiting war chests. Sometimes, their savings.
At Montevallo, quarterback Zac Oden has attended more than a dozen football camps this offseason. Most of the trips have been quick turn-arounds – an early-morning drive, followed by a three-hour workout, a quick meal and back on the road.
Oden is one of tens of thousands of high school football players that annually spend the summer criss-crossing the nation, in search of the right scholarship, the right college fit.
Sure, most camps cost less than $50 a day, and unofficial visits are free, offering teenagers a chance to meet coaches. However, factor in related costs, especially on overnight trips, and parental decisions become agonizing, especially when the answer is no.
“In the back of my head, as a father, I’m like, “Am I missing out on an opportunity for my son?’ ” said Zac Oden’s father, Paul. ” ‘That could have been the camp he went to and got an offer.’
“It’s a struggle. Really is.”
All Paul Oden can do is pick up another overtime shift at work and find a way to get Zac, a rising senior, on college campuses. So far, his son has picked up offers from Union College, an NAIA program in Kentucky, and Mount St. Joseph, a Division III program.
Dakota Chapman, a linebacker from McAdory, has attended camps dating back to the eighth grade. This offseason, Chapman has attended camps at Louisiana-Lafayette, UAB, Samford and Vanderbilt. He’s also made unofficial visits throughout the Southeast: Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tulane, Vanderbilt, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida, Southern Miss, UAB, Samford and more.
He has also paid $50 for personal training sessions.
Estimated total cost: $4,000.
“You have to spend money on unofficials, camps and personal trainers if you want to get recruited,” Chapman, a rising senior, wrote in an email. “The best advice is spend money on what will get you better and then what will get your name out there in front of college coaches.”
Chapman has earned offers from Army, Samford, Georgia Southern and Mercer (Ga.). Navy, UAB, Louisiana-Lafayette, Vanderbilt, Stanford and several Ivy League schools have shown interest.
At Chelsea, Cody Walker’s family spent about $1,000 for a recruiting service membership. They ended the subscription after one year, disappointed with the results.
“I don’t think they did anything for the money I spent,” said Cliff Walker, Cody’s father. “They were supposed to be putting him in touch with the right people. We never did get in front the right people.”
Walker, two seasons away from 2018 National Signing Day, is awaiting his first offer.
He has created an aggressive plan to visit a wide array of colleges this fall and winter for unofficial visits – from Clemson and Memphis to Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Troy and Georgia Southern.
“He’s a little more optimistic about the visits than I am,’ Cliff Walker said. “I think we’ll have to make many of those his junior and senior year. He can’t make all of those this year. It’s just not possible. Not because of the money, but the time.
“Between now and then, we’ll have to work out where we’ll go to as many camps as possible. We don’t want to have a free weekend, let me put it like that,” he added. “We want to put something on every weekend. I wouldn’t want him to be idle for a moment, learning something, picking up something, progressing. My problem is if he stops.”
If Carver-Birmingham receiver Joshua Jones is going to earn a scholarship, he has to attend camps.
Despite catching eight touchdowns last season, Jones’ size (5-foot-4 and 124 pounds) remains a major drawback.
The best way to quash these questions? Perform in person. It’s a lot of pressure, but Jones, a rising senior, is confident he can make the plays and win over coaches.
“I just wait for it to come to me,” he said.
Oak Grove running back Erick Stinnett has a recruiting game plan: Attend mini-camps that have more than one college in attendance. Samford’s mega-camp earlier this summer, for instance, featured coaches from more than 40 programs.
Kentucky Christian and Valdosta have shown interest in Stinnett, a rising senior. He’s taken unofficial visits to the North Alabama and Jacksonville State.
Also, his parents paid for NCSA – like families at Chelsea and Carver – but he’s been pleased with the results.
“It has made a difference,” Stinnett said. “More football coaches have followed and talked to me (on the site).”
Brundidge enters this fall with an offer from Tennessee Tech. Meanwhile, Fordham, Kennesaw State, Massachusetts and Tulane have also shown interest. By the end of this summer, he plans to attend four camps and make two unofficial visits.
His biggest recruiting expense? Investing in a professional highlight video. Perhaps his smartest move? Finding free standardized test training online.
At Bessemer City, Martez Edwards said he stresses the ACT and SAT more than workouts, camps and campus visits.
Free or not, “the standardized test is the No. 1 priority; spare no cost when it comes to that,” said Edwards, whose top recruit in the Class of 2017 – linebacker Jamal Brooks – enters this summer with 25 offers, including SEC schools Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
— Jamal Brooks (@jbroo26) June 25, 2016
GAS UP THE MINIVAN
Back on the road with the Graves, JaCure’ has taken unofficial visits to Princeton, Louisiana-Lafayette, Southern Mississippi and Middle Tennessee. He and his father have learned that unlike other positions, college football teams prefer to offer quarterbacks in person. So, they hit the road in search of opportunities.
Thanks to his mother, Jackie Graves, his cross-country trip will be memorable for more than just football.
Curtis Graves has family in New Jersey.
(Jackie’s family from Lafayette, the site of a Louisiana-Lafayette football road trip. Their arrival was celebrated by family with a crawfish boil.)
When the Jacksons embark on college trips, they usually take a Minor teammate like receivers Jaylond Adams or DeLonte’ Evans.
“We don’t want it to be all work, work work,” Jackie Graves said. “We want it to be fun for them.
“It’s a lot of riding, a lot of time. So there’s no point in wasting it all on football.”
JaCure’, like many of the colleges that are recruiting him, is working on a backup plan. He has a 3.7 grade point average and 20 on the ACT. In college, he plans to major in Biological Science, a career path to becoming a veterinarian, doctor or zoologist.
“If I can’t make it to the NFL, I need a backup plan,” he said. “If the college has what I need (athletically and academically), that’s the college I’ll probably go to.”
This post originally appeared on High School Sports AL. Copyright 2016.