Four months ago, Gibbs High junior Maurice Hall scored two touchdowns, made 12 tackles and helped his St. Petersburg, Fla., team to an early season victory.
The following night, Hall and a friend walked home through a dark, ramshackle neighborhood when a drive-by shooter opened fire. A bullet struck Hall through his right side, entering his stomach and colon.
The wound robbed him of the seven games remaining in his junior season. But it could have taken his life.
As the dust settles on the 2013 recruiting season and fans across the nation begin focusing on next year's prospects, Hall and thousands like him — who seek escape from poverty, violence and/or despair — represent signing day's significance beyond star rankings and hat ceremonies.
College football coaches regularly venture into America's worst neighborhoods. Their goal during such trips is twofold: To entice talented athletes into signing with their program, and to rescue young lives.
“When you're talking about recruiting, you're really talking about changing a young man's life,” said Oklahoma State running backs coach Jemal Singleton.
Examples of lives changed through college football are endless:
*The three-year NFL veteran from urban Kansas City, where he was the man of the house after his stepfather was arrested.
*The Air Force pilot from Jacksonville, where he grew up with virtually nothing.
*Oklahoma's freshman receiver from Inglewood, Calif., where helicopters hovered over his neighborhood each night as he slept.
Hall hopes college football soon gives him similar refuge.
Before he was shot, Hall's college football interest had just started budding. Oklahoma was — and still is — his lone scholarship offer.
“I think of it as a blessing,” Hall said of the shooting. “I'm more motivated to get out of here.”
Coaches as private investigators
Coaches' evaluations of potential recruits consist of far more than film study; that holds true of kids from the projects, the backwoods and the suburbs.
Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell likens himself to a private investigator. He'll talk to a high school's counselors, principals, teachers, coaches and even sometimes janitors to vet potential recruits as much as possible.
“It's important to find quality sources of people that you can trust,” Norvell said. “If you don't know the coach or you don't know people in the area, a lot of times people will just tell you what you want to hear instead of the truth.”
Barry Switzer knows a thing or two about that.
Over his nearly three decades of coaching college football — including 16 seasons as Oklahoma's head coach — Switzer ventured into some of the nation's toughest neighborhoods to recruit players.
The Sooners' all-time winningest coach remembers being lied to about prospects who turned out to be trouble once they arrived in Norman. Switzer recalled one specific example of a player, whom he didn't name, from “a major city up north.”
“One kid that I regret recruiting,” Switzer said. “Once he got in trouble, I gave him a second chance — in most cases, I always gave kids a second chance — and he didn't take advantage of it.”
The player's high school coach had sugarcoated serious problems during recruitment; after Switzer dismissed him, the coach admitted that similar issues existed during the player's high-school years.
“I said, ‘Why didn't you let me know that when we were recruiting him?'” Switzer remembered. “He said, ‘Well, I thought the kid would change.' ... High school coaches try to help their kids get into school. They'll try to help their kids advance.”
Former Kansas coach Mark Mangino once ventured into Liberty City — a tough, crime-ridden Miami neighborhood — to recruit a player.
Mangino and another coach didn't leave the recruit's home until after dark; a few young men approached them and asked if they knew their way out of the neighborhood.
“I said, ‘I think I do,'” Mangino remembered. “The guy said, ‘Hey coach, follow us.'
“I remember thinking, ‘Either they're taking me to the interstate, or they're taking me to get shoe-shined.'”