As he watched varsity football practice at one of the state of Georgia's most talent-rich high school programs a few months ago, Boston College running backs coach Al Washington kept receiving the same advice.
To catch a glimpse of Grayson High's premier prospect, Washington would have to return later that evening when the school's eighth-grade team practiced.
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• June 23: Teenager Kaylin Whitney hailed as America's next great sprinter
• June 30: Linebacker has 11 scholarship offers before starting high school
• July 2: DeAndre Ayton's rise from Bahamas project to basketball's No. 1 prospect
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Owen Pappoe, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound menace of an outside linebacker, earned the nickname "The Freak" by terrorizing middle school quarterbacks and running backs the previous two years. The 14-year-old's strength and speed were so jaw-dropping for his age that he converted Washington into a believer in just one practice.
"When [Washington] saw how big and strong Owen was, he was like, 'Oh my God,'" said Kenyatta Watson, Grayson's recruiting coordinator. "Then when Owen started running around and making plays, he was like, 'Let Owen know he has his first offer.' "
Boston College's scholarship offer was the moment everything sped up for Pappoe, the moment that transformed a middle-school kid with a bed time and an early curfew into a top college prospect facing new possibilities and complexities.
Thirty college programs from across the nation have scouted Pappoe in person at practices during the past few months or contacted his coaches to gauge his interest. Florida State, Georgia, Auburn and Tennessee are among the 11 schools that have already joined Boston College in offering a scholarship to the incoming high school freshman, with more surely coming soon.
For Pappoe, the early attention from colleges is flattering yet surprising. The son of African immigrants grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and hardly watched any pro or college football until trying out for his first organized football team just two years ago.
"I didn't expect this to happen so quickly," Pappoe said. "I know it's not common for this to happen to eighth graders, so it's really exciting for me."
The heated race to land a linebacker who has yet to play a down in high school reflects the accelerated pace of football recruiting the past few years.
Whereas in 2008 former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel chastised his peers for acting recklessly by "offering all kinds of sophomores,” those complaints now seem quaint seven years later, with early recruiting in football mirroring what's already commonplace in other sports. Football coaches offer scholarships to top prospects as young as seventh or eighth grade with increasing frequency, sometimes in hopes that being first will provide an edge and other times out of fear of falling behind rival suitors.
Linebacker Anthony Solomon, an incoming freshman headed to Florida power St. Thomas Aquinas, already holds offers from at least 11 Division I schools including juggernauts Auburn, Alabama, Florida State and LSU. Quarterback Tee Webb, a 13-year-old from Cartersville, Ga., received his first offer from Louisville this spring before he completed seventh grade. Running back Dominick Blaylock, the son of former NBA guard Mookie Blaylock, in March became the first middle school prospect ever to receive an offer from veteran South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.
"Early offers are more common now because the physical maturity of these kids is different and the visibility as well," said Woody Wommack, Southeast recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "Ten years ago, there was no middle school film to watch on a player. Coaches have more access now. The players are much more visible. The more they get to see these guys, the more comfortable they feel. They would rather take a chance and be first than get in a year or two later and already be behind."
NCAA rules prevent football players from signing binding letters of intent until February of their senior year and prohibit college coaches from initiating contact with prospects until July after their junior year, but those restrictions have done little to slow down the recruiting process. Savvy college coaches contact potential recruits through their high school coaches or other third parties because once the prospect is alerted, he can reach out himself directly with few limitations on how often he can call or visit.
The pressure coaches face to offer earlier and earlier can be harmful to all involved because it often results in haphazard evaluations. Younger prospects typically require more guesswork than high school upperclassmen because they're still maturing physically and they're further from being a finished product. Coaches also often resort to making snap judgments based on one or two looks with younger prospects because they don't feel comfortable waiting any longer to decide whether to make an offer.
The attention that accompanies early scholarship offers can also be damaging for the recipients too, whether by inspiring complacency or overinflating expectations. Prospects who don't pan out are unfairly labeled busts when they either languish on the bench at an elite program that misevaluated them or sign instead at a lower-profile school.
One such example is Delaware prodigy David Sills. Projected to be "the most celebrated high school recruit in history" by quarterbacks guru Steve Clarkson when he committed to USC as a seventh grader in 2010, Sills instead developed into solid high-major prospect and will enroll at West Virginia this fall. The examples in other sports are even more egregious, as onetime eighth-grade Kentucky hoops commit Michael Avery ultimately landed at Division II Sonoma State and women's basketball player Hailey Kontny now plays for Division II Minnesota-Duluth despite receiving an offer from Michigan when she was 13 years old.
A happier outcome may await Pappoe thanks to his immense talent and the work ethic instilled in him by his family. Both his parents immigrated from Liberia over a quarter century ago, arriving in the United States with little money and few possessions.
Rhoda Pappoe returned to school in 2012 and is on pace to graduate in December with a degree in health administration and management. Lorenzo Pappoe started in the warehouse at his Atlanta-area company years ago and has ascended to a middle management position in which he oversees a team of 14 software consultants.
"I came from very humble beginnings from a very poor little village in Africa and I was able to go to school, get an education and provide for my family," Lorenzo Pappoe said. "We didn't ask anyone anyone to give us anything for free. We worked really hard and we were able to succeed. I think that helped my kids understand the importance of hard work.The mindset we tried to encourage was the harder you work, the more likely you are to catch a break."
The notion that football could be Owen's path to success is still hard to believe for his family. Until two years ago, Lorenzo was unfamiliar enough with the sport that he peppered friends with questions about the rules when he attended Super Bowl parties.
Everything changed in March 2013 when Watson went to watch his son play in a sixth-grade basketball tournament and spotted a kid who was much bigger and faster than any other player on the court. Watson, a former Boston College wide receiver and president of a Atlanta-area youth football program, was instantly intrigued.
"I'm like, 'Why are they letting an eighth grader play against sixth graders?' " Watson recalled. "He was so much stronger and more athletic than the other kids he was literally trying to dunk. I found out from my son the kid was Owen, I got a number for his dad and I told him that I wanted his son to come play football for me."
When Pappoe donned shoulder pads and a helmet for the first time the following week, he certainly looked the part of a football player, but all but the most elementary principles of football were unfamiliar to him. Watson kept it simple at first, lining Pappoe up at defensive end and instructing him to wait for the ball to be snapped, then "wreak havoc."
"It was all brand new to me," Pappoe said. "I was a little nervous that first practice, but eventually I started to get comfortable with it. I picked up things pretty quickly."
Indeed football came so easily to Pappoe that his coaches could hardly believe it sometimes.
By seventh grade, he was throttling overmatched ball carriers in the backfield. By eighth grade, he developed into a weapon on offense and as a bulldozing kick returner on special teams. By the spring, he was starring at camps alongside players two and three years older than him and putting up numbers in the 40-yard dash and the vertical jump comparable to what some of the better linebacker prospects at the NFL combine achieved earlier this year.
Most scouts believe Pappoe's best position eventually will be either outside linebacker or defensive end depending on how tall he grows. He'll likely begin his freshman season as an outside linebacker for Grayson High School's varsity team.
It will probably be at least another year or two before Pappoe chooses a college, but he and his family have already begun to consider their options. They want a college that excels in football, has a good academic reputation and is close enough to their Georgia home to make it back quickly in case of a medical emergency involving Pappoe's two siblings, both of whom suffer from sickle cell anemia.
The school Pappoe likes best so far is Tennessee, which has recruited him as long as any program and invited him to Knoxville to check out the campus and attend several camps in the past year. Pappoe's father is adamant that his son must take academics seriously in high school and college, so he was pleased to learn on one visit to Tennessee that the school's starting quarterback is pursuing a degree in aerospace engineering.
"The other thing was how he was treated when he was at Tennessee," Lorenzo Pappoe said. "It was like a family. The way they accepted him, took him around and took good care of him while he was up there, I felt like this was a place my son could go to school. I believed that the coaches out there and the staff that I dealt with would notify me if something went wrong. They wouldn't hide something from me just because they wanted a football player on the field."
Another school the Pappoe family is fond of is in-state Georgia, which is less than an hour's drive from their home. The Bulldogs staff has hosted Pappoe on campus several times and extended a scholarship offer last month.
Pappoe earned straight A's in school this past year, served as an usher at his church and worked harder than ever in the weight room and on the practice field, but his parents and coaches remain vigilant about making sure the early attention from colleges doesn't go to his head.
Earlier this year, Watson took Pappoe to speak with a few former Atlanta-area football prospects who had the talent to play at Division I colleges but lacked the grades to qualify academically. That experience only strengthened his resolve not to make the same mistakes.
"Having this much attention is exciting, but you have to always stay humble," Pappoe said. "If you get too big-headed and too cocky, you stop working hard."
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