Forget a red letter day. This past week was a red-letter week for Newton County athletes.
Granted, much of the buzz occurred on one particular day – a Wednesday – but still, the vibes felt from that day carried over after it and were generated by anticipation before it.
Wednesday, of course, was National Signing Day – the first day of the year that a high school senior can sign a national letter of intent to play sports at a college or university of their choice.
Key words in that definition that often get overlooked: “First day.” Meaning that although the first Wednesday in February gets all the attention, it’s not the only day that high school athletes can sign.
It’s been a few years now since National Signing Day became sort of a de-facto holiday for sports journalists everywhere. I refer to it as NFL Draft, Jr. because of the attention the day and its athletes receive. It has become the high school football athlete’s equivalent to what college football players feel on draft day, but with one exception.
In the NFL Draft, the decisions on who gets to play where pretty much land in the hands of an NFL team’s front office. But on National Signing Day, it’s the college football teams who are at the mercy of these teenage student athletes who are never shy about taking Signing Day as an opportunity to flaunt the fact that they’ve got grown, professional men making thousands – if not millions of dollars – as coaches and recruiting specialists eating out of their hands.
National Signing Day never fails in the drama aspect, either. It’s become a common practice to see high school kids – because we need to remember that they still are kids – flip flop all over the map (literally) with their commitments to these schools.
One wide receiver that my home state school Nebraska was hot on pursuit for ended up flipping his commitment at least five times, while committing and de-committing to Nebraska two or three times, before committing to Oregon State, and then finally signing with Washington State of the Pac 12.
I read a story of a young man who showed up to his signing day ceremony wearing a sweatshirt of the team he was apparently set to sign to. But once he sat down at the signing table and once the cameras turned on, he went to work, removing the first sweatshirt, then the second.
Three shirts later, America finally knew where this young kid was going to spend his next three to five years of college.
On one hand, it’s kind of comical and uber entertaining. On the other hand, it can become a little much, considering the amount of attention these student-athletes draw despite never having played a single down of football outside of the high school ranks.
Many college coaches feel the pressure of signing day because their jobs may depend on their ability to land a top recruiting class – which, again, is all conjecture because no one knows how these teenagers will performer on the next level, despite how many recruiting “stars” adorn their names in high school.
There’s a saying that I’ve heard circulate the athletic community over the years that I’ve covered sports in Georgia. It says, “pressure bursts pipes.” In the case of some of these college bound athletes, pressure also seems to burst morals as well.
Every now and then, a story will surface about a high school player-turned college who gets outed for accepting cash and property benefits in exchange for their promise to sign on that dotted line come signing day. Because we only hear about a couple of these incidents every couple of years or so, I fear we’ve become desensitized to the fact that such under-the-table deals happen each and every year on all levels of the game.
Granted, it’s probably the birth-child of an imperfect system of big time collegiate athletics. A system that forces the athletes to follow a code of ethics that, many times, their role model, father figure collegiate head coaches don’t always live up to.
Coaches can jump ship, break promises and do dirt all in the name of chasing the high dollar, and we just kind of wink our eye and keep it moving. But at the same time, this same system slaps the hand of an athlete who sells his own jersey – the same one the university makes money off of – for a few dollars.
In a perfect world, coaches would keep their promises and stick around to build something special, even in the face of a substantial pay raise, and young athletes would continue to care more about playing the game for the love of the game than allowing their own desire for a piece of college football’s lucrative pie to lure them into temptations to break rules.
Two wrongs don’t make anything right. That’s just as true in kindergarten as it is in college.
So it makes me grateful when I still see and hear of guys like Eastside’s Garrett Stevens or Newton’s Josh Tukes. Both have the ability to garner full ride scholarships for athletics at certain schools of their choice, but both decided to go another route. Stevens spurned larger schools because of the educational fit a smaller college had to offer. And Tukes said no to full ride and partial athletic scholarships to walk on at Georgia Tech. Why? Because he ultimately wants to be an engineer, and what better place to do that at than Tech?
Oh, by the way, with his 4.0 grade point average and 26 score on the ACT, Tukes, and other student-athletes like him, can do just that.
But that doesn’t mean we shun others whose grades and scores may be a little lower. That doesn’t mean that kids with aspirations to win national titles and NFL contracts aren’t bad. I’m just super encouraged to hear how many students made collegiate decisions based on other things they wanted out of life besides football.
It gives me hope that the mighty dollar hasn’t swallowed up everybody in the game of amateur athletics just yet.
The way to beat a system is never to become as unscrupulous as the system you’re trying to beat. And it seems like our kids from Newton County – as well as their coaches and parents – seem to get that.
Here’s hoping it rubs off on the National Signing Day class of 2018, and beyond.
Gabriel Stovall is the Sports Editor at The Covington News. He can be reached for tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1 as well as our sports Twitter page @CovNewsSports.