To the college football signing class of 2014:
Congratulations, today is your big day. I know you are justifiably proud of everything you’ve accomplished to get to the point of formally accepting a college athletic scholarship, and I know you are excited about what is to come. My oldest son signed a Letter of Intent last year, and it was a great moment for our entire family. So kudos to you, signee, and everyone who has helped you get to this point. Celebrate and appreciate this moment.
As you become acquainted with the technological relic known as a “fax machine,” let me offer a few words of encouragement and wisdom accrued from 25 years of covering college football.
Last year on signing day, I listened to Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin get on the phone and personally tell all of his signees the same thing: “The work starts now.” As special as this day is, it’s a launching pad, not a landing spot. You have not arrived. You’re just getting started.
Dive in with unrestrained enthusiasm. Prepare to learn more than you’ve ever learned and work more than you’ve ever worked and – hopefully – have more fun than you’ve ever had. And a lot of those experiences will have nothing to do with football.
Now, about James Franklin: He’s the coach at Penn State this signing day, leaving behind every one of those kids he congratulated last year, plus the other two classes he recruited to Vanderbilt. That’s no knock on Franklin; that’s the way of the college football world. So understand this, too: it’s a business, and in effect you signed away your clout today.
You are a celebrated star today; another cog in the machine tomorrow. Your coach is committed to you this year; next February he may be elsewhere.
All the tail-kissing that went into getting you to sign on the dotted line and send in the fax is pretty much over. The coaches now own you. And while the great majority of them will do right by you and act in your best interests, understand that their jobs depend on how well you and the other 84 scholarship guys play. The good coaches will still care about you as a person – but they mostly care about what you’re going to do to keep them employed. And if someone else on the roster is more equipped to keep them employed than you are, guess who is going to play?
So retain your enthusiasm for the adventure ahead, but go in with your eyes wide open. The dream scenario you have laid out in your head for future athletic glory is subject to sudden revision – often without your consent.
A quick story, signees: On the first day of fall freshman practice at Louisville in 2000, observers were surprised to see a tall, very athletic player working at quarterback in the morning drills. He was not among coach John L. Smith’s quarterback signees in February, yet there he was working out with the QBs. After practice, Smith was asked about the player.
“He’s a safety,” Smith said.
“Then why is he with the quarterbacks?” a reporter responded.
“Because his dad is here, and his dad thinks he’s a quarterback. And his dad is going home after lunch. This afternoon, he’ll be a safety.”
The player was Kerry Rhodes, who went on to become one of the best safeties in Louisville history. Rhodes played eight years at safety in the NFL, being named All-Pro in 2006 and making tens of millions of dollars.
Moral of the story: your plan and the coaches’ plan may not be the same thing. And their plan is usually going to win out – often to your advantage, I must add. I don’t think Mr. Rhodes is upset about the way things turned out for his son.
Another hard reality that many of you are going to experience in the coming years is that your athletic glory days may be behind you. When you arrive on campus, you’ll likely find out how many other talented, driven, dedicated players there are in the world. You may not be a college star, or even a starter, or even on the two-deep – not immediately, and for some not ever.
Now, that does not mean you should just resign yourself to life on the bench if the going is difficult early. Some of the best stories are the guys who never stopped believing in themselves, never stopped working to improve and never accepted the notion that they couldn’t play at the college level.
In short, don’t let anyone impose limitations on you.
Another story: In August 2005, I was at Boise State in August watching the Broncos practice in preparation for their season opener against Georgia. Dan Hawkins, who was the coach then, pointed out a redshirt freshman offensive tackle the coaches were particularly high on. He was huge but moved with remarkable agility, a captivating talent who was going to start his first college game against the Bulldogs.
His name? Ryan Clady, now a three-time Pro Bowl left tackle for the Denver Broncos. He was out most of this season with an injury, and Denver sorely missed him against the Seattle pass rush on Sunday.
Clady was a two-star recruit out of Long Beach, Calif., which is why he went to Boise State instead of USC or UCLA. Not many college coaches or recruiting analysts believed in him, but he didn’t allow that to define what kind of player he could be. The NFL is full of Ryan Cladys.
Of course, there are recruiting misses at the high end, too. Hate to say it, but some of you five-star guys are overrated. Many of you will live up to the hype, and fast – Jameis Winston comes immediately to mind – but for others it will be a slow process or an incomplete process.
If stardom is delayed or does not arrive, be prepared for the same fans who slobbered over you during recruiting to say unkind things about you from the stands, on the radio and on the Internet. Some of you will never be more popular with the fan base than today, National Signing Day, when college football only cares about potential and not actual performance.
I hope you don’t have to endure the meanness of anonymous fans who have vested an unhealthy amount of their self-worth into your athletic performance. No young adult needs that, but it can happen. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray became the all-time Southeastern Conference leader in passing yards and touchdowns this year – but last year his house was egged by angry fans after a bad game.
Sad, but true.
Old folks like me always tell graduating seniors and college freshmen they are entering the best years of their lives. I’m not 100 percent sure that’s true, but it is a cherished time you won’t get back later, and you will miss it viscerally when you’re my age. So go for it.
I hope it’s all touchdowns and victories for the next four or five years. But even if it’s not – and it won’t be – I hope it’s the greatest growing experience of your life.