Fans were half-watching the football game between jostling each other and trying not to sit on a dirty napkin. It was late last summer, and the Gauchos of El Cerrito High were losing. Yet senior cornerback Rodney Washington, Jr., and Darius Powe, a junior wide receiver with the same name as a Cal junior, weren't about to give up. They were intent on making plays that would later catch the eye of some college coach tasked with watching hundreds of highlight films. Washington and Powe are among thousands of young students fighting each year for college scholarships that will change the course of their lives — most for better, some for worse.
Washington and Powe know that few Gauchos will get scholarships — only 126 D1 schools (the highest level in college athletics) award full scholarships, up to 25 per year to incoming freshmen (each school has a maximum of 85). That means the entire Pac-12, one of the premiere conferences in the nation, gives out fewer than 300 scholarships to high school senior football players each year. Sites such as Scout.com and Rivals.com rate the top players on a scale of one to five stars, with five being the highest. More than 300 five- and four-star athletes annually vie for scholarships, while three- and two-stars, the vast bulk of recruits, number in the thousands. To be ranked at all means you're a star on your high school team. The math is daunting.
Blame the internet. When Rodney Washington took off school to play in an all-star game in Southern California last year, and when cornerback Arrion Archie paid his own way to participate in a seven-on-seven camp at Harvard, they were just doing what must be done in a day and age when the laser beam of publicity is on players as young as fourteen.
All-American rankings start with high school freshmen. While scouts still attend high school games, the onus has shifted to the player (and his parents) to get those all-important looks. Often that means spending big bucks to hire consultants who may or may not be on the level, spending hours and more bucks making highlight reels and keeping up with social media, and paying to attend camps. The camps, websites, and consultants are the big winners; they score no matter who gets recruited. And they have a captive audience.
Consider this: According to the NCAA, only 6.5 percent of high school players go on to play college football on any level, including community colleges. Everyone needs an edge.
How is that different from parents forking over for piano or ballet lessons? A student who wants to go to Julliard doesn't have scouts hovering over her shoulder at recitals, her prowess isn't rated on websites to be pored over by rabid fans, and she isn't risking brain damage from banging the keys. Still, if she manages a career in music, she won't earn an NFL salary. But she's more likely to perform someday at Carnegie Hall than a high school football player is to play at Lambeau Field.
Again according to the NCAA, only a very fortunate .08 percent of high school players end up in the NFL, while fewer than 2 percent of college players suit up as pros. One might think such odds would discourage athletes from attending seven-on-seven high school football showcases, but the opposite is true: Told from Day One to pursue their dreams, young men battle through hell or high water. Astoundingly, according to the NCAA, 52 percent of college D1 players think they can make it in the pros — so delusions survive high school.
Critics decry the emphasis on sports in high school and college, as if athletes get an undeserved free ride. Yet luck and happenstance intrude the education system in myriad ways: Teachers give bad marks to prove a point, art classes are axed for lack of funds, students write great essays but test poorly. High school is a crucible in which some melt away, and emerging whole may have little to do with inherent talent.
Indeed, most achievement is quixotic: full of luck and hope, dependent upon talents dealt out randomly. This person is good at taking tests, he has a great voice, she can do a backflip on ice skates. Each skill demands drive, persistence, work, fortune. And courage. It is easier not to try.
But among the smartphones and video games and parents divorcing and too little money and too much fast food come the opportunities that define a life, moments of clarity in a bombardment of distractions. When Powe and Washington execute astounding leaps and touchdown-saving tackles, they eke out a few moments of beauty in a moonlit night.
In an effort to chronicle some of that clarity and beauty and to better understand the long odds young athletes face, I decided to follow the Gauchos for eight months. Here is their story.
A cacophony of white and yellow lines drawn on the bright green artificial turf serves a multitude of sports: soccer, baseball, field hockey. Fields laid out at 45- and 60-degree angles intersect each other; six or seven soccer nets hunker here and there while backstops anchor two corners.
Football players stand about in pads, dashing from one set of yellow lines to another, while twenty feet distant an adult soccer coach shouts at girls no older than nine. Wide receivers run routes around students practicing soccer kicks. Defensive and offensive linemen gather at the far end of the field, prancing through squares of rope ladders stretched across the ground. "Right foot in the right square, left foot crosses behind, go, go!" head coach Kenny Kahn shouts over the roar of bulldozers and trucks laboring in mountains of dirt behind a chain link fence. Diesel fuel billows over the players as they scamper through the ladders, cheering each other's fancy footwork. "It was supposed to be finished in 2009," says Kahn, motioning to the mounds of fill that are El Cerrito High's football field. He shrugs. "We make lemonade."