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Just about everyone knows someone who has been bullied, in ways big and small. Understandably, though, many victims are reluctant to speak about their experiences. We found some who aren't.
By Joel Anderson, Times Staff Writer
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, he 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 the fears to a family friend, then-Jets receiver Santana Moss, who spent enough time around her son during his days at Miami to know they 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 Hargreaves’ haphazard journey to becoming one of the nation’s most coveted college football recruits.
A summary of loosely related events: He threatened to quit football the summer before ninth grade; was one of a handful of freshmen to ever play varsity for South Central High in Winterville, N.C.; had to be “dragged” to practice for a 7-on-7 team shortly after moving to Tampa; became a captain for national champion Team Tampa the next summer.
Today, Wharton’s Vernon Hargreaves III is the Tampa Bay Times Blue Chip Player of the Year. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound senior cornerback has orally committed to Florida and is the consensus five-star jewel of its recruiting class.
“I would have never thought any of this would be happening to me right now,” he said Thursday on his Twitter account, on which the introvert enthusiastically interacts with nearly 5,000 followers.
Hargreaves, 17, reached this point in part by tallying 110 tackles, five interceptions, five forced fumbles and five pass deflections last fall in his primary role as a roving defensive back. He also scored five touchdowns and five two-point conversions, averaged 34 yards on kickoff returns, blocked a punt and held on kicks.
An avalanche of accolades followed: All-Western Conference. Times All-Hillsborough. Times All-Suncoast. All-State. Class 8A Defensive Player of the Year. Guy Toph award winner.
He burnished that resume at the Under Armour All-America Game on Jan. 4 at Tropicana Field, earning MVP honors after finishing with five tackles, two pass breakups and an interception.
A few weeks later, ESPN and Rivals elevated Hargreaves, who has a 3.8 grade point average, to the nation’s second-best recruit. (He has since fallen to No. 3 at ESPN.) Another major recruiting service, 247Sports, has him at No. 4.
“It just justified what I saw in him two years ago,” said Josh Newberg, a Tampa-based analyst for 247.
“It was good to see the nation see it.”
Few could have envisioned Hargreaves becoming one of the nation’s most touted prospects when he debuted 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 Hargreaves was the son of a coach and not a “coach’s son.” They never worked out together. They never watched film. They never discussed strategy. Depending on whom you believe, Vernon Hargreaves Jr. coached one of his son’s flag football teams for only two days or two weeks.
“I didn’t want to be that overbearing dad,” said Hargreaves Jr., a star linebacker at Connecticut who played briefly for the 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 Hargreaves III went out for the Palmetto Bay Broncos, coaches put him at receiver, far away from most of the 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: speed, jumping ability and instincts. He picked up the game quickly and was eventually moved to quarterback.
When Hargreaves entered eighth grade in North Carolina, where the family 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 camp and offered him a scholarship to East Carolina.
“(Hargreaves III) 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 zoning, Hargreaves was one of a handful of his middle school classmates sent to a newer high school, 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 East Carolina coaching staff — Hargreaves 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,” Hargreaves said. “And I didn’t know what I was doing (on defense).”
“She tells me, ‘Vernon doesn’t want to play anymore,’ ” his dad 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.’ ”
Hargreaves gradually worked his way into the lineup, eventually earning more playing time than the senior cornerback who started. In time, he got over his anxiety about competing against players 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,” then-South Central coach Walt Davis said. “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 Hargreaveses to move again when much of East Carolina’s staff followed newly hired coach Skip Holtz to USF.
They settled in the New Tampa area, and Hargreaves started offseason workouts at Wharton. Once again his slight frame left him and his new teammates unsure of his ability to play with bigger, older opponents.
He erased most of those doubts during the summer, when he dominated a series of 7-on-7 competitions and followed up with 44 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions as a sophomore.
In the summer before his junior season, he received an invitation to play for the Team Tampa 7-on-7 program. He competed with and against top local recruits including 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.
Hargreaves had 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 Moss told his mother years before and everyone else has learned since: Hargreaves will be fine.
Signing day was Wednesday and recruits around the bay made their commitments official by signing a letter of intent. For the latest recruiting news involving local athletes from all sports, check in daily at tb-two.com and click on HomeTeam.