By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Another Signing Day
'Who wants to go to college?"
Milby head football coach Phil Camp posed that question to the roughly 500 high school football players, all seniors, gathered around him Saturday morning inside the Methodist Training Center at Reliant Park, and in unison, they all raised their hands.
This is why they were here.
Opportunity was knocking, in the form of 41 Division II, Division III and NAIA colleges, all with some type of grant-in-aid or financial assistance to help these kids realize their dreams of using college football as a means to further their educations.
"We know that the signing day for the other football players was a couple weeks ago. But these schools are here to see you," Camp continued.
"Today is your day."
That day was the 6th Annual Greater Houston Senior Football Showcase, the figurative bridge constructed by Camp and by current Reagan High School counselor Coby Rhoden back in 2009 to connect academically motivated high school football players, many of whom reside in underprivileged households, to subsidized college educations, and in turn, to brighter futures, to hope.
College coaches and administrators from schools ranging everywhere from San Antonio to North Dakota gathered at the Texans' training facility Saturday to watch these hundreds of kids run through drills, discuss studies and hopefully help them realize their dream of going to college.
When we talk about the good that football does — the fostering of teamwork, of selflessness, of love — the Showcase is that.
It started five years ago on the fields at Milby High School, with nearly 200 kids coming away with around $3 million in money to help pay for their college educations. Since then, it has grown to more than 500 kids and around $10 million in college money.
Like many great ideas, the Showcase was born from good people trying to right a wrong. Camp and Rhoden had seen recruiting services charging high school kids up to $2,000 for some esoteric "guarantee" of a college scholarship. They decided they wanted to do it for free. Along the way, the growth of the event itself has mirrored the explosion in generosity to support it.
Saturday, there were nearly 300 volunteers helping administer and run drills. Frenchy's, Pink's Pizza and Chick-fil-A provided food for the coaches, many of whom are working on shoestring travel budgets (i.e., free food helps), and as they have since 2010, the Texans opened their doors to allow these kids to show off their abilities in a world-class facility.
Texans president Jamey Rootes says the team was thrilled when the Showcase leadership called to request the use of the Methodist Training Center.
"Working with the Showcase has been a perfect fit for us," said Rootes. "As the professional football team in Houston, we see ourselves as stewards for the game of football in the area. The Houston Texans Foundation's theme is 'Champions For Youth.' To be able to help local kids make a connection to attend college, that's what it's all about."
At its core, the Showcase is the essence of supply meeting demand — hundreds of high school football players demanding a better life meeting dozens of colleges demanding studious, motivated Texas football players. More than half the players are on the "free lunch" program at their schools, so most of them would have no other way to get to college without football, and likely none of them would find these 41 schools, or perhaps any school, at which to play football without the Showcase.
The whole thing is truly glorious.
Check out our slideshow, "The 6th Annual Greater Houston Senior Football Showcase."
Coaches are handed a Roster Book upon arrival, which includes no information on players' heights, weights or 40-yard-dash times. It does include their class rank, SAT scores and ACT scores. The message? Academics matter most. Players above certain thresholds (the roughly 20 percent or so who have scored 1230 on the SAT and/or 20 on the ACT) are given red T-shirts to make them stand out from the gray T-shirts all the others are wearing.
This color coding makes it easy for schools to identify and approach the academic stars first.
For coaches like Trinity University assistant head coach Paul Michalak, the academic "quick reference" system makes the Showcase an ideal event to find players. "With [Trinity's] academics, the ability to easily determine the kids who can compete in the classroom is crucial. We've been coming here three years now, and we've gotten a couple kids each year," said Michalak.
"When you consider the academic caliber of many of these schools and the fact that some of the financial aid could be based on grades, the players in the red shirts are the belles of the ball," contends Chris Vaughan of the Houston Touchdown Club, another patriarch of the event.
This is readily apparent in the first five minutes of the individual drill sessions, as coaches are encouraged to approach players wherever and whenever they'd like, even during the drills.
The whistle blows, and the pursuit of realization begins.
One round into agility drills, Juan Olivo becomes incredibly popular. Olivo is a 280-pound two-way lineman from South Houston, and he's sporting the coveted red T-shirt. Quick feet and a high ACT score are both assets at the Showcase. Three coaches approach Olivo in the first ten minutes of drills.
Twenty minutes later, after dominating a half-dozen different opponents in one-on-one blocking drills, Olivo has spoken with three more coaches. Some of them are giving him advice on his technique, some of them are detailing their depth chart at his position, some of them are just trying to learn more about him as a person.
One thing is certain — Juan Olivo's chances of going to college increased exponentially in just 30 minutes.
Belle of the ball indeed.
Later that afternoon, I ran into Olivo at the "meet and greet," where players pick up materials on each of the schools showing mutual interest. He had a stack of brochures the size of the Brooklyn phone book. Eleven schools in all, he told me.
As it turns out, Juan Olivo lost his father to cancer last year. It was his father's dream to see his only child go to college. I asked Olivo what his mother, who works at Walmart, will say when she sees all those brochures and hears about the slew of offers her son received to help pay for his college education.
"She'll probably cry tears of joy," Olivo said, smiling ear to ear.
Juan Olivo, today is your day.