By the time Jackie Hargreaves brought her 10-year-old son out for his first football practice, she feared he was already too far behind. • In Miami-Dade County, where many children slip on cleats shortly after learning how to tie their shoelaces, Vernon Hargreaves III was something of a rookie among rookies. • He had never played organized tackle football. He was smaller than most of his fifth-grade classmates. Even as the son of a University of Miami assistant coach, Vernon was unknown to the Palmetto Bay Broncos, one of the area’s most-established Pop Warner programs.
“I was told that I was too late and he might have to watch for a year because he was so many years behind,” Jackie Hargreaves said. “I was like, ‘Oh gosh, what have I done?’ I thought I had messed him up.”
She relayed those concerns to a family friend, then-New York Jets wide receiver Santana Moss, who spent enough time around Vernon during his days at Miami to know her fears were unfounded.
“He’ll be fine,” Moss told her. “Don’t worry.”
This would not be the last time an encouraging word - or not-so-gentle nudge - would be needed on Vernon’s haphazard journey to becoming one of the nation’s most coveted college football recruits.
Here’s a summary of loosely related events: He threatened to quit football the summer before ninth grade; he was one of a handful of freshmen to ever play varsity for South Central High School in Winterville, N.C.; he had to be “dragged” to practice for a local 7-on-7 football team shortly after moving to Tampa; he became a captain for the national champion Team Tampa program the next summer.
Today, Wharton High School’s Vernon Hargreaves III is the Tampa Bay Times’ Blue Chipper of the Year. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound senior defensive back will head to the University of Florida as the consensus five-star jewel of their 2013 recruiting class.
“I woulda never thought any of this would be happening to me right now,” he said Thursday via his Twitter account, where the introverted 17-year-old enthusiastically interacts with nearly 5,000 followers.
Vernon did it - in part - by tallying 110 tackles, five interceptions, five forced fumbles and five pass deflections this fall in his primary role as a roving defensive back. He also made his presence felt in other phases of the game, scoring five touchdowns and five two-point conversions, averaging 34 yards per kickoff return, serving as the holder and blocking a punt.
What followed was an avalanche of accolades: All-Western Conference. All-Hillsborough. All-Suncoast. All-state. Class 8A Defensive Player of the Year. Guy Toph award winner.
Vernon, who boasts a 3.8 grade-point average, also burnished that resume with a dominant performance at the Under Armour All-America Game at Tropicana Field on Jan. 4, earning MVP honors after finishing with five tackles, two pass breakups and an interception.
A few weeks later, ESPN and Rivals elevated Vernon to the nation’s second-best recruit. Another prominent recruiting service, 247Sports, ranked him in the top five.
“It just justified what I saw in him two years ago,” said Josh Newberg, a Tampa-based recruiting analyst with 247. “It was good to see the nation see it.”
• • •
Few could have envisioned Vernon would become one of the nation’s most highly touted prospects when he made his inauspicious debut in the Greater Miami Pop Warner League in the summer of 2005.
One of three children and the only son born to Connecticut natives, he spent much of his youth in South Florida - “Miami is home for us,” Jackie Hargreaves said - while his father worked as a linebackers coach for the then-powerhouse Hurricanes program.
Understand that Vernon was the son of a coach and not a “coach’s son.” They never worked out together. They never watched film. They never discussed game strategy. Depending on whom you believe Vernon Jr. was coach of one of his son’s youth flag football teams for only two days or two weeks.
“I didn’t want to be that overbearing dad,” said Vernon Jr., who was once a star linebacker at Connecticut and played briefly for the Cleveland Browns and later in Italy. “If it was going to happen, it was going to happen. But I wasn’t going to push him.”
So it happened that when Vernon went out for the Palmetto Bay Broncos, coaches put him at wide receiver - far away from most little-league game action.
“I wasn’t any good,” he said. “I never really got the ball. I was just the guy who went out there and blocked.”
But the gifts that made him a standout basketball player were soon apparent on the football field: the speed, jumping ability and instincts. He picked up the game quickly, and was eventually moved to quarterback.
When Vernon entered eighth grade in North Carolina, where the family had moved after his father took a job as an assistant with East Carolina, he had earned a reputation as one of the area’s best athletes.
He caught the eye of his father’s friend and colleague, Rick Smith, who sidled up to him after a youth football camp and offered him a scholarship to East Carolina.
“He came up to my waist. The only thing he needed to do was grow,” said Smith, former defensive backs coach at USF and now defensive coordinator at East Carolina. “But he had everything else.”
Size was still a concern when it was time for high school.
Because of a quirk in school zoning, Vernon was one of only a handful of his middle-school classmates sent to the newer high school in the area, South Central. Once there, the coaches quickly pegged the 5-6, 140-pound freshman for varsity and moved him to defensive back.
Already frustrated because he wasn’t going to school with his friends, most of them children of the ECU coaching staff, Vernon told his mother he was done with football.
“I was going to a school where I didn’t know anybody, they were high schoolers and they were all bigger than me,” Vernon said. “And I didn’t know what I was doing” on defense.
Vernon Jr. rushed home only minutes after getting a call from his wife.
“She tells me, ‘Vernon doesn’t want to play anymore,”’ he said. “Good thing we were only five minutes from home. But I got there and told him there’s a reason they had him out there.
“Two weeks later, he says, ‘Hey dad, they aren’t playing me enough.”’
Vernon gradually worked his way into the lineup, eventually earning more playing time than the senior cornerback who was the starter. In time, he got over his anxiety about competing against players who were often four years older and 5 inches and 50 pounds bigger.
“He was hesitant about coming up and maybe getting pushed out there a little too fast,” said then-South Central High football coach Walt Davis. “I tried to assure him he had the ability. You could see as a ninth grader that he was a special football player.”
At the end of that season, it was time for the Hargreaves family to move again when much of the East Carolina staff joined newly hired head coach Skip Holtz at USF.
They settled in the New Tampa area and Vernon started offseason workouts at Wharton. Once again his slight frame left him and his new teammates unsure of his ability to play with bigger and older opponents.
He erased most of those doubts during the summer when he dominated a series of 7-on-7 competitions and followed that up with 44 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions during his sophomore year.
In the summer before his junior season, he received an invitation to play for the Team Tampa 7-on-7 program. He would compete with and against top local recruits like Armwood’s Matt Jones (now at Florida) and Berkeley Prep’s Nelson Agholor (USC). It was an honor and a chance for more exposure to colleges and recruiting analysts, for better or worse.
Vernon would have to prove himself all over again.
“I learned from his dad that he had to drag him out to practice,” Newberg said. “All of these kids grew up playing football together. But he was new and one of a few younger kids on the team.”
Within a few practices, Team Tampa learned what Santana Moss told Jackie Hargreaves years before and what everyone else had learned since: Vernon will be fine.
Don’t worry, Gainesville.
Times' Tampa Bay top 25 of 2013
1. Vernon Hargreaves III, Wharton, CB, 5-11/185 Florida
2. Ryan Green, St. Petersburg Catholic, RB, 5-10/187 FSU
3. Leon McQuay III, Armwood, DB, 6-2/175 USC
4. Alvin Bailey, Armwood, WR, 5-11/170 Florida
5. Joey Ivie, Pasco, DL, 6-5/270 Florida
6. Jordan Sherit, Hillsborough, DE, 6-4/230 Florida
7. Paris Bostick, Plant, DB, 6-1/203 Georgia
8. Janarion Grant, Pasco, ATH, 6-0/185 Undecided
9. Ernest Suttles, Gaither DE 6-5/240 Nebraska
10. Mike Love, Countryside, DE, 6-4/205 USF
11. Travis Johnson, Jesuit, WR, 6-4/200 Undecided
12. Rodney Adams, Lakewood, WR, 6-1/166 Undecided
13. Shaquill Griffin, Lakewood, DB 6-0/184 UCF
14. Robert Davis, Carrollwood Day, RB, 5-7/160 Undecided
15. Richard Benjamin, Tampa Bay Tech, ATH, 6-1/173 Louisville
16. Mike Stevenson, CCC, S 6-0/175 Wake Forest
17. Devyn Salmon, Plant City, DT 6-2/277 Michigan State
18. Nate Godwin, Freedom, DB 6-0/190 USF
19. Nigel Harris, Hillsborough, LB, 6-2/195 USF
20. Pete DiNovo, East Lake, QB, 6-1/190 UCF
21. Marquez Valdes, Lakewood, 6-3/195 WR Undecided
22. David Emmanuel, Pasco, RB, 6-1/185 Undecided
23. Shaquem Griffin, Lakewood, 6-1/183 DB UCF
24. Jeremy Kerr, St. Petersburg TE 6-6/254 FSU
25. Bruce Hector, Robinson, 6-2/270 G USF
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @jdhometeam.