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The country’s top high school football players sprint and smash on practice fields lined with clothing brand slogans, TV logos and insurance company posters.
Former NFL coaches yell. Deion Sanders looks on. ESPN’s cameras roam, filming practice for Thursday night's Under Armour All-America Game at Tropicana Field.
Next the mob moves to the open-air mezzanine of a stadium named after another clothing company at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. A handful of rental car and gas station signs peek from the distance.
And Nelson Agholor sits with a crowd around his lunch table, sandwich in hand.
There’s no break for the quiet teenager with the banged-up shoulder and world-class skills. The questions keep flowing, the cameras keep rolling, and the hype keeps building.
“It’s become part of the game,” said Agholor, the five-star Berkeley Prep athlete with offers from Florida, Notre Dame, among many others. “I wish it wasn’t there anymore.”
But it is.
Last year’s game drew a record crowd of almost 24,000 and a prime-time slot on ESPN. Players sign autographs on their way to practice. A game named after a clothing brand, which outfits players for the week and picks up the tab so players can enjoy the amenities free of charge, even had an insurance company sponsor its selection tour.
More all-star games have popped up. So have more recruiting sites. And exposure for teenage athletes on the verge of stardom has increased.
“It’s fun, and it’s a great experience — a blessing to be able to do something like this Under Armour game, to be able to give interviews and stuff like that,” said kicker Austin Hardin, a Florida commit. “I know a lot of kids would love to be in my place.”
Kids like Chris Schalles.
No price tag on discovery
While Agholor is a household name among recruiting gurus, Schalles isn’t.
The Mitchell High senior has no scholarship offers, and his phone hardly rings. But the 6-foot, 205-pound lineman loves shoving his opponents.
“Some guys larger than me, I can’t do it,” Schalles said. “But I still try.”
Schalles knows he won’t play for the Gators or Fighting Irish, but the all-conference Mustang thinks he can play at a small college. And so does his mother.
Theresa Greco sent her son to camps and combines to make sure others saw Schalles’ strength and motor. He did well enough to get an invite to next weekend’s Blue-Grey National All-Star Classic at Raymond James Stadium.
There’s a catch: The first-year contest has a $1,850 entrance fee.
Greco already works a second job at Walmart to pay for her other kids’ college bills. But she forked out the $500 deposit and emailed coaches to secure a sponsor to pay the rest.
Maybe, she said, a recruiter will see her son play and offer him a scholarship and chance to live his dream.
“I don’t care too much about him being famous,” Greco said. “I just want colleges to be able to see what he can do and give him a chance on the college level.”
Headaches can follow fame
College coaches could turn on the TV to watch Agholor and the Under Armour players this week. ESPNU aired practices. A TV stage stood in the corner of the field. Analysts buzzed about quarterbacks’ mechanics and linebackers’ frames.
The attention has surrounded players like Sean Price for months. The USF-bound tight end commit from Citra North Marion said he was hounded by calls and recruiters during the preseason. He almost wanted to shut off his phone.
“I’m not gonna lie. It does get kind of old,” Price said. “But it’s part of football.”
And, players said, it eventually becomes routine.
The scrutiny is preparation for the college game. The emails and Facebook messages get entertaining. You stop noticing the cameras on the sidelines or the logos on your way to practice.
“It gets normal,” said WR Latroy Pittman, a Gator commit and Price’s high school teammate, “like waking up or brushing your teeth.”
Looking out for the little guys
Gus Bell has followed high school players for two decades. He helped Greg Lloyd go from tiny Fort Valley State to the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s easy to spot players like Agholor. Polishing hidden gems like Schalles is tougher.
“They still have a lot to prove,” said Bell, vice president of Pro-Motion Sports USA.
And so does Bell, a 68-year-old promoter in a booming industry of at least four other national all-star games. He started the Blue-Grey game to showcase underexposed players like Schalles.
While the Under Armour game is on prime-time national TV, the Blue-Grey game can only be seen nationally online. Bell hopes a sponsor will come next year so he won’t have to charge players to rent a pro stadium.
“I’m only a little guy,” Bell said. “I can’t put on a game like this on Social Security.”
Acceptance of celebrity status
Agholor can’t avoid the fame.
For fun, he tweeted commentary last week during the Florida State-Notre Dame game — a contest between schools he’s considering.
Fans analyzed every word, trying to sway the mind of one of the country’s top uncommitted players and determine a future Agholor hasn’t yet decided.
He vowed not to do that again.
“All I want to do is play football, but I understand people are kind of making a living off these young men and their talents,” Agholor said during lunch. “It’s there. You’ll see it at the college level, too. Get used to it.”
The cool air blows in from outside. In a few minutes, the players will head back to the practice fields for a skills competition.
Quarterbacks will zip balls onto targets with insurance company logos. Athletes will run sprints past clothing mottoes and dive in front of rolling cameras.
Inside, Agholor shivers. The full plate in front of him has barely been touched.
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Under Armour All-America Game
When: 7:30 Thursday, ESPN
Where: Tropicana Field
Tickets: Start at $18. Call 1-800-745-3000 or visit football.uaallamerica.com.
Blue-Grey National All-Star Classic
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 14
Where: Raymond James Stadium
Tickets: $12. Call 508-376-1250 or email email@example.com