- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Approximately 2,800 high school seniors will sign national letters of intent today to play Division I-A football, many of them embracing a fantasy few power programs are willing to expose.

“In many ways, it’s a day when everyone involved is allowed to dream,” Rivals recruiting expert Bobby Burton said of National Signing Day, always the first Wednesday in February. “It’s the day when college football celebrates potential and future All-Americans and NFL draft picks abound. Reality will sort itself out on the field at some later time, but signing day is about buying and selling the dream.”

Burton’s Rivals.com Web site, which has revolutionized the way players, coaches and fans track recruiting, ranks 717 seniors as three-star recruits or better, meaning that more than one out of four who puts pen to paper today will do so with some combination of blue-chip cache and big-time aspirations.

“A lot of guys out there perceive themselves as the next great thing, and schools only feed that by telling you how much they want you,” said Derrick Williams, the versatile senior from Eleanor Roosevelt in Greenbelt who will sign today with Penn State and whom Rivals has listed all season as the nation’s top prep player. “Everybody rolls out the red carpet and goes all out to stroke your ego.”

Official visits, limited to five a player, provide programs with a relatively unmonitored and unlimited two-day, on-campus platform in which to make their pitch. Players room with standouts; get a whirlwind tour of the facilities; are coddled, cajoled and entertained by coaches; are treated to the best food; and usually get introduced to local night life. Charts revealing how many players each program sends to the NFL are usually part of the pitch, as well as a handful of actual plays drafted to show each recruit how they fit into the program’s scheme.

“Sure, we’re all selling the dream to some extent,” said one college coach who preferred to remain anonymous. “It’s not like you can say, ‘We think you’re a depth-chart guy, a career second-stringer, but your frame has potential, so we’d like you on board.’

“That said, I think most programs do a good job of stressing their off-field support staff, the network to help guys through everything from injury to academic issues to homesickness. The message, while often unspoken, is that if reality interferes with the dream, we’ll still do our best by you.”

In an interview the day after his final official visit — to Texas — Williams joked about what he labeled the family approach.

“That’s what all the schools are driving at right now,” Williams said. “The coaches all want to sell you on the family aspect of their program, introducing you to their wives and stuff and stressing how the players are just one big family. … The more times you hear and see the same things, the more you realize it’s just a business.”

Former Notre Dame walk-on Rudy Ruettiger, whose struggles in South Bend were famously portrayed in the 1993 film “Rudy,” thinks many schools, including his alma mater, broadcast an unrealistic message when dealing with recruits and players within the program.

“I do two speaking engagements a week, year-round, and I’ve still never been asked to talk to the Notre Dame football team,” Ruettiger said. “Why? Because I think Notre Dame, like many other college programs, is fixated on superstardom.

“They’ll bring in guys like Paul Hornung or Joe Montana, God bless him and his four Super Bowl rings, to talk to the guys. And who wouldn’t want to talk to Joe Montana? But that’s not reality. Reality would be talking to alums like myself or a guy like [1990 Vince Lombardi Award winner] Chris Zorich, somebody who came from nothing and wasn’t the most talented guy but who made himself an All-American and is now an attorney. Now, that’s a role model. Let’s face it, what percentage of players, even from the elite programs, make it to the NFL?”

A shocking paucity. From 1995 through 2004, Florida State had more players selected in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft than any other school (38). Yet during that decade, 287 players earned varsity letters at Florida State, meaning that just 13.24 percent — or slightly better than one out of eight Seminoles — was selected on Day 1 of the draft, much less enjoyed successful pro careers. During that same decade, the number of draftees per letterman drops precipitously for second-tier powers like Notre Dame (one in 20) or Maryland (one in 37).

Chances are you won’t hear the pundits discussing those statistics this afternoon while the ink dries on yet another frenzied college football Signing Day.

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