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.'”
As promised, Mangino was led to the highway.
Several current or former college football coaches described receiving similar hospitality while recruiting in rough neighborhoods, where the locals often view them as saviors.
Coaches' parked cars are guarded; they walk down the street protected by escorts.
“My experience was that they'll roll out the welcome mat for you,” said former Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones. “It might not be very pretty at times, but they're very appreciative of you being there.”
During these trips, coaches witness first hand the world their recruits want to escape. Jones remembered a few prospects following him outside and apologizing for a family member's behavior.
Such rough neighborhoods, irritating relatives and difficult home lives can scare recruiters away; those that visit, though, often find good kids who just need a way out.
When Singleton was an Air Force assistant, he recruited Savier Stephens from E.D. White High School in Jacksonville.
“This young man had nothing,” Singleton said. “There wasn't a whole lot in his house, there wasn't a whole lot of structure for the young man.”
Yet Singleton came away impressed with Stephens' ability to excel in several areas of life, despite his living environment.
“It was truly one of those, in my eyes, just an amazing success story,” Singleton said. “Coming from the background that he came from, the fact that he had good grades, the fact that he hadn't been in trouble with the law, the fact that he was really just a model citizen in the school, just blew my mind.
“He had every reason to be none of those things.”
Stephens signed with Air Force in 2007. He left the football program in 2010, but still graduated from the Academy and is now a pilot.
Adapting to a new world
Freshman receiver Derrick Woods chose Oklahoma to escape his familiar Inglewood, Calif., surroundings, often marked by fear and violence.
Several aspects of life in Norman required Woods to adapt, but one was particularly noticeable right away.
“No helicopters when I go to sleep,” he said. “This was something to get used to.”
When Mangino plucked safety Darrell Stuckey out of his Kansas City, Kan., neighborhood, he'd spent his senior year of high school as the man of the house after his then-stepfather was arrested and, subsequently, divorced his mother.
“I was from the urban part of Kansas City, so it wasn't all glitz and glamour,” Stuckey said.
But after the safety arrived in Lawrence in 2005, he began to thrive because of the unfamiliar structure and discipline college life required.
Stuckey became a first-team All-Big 12 safety, and was also lauded for his off-the-field charitable work.
He just finished his third NFL season with the San Diego Chargers.
Of course, things don't always turn out that way for college football players from difficult backgrounds. Some of them struggle to leave that past life behind.
“The kids themselves have to be smart enough with their talent to take advantage of the opportunity,” Switzer said. “Some do, and some don't. That's the tragedy of it.
“The ones that do make you smile, and the ones that don't ... you feel sad. You feel like maybe you could've done a better job.”
Hall — a 6-foot-2, 180-pound linebacker, safety and receiver — wasn't recovered in time to accept invitations to the prestigious U.S. Army and Under Armour combines, but he's hitting the weight room, and even playing basketball, while reviving his enormous athletic ability.
“I move forward; I move forward,” Hall said. “I don't want to think about things that happened in the past. I just want to move forward.”
All around the country, talented athletes join Hall in seeking escape from their difficult circumstances.
Some recruits might carry baggage, or create potential risk based on their background, but coaches often find lifting kids out of those surroundings to be their most rewarding work.
“People kinda get the impression that kids in tough areas are not good, loyal troopers for you,” Jones said. “Some of the most loyal kids we've ever had have come out of tough circumstances.
“I think sometimes the general public thinks everybody that comes out of there is some kind of thug or something. That's a bad generalization.”