TAMPA — When Ricky Sailor was one of Hillsborough County's top high school football recruits a dozen years ago, he wasn't handed the road map to success.
And he veered off the path.
Now Sailor, the defensive coordinator of Jefferson's reigning Class 3A state title team, has set his sights on not only helping today's recruits get a scholarship offer but making good use of it.
With all the buildup to national signing day every February, Sailor is one of the few who is still there after the pens are packed away.
In January, he officially began his own company, Unsigned Preps, to help prospects prepare for college life on and off the field. It has less to do with 40 times and more to do with the long haul.
"I help kids get recruited, but I'm not a recruiting service," Sailor, 30, said. "What I do is far different. My life experiences are really the driving force of how to help these guys. I didn't do it by reading a book. I did these things, good or bad, so I could come back and help. Everything they did, I did. I've been there.
"I tell them my story."
As a defensive back at Leto, Sailor committed to Wake Forest, but a senior season that included a 10-day suspension for fighting and a transcript with little punch — Sailor had a 2.0 grade point average and a 740 SAT score — didn't cut it for Wake.
So Sailor went to Butte College, a junior college in California, where he had 17 interceptions in two years and was a two-time junior college All-American. From there he went to Texas Tech, excelling on the field and in the classroom.
"I had a 2.0 GPA in high school, but I graduated college with a 3.0," Sailor said. "I didn't all of a sudden get smarter. I just learned how to handle different things better."
That's what Sailor hopes to do with Unsigned Preps, which he runs out of his Tampa home and is free to the athletes in lieu of community service. The key, he said, is thinking strategically, and realistically, about a player's recruiting while teaching valuable life lessons.
This month, Sailor took 23 players from seven counties on a bus trip to college camps at North Carolina, South Carolina, N.C. State and N.C. Central, where about 30 college coaches saw them firsthand — something he said is way more valuable than participating in one of the countless combines. To some players, who paid $355 for their registration to the four camps and three nights in hotels, it was their first time on a college campus, so it opened their eyes to a world beyond their neighborhoods.
The day before the bus trip, his group went to West Tampa's Rey Park, where former Jefferson quarterback and reigning Florida Mr. Football Quentin Williams cooked pigs in a blanket for local kids and made speeches about making good decisions.
The instruction for Sailor's mentees doesn't stop there. Everything he does takes a page from Tyrone Keys, a former NFL player who founded the All-Sports Community Foundation, a mentor program for kids that Sailor was involved with as a child.
His players participated in an NFL symposium in partnership with the Bucs, where they were instructed on how to handle college life — from the media to girls to Facebook.
He has had etiquette primers. Plans are in the works for some of his players' moms to send care packages to athletes in their first two years of college. All of the seniors he helped get into college this year will come back to do a youth camp next summer. He even wants to teach his players how to play golf to prepare for possible business deals down the line.
"I want to introduce guys to a different world," Sailor said. "Half of business decisions are made on the golf course. They're not made at happy hour at the Blue Martini, so our guys need to be on the golf course."
The caveat, at least early on, is helping land kids a scholarship, and two of Sailor's best success stories didn't play at Jefferson.
He helped former Plant receiver Allen Sampson land at Hawaii. In the midst of the Panthers' 2009 state-title season, the 5-foot-7, 150-pound speedster had four Division I-AA offers, deemed by many too small to play Division-I.
Sailor sat Sampson down and made him call a list of schools outside the region that ran West Coast offenses.
"I called all these coaches' secretaries," Sampson said. "He made me do everything. It taught me a lot about doing things on my own. It was a cool process because I never thought I'd be recruited by a school so far away. He opened my eyes to all these schools."
Hawaii ended up being a natural fit, and Sailor's old defensive coordinator at Texas Tech, Greg McMackin, is the Warriors' head coach.
Sailor also helped just-graduated Pasco senior Jamie Byrd get an offer to Texas Christian in the recruiting season's eleventh hour. The Horned Frogs were looking for a safety in late January, and Sailor remembered Byrd from when Pasco played Jefferson in the region playoffs.
Byrd, raised in the hard-luck Pasco County community of Lacoochee, had committed to Boise State, but after visiting TCU late he fell in love with the school, not to mention playing in the Big East and the fact that family was nearby.
"He gave me options," Byrd said. "One thing Coach always tells me is that you never know who is watching you, so always be respectful. You hear that, but he proved it to me and showed me that really is true. He liked how I carried myself in the game and after the game."
"TCU heard about me and the same day offered me. He made one call, he got it done. You never know who Coach knows. He knows a lot of people."
Barry Clark, a Tampa Catholic graduate who played at Ball State and has known Sailor since their days together at All-Sports, predicted that Unsigned Preps will be the model other recruiting brands will look to. His son, former Alonso cornerback Tyree Clark, signed with UConn with Sailor's help.
"Ricky leads with his heart first, and he's always trying to outdo himself," Clark said. "He feels like a parent, he thinks like a coach and he's focused like a CEO. When you introduce a college coach to Ricky, he'll have the coach's home phone number by the end of the conversation."
Sailor plans to make Unsigned Preps officially a nonprofit, which will open the door to more fundraising.
"The dream is big," he said with a smile. "You can drive around town and you'll see coaches all over trying to help kids get bigger, faster and stronger. Drive around and see how many are trying to make them better off the field. There aren't too many doing that. That's what I'm trying to do."
Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.