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Recruiting: Football scholarship offers can be life-altering for young athletes

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.
by Jason Kersey Published: February 9, 2013

/articleid/3753757/1/pictures/1948936">Photo - UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA/OKLAHOMA STATE: OU head college football coach Barry Switzer and OSU head football coach Pat Jones shake hands following Saturday night's classic Bedlam football contest.   Staff photo by Paul Hellstern taken 11-6-88; photo ran in the 11-7-88 Daily Oklahoman.
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA/OKLAHOMA STATE: OU head college football coach Barry Switzer and OSU head football coach Pat Jones shake hands following Saturday night's classic Bedlam football contest. Staff photo by Paul Hellstern taken 11-6-88; photo ran in the 11-7-88 Daily Oklahoman.

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.”

Moving forward

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.”

by Jason Kersey
OU Sports Reporter
Jason Kersey became The Oklahoman's OU football beat writer in May 2012 after a year covering high school sports and OSU recruiting. Before joining the newspaper in November 2006 as a part-time results clerk, he covered high school football for...
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