A football coach’s concern for his players runs deep, and that passion has found a new outlet with the NFF Showcases. Coaches in Houston and southern California have joined forces with the local NFF chapters to stage events that allow academically eligible high school seniors a chance to perform in front of divisional college coaches, hopefully finding an opportunity to play at the next level.
“The NFF chapters in Houston and Los Angeles deserve huge praise,” said NFF President & CEO Steve Hatchell. “Their leadership has helped build a free system, literally providing thousands of talented student-athletes the opportunity to continue their educations. The NFF Showcases provide a great path to college that previously did not exist, and we want to thank everybody in Houston and Los Angeles who have poured their hearts and souls in to making this happen.”
The NFF Showcases provide academically eligible high school seniors, who did not sign an NCAA Division I letter of intent, an opportunity to earn academic and participation scholarships at the NCAA Division II, III and the NAIA levels. The events, which are absolutely free to the participants and the college recruiters, attracted representatives from 110 colleges covering 30 states this year. The events allow the schools a unique opportunity to evaluate a large number of qualified student-athletes in a short period of time while minimizing their travel costs.
Eight years ago, Milby High School head coach Phillip Camp, Coby Rhoden and the NFF Touchdown Club of Houston Chapter joined forces with 75 coaches from the Houston Independent School District to stage the first Showcase. The organizers reached out to their connections in the community, and made the idea a reality with local donations. The group concluded its most recent event on Feb. 6, 2016, at the Houston Methodist Training Center, home of the Houston Texans, which included more than 800 high schoolers and 54 Division II, III and NAIA universities, and organizers estimated around $12 million in annual scholarships were secured at the event.
“It means the world. If one kid gets an offer, then this is worth it,” said Camp. “You get an inner city kid who’s never been out of the city and he goes to one of these schools and gets an education and a chance to play football. How great is that.”
Joe Ortega, a graduating senior at Marietta College (Ohio), participated in the Houston event in 2012. The Fresno, Texas, native served as a two-year team captain and played all 40 games in his college career at defensive lineman. A 2014 Second Team All-Ohio Athletic Conference selection, Ortega registered 227 total tackles, 34 TFL, 10.5 sacks, three pass deflections and six forced fumbles. Ortega is a land & energy management major, and he has interned for the past three summers at Enterprise Products, a large oil and gas midstream company headquartered in Houston.
“I've gotten to see new places that I wouldn't have before because of football,” Ortega said. “Getting the chance to play college football has meant a lot to me because not many people can say they have played at this level and are successful in their careers.”
With more than 10 kids on their roster from the showcase, the Marietta coaches recruit heavily in the Lone Star State because it boasts one of the nation’s top petroleum engineering programs and several other majors in the fields of oil and gas and land & energy management.
“I don’t care if they come from hundreds of miles away or an hour away,” said Marietta head coach Andy Waddle. “We just want good kids.”
Inspired by the success of the Houston event, College Football Hall of Fame Coach Terry Donahue, who headed the program at UCLA from 1976-95, hosted the fourth NFF California Showcase at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif., on Feb. 20, 2016. More than 550 high school seniors tried out for 55 Division II, III and NAIA universities.
Donahue and his younger brother, Pat, assemble an all-star list of more than 50 former coaches and players every year to assist with the event, which has included Norm Anderson, Steve Beurlein, Wayne Cook, Cade McNown, Rick Neuheisel, Matt Stevens, James Washington and Mike White. Organizers at the California event estimated that between 125 to 150 of the players will end up on college rosters and gain some financial aid, totaling between $5 to $10 million.
“It’s great to still be involved in football,” said Donahue, who worked with the NFF Newport Beach Chapter to stage the event. “You miss the relationship with the kids and the game. I get a great deal out of the Showcase. It’s meaningful to everyone that participates. It’s satisfying when we get our results.”
Describing it as “a blessing in disguise,” Isai Fernandez is another individual whose life was impacted by one of the Showcases. Fernandez is finishing up his sophomore year at the University of Saint Mary (Kan.), majoring in biology with a minor in psychology. The Santa Anna, Calif., native appeared in nine games in 2015, making 25 catches for 302 yards and three touchdowns, and is poised to be a starter in 2016.
“I think [Isai] has had more success every time he steps on the field,” said Saint Mary head coach Jay Osborne. “He’s exactly what we are looking for. He takes care of athletics, and he fits in very well.”
Participants, who all have to meet minimum academic standards, compete at the events in a series of athletic drills designed to let divisional college coaches assess each player’s potential, including a 40-yard dash and several agility tests. Academically, participants must meet at least one of the three following criteria:
· Have a GPA of 2.5 or higher;
· Rank in the top half of his graduating class;
· Or have an SAT score of 820 (math and verbal only) or higher, or an ACT score of 18 or higher.
Traditional combines charge student-athletes a fee to participate and colleges a fee to attend, but the organizers at the events in California and Texas realized that the fees create a barrier for student-athletes of limited means and colleges with tight budgets.
“Most of the combines around the country charge a fee to participate, excluding a lot of great kids who can't afford the price of admission,” said NFF Chairman Archie Manning. “Events like these provide underprivileged student-athletes an opportunity to pursue their dream of attending college. The showcases provide the NFF a cost effective way for us to make a huge difference in the lives of these kids, and the impact has been phenomenal.”
Colleges have traveled from border to border and coast to coast to attend the two events this year, representing Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. The NFF has begun discussions with several of its chapters to ensure that all of the 430-plus divisional institutions have the opportunity to recruit at similar events in the near future.