- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 28, 2005

CHATHAM, Va. — Keiland Williams drops into a sprinter’s crouch, carefully placing his splayed fingers behind the gymnasium baseline. He coils his 6-foot, 225-pound frame under him, rocks back and forth on the toe of his extended right leg to rid his body of tension and lifts his head to the future.

A knot of football teammates clustered behind the running back begins clapping and whooping in anticipation — “How you be, K-Dub.” “USC in the house, Keeeeiland.”

Beside him, assistant coach Raymond Cobb barks, “Let’s do this. … Let’s do this.”

In front of him lies an outrageous human gantlet, a 40-yard channel of floor cutting tightly between two packed corridors composed of college football coaches from every league, level and locale imaginable.

Dozens of stopwatches beep in unison as Williams erupts from his stance and bolts down the line, a blur of flesh on display at an indoor bazaar.

The collective coo of amazement rises to a crescendo as he explodes through the finish in 4.32 seconds, moving with the desperate efficiency of a man running from the ‘Grave.

Welcome to Hargrave Military Academy’s annual college combine, the defining day of the nation’s definitive high school football program.

“It’s like a coaches convention in here,” says Louisiana State (LSU) running backs coach Larry Porter, one of nearly 300 coaches who braved 3 inches of fresh snow to complete the pilgrimage to the rural campus about 25 miles north of the North Carolina border on Route 29 in Chatham, population 1,302 and falling.

“The joke in the business is that the top four recruiting grounds in the nation are California, Florida, Texas and Hargrave,” Porter says. “There’s more talent in this room than on many college campuses in the country. And I don’t care who’s coaching — in the final analysis, it’s all about talent.”

No high school in the nation boasts more of that commodity than Hargrave.

Of the 53 players on the team’s postgraduate roster, 25 have committed to play Division I football, and head coach Robert Prunty expects the final number to be somewhere between 45 and 50.

A solid dozen on this season’s squad carry the can’t-miss label: running back Williams (undeclared); receiver Vidal Hazelton (undeclared), the top-rated receiver in the country; tailback Mike Ford (Alabama); linebacker Darius Dewberry (Georgia); safety Zaire Kitchen (Rutgers); lineman Callahan Bright (Florida State); defensive end Melvin Alaeze (Maryland); defensive tackle Jerrell Powe (Mississippi); defensive end Justin Mincey (Florida State); offensive lineman John Jerry (Mississippi); offensive lineman Matt Hardrick (Florida State); and offensive lineman Darrius Myers (Tennessee).

“There’s a lot of talent here. For one school, this is amazing,” says Brendan Carroll of Southern California (USC), who traveled across the country in hopes of keeping his father’s top-ranked Trojans in the sweepstakes for Hazelton and Williams. “This looks like our pro timing day at USC.”

Every season, Prunty sorts through about 400 applications while constructing his 50- to 55-man postgraduate football juggernaut. Many come to Prunty and Hargrave because they are academically bankrupt, blue-chip talents red-lighted en route to NCAA stardom by spotty transcripts and insufficient SAT or ACT scores.

For the academically sidetracked, the ‘Grave, as it is known among players, is often preferable to junior college, where players lose college eligibility and often fall off the recruiting radar.

Some come for the kind of exposure and experience only Hargrave can afford, drawn by the list of NFL alums that includes first-round picks Torry Holt, Charles Grant and Carlos Rogers.

Williams was invisible back in Lafayette, La., a track standout with nascent football skills ignored by most elite college programs. But after a breakout season at Hargrave, where a parade of scouts watched his every cut, Williams now is one of the nation’s most coveted backs, narrowing his endless list of offers to USC, LSU and Tennessee.

“Only I knew what was inside before,” Williams says. “Now, everyone knows because of the opportunity I had playing at Hargrave.”

Hazelton had no academic or visibility issues but came to Hargrave to learn from Prunty and compete against the best high school players in the nation.

“When I first got here, I was stunned. I couldn’t even get off the line. First play we ran, the cornerback just jammed me up, and that was a wake-up call,” says Hazelton, a 6-3, 200-pound glider from Staten Island, N.Y., with honey hands (sticky and sweet) who has trimmed his list to USC, Penn State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Virginia. “When I get to college, I’m going to be a step ahead of all the guys who are coming out of high school, because I’ve already been playing against colleges.”

Regardless of what brings them to the ‘Grave, they have come from 18 states with one common aspiration — securing a Division I football scholarship.

“Some kids need [SAT or ACT] scores, some need that offer, but they’re all after that scholarship,” says Prunty, a man who personifies no-nonsense. “They know this is their best, and sometimes last, chance.

“This place ain’t cheap — $23,000 a year. And I only have 11 full scholarships to work with, so we break them up into nickels [$5,000 increments] and spread it around as best we can. It’s still a financial reach for most of our kids. In many cases, their families have literally mortgaged their futures to send them here, so they know they best not screw it up.”

Founded in 1905, Hargrave’s mission is scrawled in Latin all over the 300-acre campus: “Mens sana in corpore sano” — “A sound mind in a sound body.”

In exchange for the hefty tuition, Wheeler Baker, a retired Marine colonel, offers his 430 students, seventh grade to postgraduate, a military educational experience that boasts a staggering 100 percent college acceptance rate since 2003.

The vast majority of the cadets are male boarders, although female day students are welcome. And like many members of Prunty’s squad, many cadets have been enrolled at Hargrave because they were underachievers in less-disciplined environments.

“This is a great place for kids who need a little academic push and discipline — someone to kick you in the butt if your parents couldn’t,” says Proctor Dean, a former member of Hargrave’s board of directors who graduated with Prunty in 1983. “There are no distractions nor excuses at Hargrave.”

There are no TVs or cell phones in the barracks at Hargrave. The uniformed cadets are issued laptops to use for academic purposes on the campus, which uses an impressive wireless network. But even the computers are checked at random intervals, lest cadets indulge in unsuitable forms of wireless entertainment like video games or Web surfing. There is a no-tolerance drug and alcohol policy, and smoking (staff included) isn’t permitted anywhere on the grounds.

But the backbone of the Hargrave experience is the immutable routine.

Reveille, or wake-up call, is at 6 a.m., inspection at 6:15, classes and chapel until 3 p.m., sports until 5:30 p.m., and a mandatory two-hour study hall follows dinner before 10 p.m. brings lights out and taps.

Cadets are drummed into the mess hall for meals in formation and constantly hawked by a staff that demands punctuality and absolute adherence to the strict dress code. Long hair and jewelry are mere rumors; demerits are not. A cadet earning a handful will be assigned a “tour,” a one-hour solo march around a 10-yard square behind the cafeteria.

“It’s a system shock, man,” says Bright, a massive 6-foot-2, 320-pound tackle who came to Hargrave from Bryn Mawr, Pa., after failing to meet the NCAA-required SAT/ACT minimum score. Perhaps the top defensive player in the Class of 2006, Bright is still waiting on his most recent test results.

“When I first got down here back in August, the first thing I thought was the only thing missing around here was the barbed wire,” Bright says. “I mean, we got uniforms, lights out, no TV. It’s a grind, man. I don’t mind telling you I can’t wait to get out of the ‘Grave.

“But it’s a mental thing. The whole military system is a mental thing. It gives you a lot of discipline, and I needed that. A lot of us needed that — mandatory study hall and everything. Because this is the last stop. You get it together down here and get your scores, or the dream dies.”

It is Dec. 6, the day after the combine, and the players gather in Prunty’s office for the season’s final official team meeting. The 39-year-old mentor leans back in his chair, fingers laced behind his head, and offers players chocolates from a box of Russell Stover. His “kids,” the same men who were fawned over a day earlier by coaches from Florida to Northeastern, from USC to Penn, practically skip to Prunty’s desk to collect the treats.

“You have no idea what even a piece of candy means to them around here,” says Prunty later.

Prunty begins the meeting by congratulating them on the season, which they finished 8-3 against a schedule composed of junior college teams, major college scout teams and hated rival Fork Union Military Academy near Charlottesville, the school that boasts the only semi-comparable postgraduate team in the nation. They defeated Fork Union 40-34, and their only three losses (at Navy, at Virginia Tech and at West Virginia) were by a combined 10 points.

Next, Prunty commends them for yet another successful annual combine, stressing the number of less-heralded players on the team who now hold scholarship offers thanks to the previous day’s event.

It would be easy to measure Prunty’s success at Hargrave in mere numbers.

His four seasons as coach have produced a record of 32-8, remarkable considering he must start from scratch each season sculpting a team that plays almost exclusively college competition.

By the time this class is finished signing, more than 160 of his players will have earned Division I scholarships. A staggering 60 of those players will compete in bowl games over the coming weeks. And when the National Football League Draft rolls around, Prunty is guaranteed another first-rounder in Georgia All-American tight end Leonard Pope.

Prunty could easily be self-satisfied, gloating over either those numbers or the handful of Division I coaching jobs he’s been offered in the past month. He could wink, wish his latest charges good luck and resume the task of scouring the land for next season’s squad.

But that’s not Prunty, a former guard at a maximum security detention center in Huntsville, Ala., who came to Hargrave looking to make a difference, not just a living.

His job doesn’t end with the season. And when Prunty unlaces his fingers and leans forward over his desk, every player in the room knows what’s coming — wilting wisdom, some icy reality.

This is the part of his personality respected by his players and feared by the college coaching fraternity. This cold candor, one suspects, is why Hargrave is a unparalleled football phenomenon and Fork Union and Valley Forge (Pa.) are simply military academies with pedestrian postgraduate programs.

“I want a show of hands on how many of you talked to those coaches yesterday about guys who blew out knees and couldn’t play?” asks Prunty into the room’s sudden silence. “I know those coaches told you all about all the guys they’ve sent to the league, about all their first-round NFL draft choices. But did they tell you about the other guys?

“Did they tell you they’ll use you to fill up their stadiums and pockets for four years, use you up and ask you to donate your body to State U., such that you’ll be so broken it will hurt to roughhouse with your own kids, and then they’ll turn around after your eligibility and body is used up and make you buy a ticket so you can take that child to see the stadium you helped build? Did they tell you that?”

Prunty continues.

“This ain’t over until you put your name on the dotted line, so you think about that before you sign away your body,” he says. “You better think about the fact that there’s nobody on this planet that can’t be replaced and forgotten tomorrow before you decide you can quit studying up there at State U.

“You better think about what brought you to Hargrave and what you learned here. You better realize the journey’s not over. It’s just beginning. You’re only one wrong step from another ‘Grave.”

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