A Rocky Road
Rockhurst High School senior Kevin Sears was so moved by the recruiting letters he’d received from Mark Mangino, the head football coach at the University of Kansas, that he tacked them to a bulletin board on his bedroom wall.
In large, bold letters, the words RESPECT, CLASS and CHARACTER jump off of the impressive letterhead. The words refer to quotes in which sports celebrities like Jack Nicklaus and John Wooden define what respect, class and character mean to them.
“I’m thinking about sticking them all in an envelope and sending them back to [Mangino],” Sears says with a sneer.
Kansas started recruiting Sears last season, when he showed promise as a junior linebacker. So did other Division-1 schools like Missouri and Kansas State. Division-1 schools also went after Sears’ teammates Danny Boyd, who played offensive and defensive tackle, and James Griffin, a defensive end and offensive tight end. Recruiters told all three that they were great players and tremendous fits for their colleges.
But earlier this month, Sears and Griffin signed letters of intent with Southwest Missouri State. Boyd agreed to spend his college years playing at Northwest Missouri State.
Plenty of observers think that this year’s Rockhurst team was one of the best high school football squads in Missouri history. So how is it that not one player will land at a D-1 school?
“This is one of the most frustrating years I’ve ever had as far as recruiting,” says Tony Severino, Rockhurst’s head football coach and USA Today’s 2001 National Coach of the Year. “It’s not about performance on the field anymore. It’s all about a measurement and filling a slot.”
Severino says Boyd is one of the top five linemen he’s ever coached. He thinks even more highly of Griffin. “If James stays healthy and gets an opportunity, I think he could play in the NFL someday,” Severino says. (Four of his players have gone on to play professional football.) And when a representative of Nebraska’s football program phoned me last November and asked me to name the best high school linebacker in the area, I immediately told him Kevin Sears.
Nobody wants to address this publicly, but one reason recruiters ultimately backed away from these players might be that all three of them are white.
“I never would have believed that it would be an issue,” says the 6-foot-4-inch Griffin. “I always thought that it would come down to how you performed on the field.” But both Griffin and Sears agree that it’s impossible to deny that racial profiling exists when it comes to college recruiting.
When Griffin was a junior, one of his friends who had gone through the football recruiting process warned him that being white would hurt his chances of landing a D-1 scholarship. Griffin remembers his friend telling him that college recruiters used to want athletes who were “bigger, stronger, faster.” But now the old cliché has become “bigger, stronger, faster, blacker.”
Up until a few weeks before the February 5 signing date, Boyd expected to be playing football for Bill Snyder’s Kansas State Wildcats next fall. He says that’s what Paul Dunn, K-State’s offensive line coach, had been telling him for almost a year. Then Dunn bolted for a coaching job at Kentucky, and with him went Boyd’s chance to wear Wildcat purple. “They just quit calling,” Boyd says.
“It’s all a game,” he adds. “They play with you, using words you want to hear.” Eventually, Missouri and Kansas told Boyd, who is 6-foot-2 and weighs 270 pounds, that he was too short to play for them. “I think I can play at that level,” Boyd says. “But I’m very excited about going to Northwest [Missouri State] and having some fun and knocking some heads.”
What bothers Sears, Griffin and Boyd the most is the way the D-1 schools led them on, then dumped them like a one-night stand.
“They tell you how great you are and how much they like you, and they invite you to come to their basketball and football games,” says Griffin, who went to MU and KU basketball games as a guest of the respective football programs. “And then you hear they offered some other kid a scholarship. Then they stop calling you. I got pretty disgusted with the whole thing. KU led me on more than MU. MU just quit calling me sooner than KU did.”
“It’s like dating four girls at once, only you’re one of the girls,” Sears says. “In the end you’re going to end up being lied to and hurt and left with not at all what you thought you were going to get.”
Severino tells the parents of every Rockhurst freshman to expect their sons’ football careers to end at Rockhurst. Playing college football is not a given.
But, he adds, “I also tell them that I know every one of them thinks I’m talking to the parent standing next to them.”
Severino says it’s the inordinate amount of pressure faced by D-1 coaches that causes them to abandon kids like Sears, Griffin and Boyd. “If a coach brings in a kid of marginal height, marginal weight and marginal speed — and that kid fails — the coach gets blamed for being a bad recruiter,” Severino says. “But if he signs a prospect with great physical tools and that kid fails, the critics just say, ‘Well, the kid never developed.’ Their thinking is, if they’re going to make a mistake, they’re going to make a big, fast mistake. I’ve heard every excuse in the world from these guys on why they think a kid can’t play.”
Sears thinks at least eight Rockhurst players will be in a similar situation next season. And he has some advice for any young athlete who is talented enough to be wooed by college recruiters.
“They never tell you how the process is going to go,” Sears says. “They just tell you how it’s going to be once you come to their school. There’s never any indication from them that you’re going to play anywhere but their school. But the reality is that they may never have even watched any of your game films.”
And despite the inspiring celebrity quotes in their recruitment letters, Sears and Griffin now believe recruiters aren’t interested in a player’s character. “It doesn’t matter to them what kind of person you are,” Sears says. “They like to tell you it does when they call you on the phone, but it’s not one of the questions on their questionnaire.”
To help his parents pay Rockhurst’s steep $7,500 tuition, Sears cleaned restrooms during his freshman and sophomore years. He continues to work at school before and after his senior classes. “[College recruiters] don’t want to know how many hours of community service you’ve performed,” he says. “Or if you like little kids.”