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Football recruits being pulled all different directions

Published Feb. 8, 2015

The hype surrounding Byron Cowart's college choice plagued the five-star football recruit for months on end. On the outside, reporters and recruiting analysts begged the Armwood High star for tidbits, anything that would hint at where the most sought-after high school player in the nation would spend his next three or four years.

On the inside was an 18-year-old kid being pulled in many directions, confused about the path he should take.

Woodrow Grady, coach of the 7-on-7 squad Team Tampa and Cowart's longtime mentor, helped Cowart through his recruitment, giving him advice and listening to his concerns.

"During the process, Byron wanted to go to six different schools," Grady said.

One day it would be Florida State, the next Oregon. With the college football world watching, the pressure to pick was heavy. Grady said he reminded Cowart often that the choice should be made in his own time, even once suggesting he forget about the top programs competing for him and just stay home and play for USF.

Wednesday morning was supposed to be the end of it all. And when Cowart announced his decision to attend Auburn in front of a packed Armwood High auditorium — and live on ESPNU's signing day telecast — it appeared things were going as planned. Grady went out with Cowart and Cowart's mother and friends for a celebratory lunch. Then he went home and took a nap.

But when he woke up later that afternoon with 19 messages on his phone — many pertaining to Cowart's letter of intent having not been faxed to Auburn yet — Grady realized the process was potentially far from over.

Cowart, who eventually sent his letter to Auburn more than seven hours after announcing, garnered national attention — and criticism — for his apparent indecision.

But he is far from being the only recruit who has felt weighed down by the process of making what is likely the biggest decision of his life to date.

Knowing the magnitude of Cowart's choice that day, Grady immediately gave the recruit a final piece of advice.

"I got up, dusted myself off, as they say, and I talked with Byron," Grady said. "I said, 'Whatever you want to do, you do. If you want to hold this out until you know what you want to do, do that.' "

When former Leto High defensive back Ricky Sailor was being recruited by Division I-A programs out of community college in 2001, the process was a different game. At that time, he said, social media wasn't even a phrase. The voices of strangers operating behind computer screens trying to persuade players to commit to their favorite schools were nonexistent.

"The pressure back then was, 'I have to do this to take care of my family,' " said Sailor, founder and president of Unsigned Preps, an organization that helps recruits prepare for college. "Now the kids say, 'I have to do this for Gator nation,' 'I have to do this for Tampa.' It's no longer, 'I have to do this for two or three people.' … That can be very hard."

But pressure within a recruit's family or camp still exists. And at times, the result can be chaotic. Just ask new Florida coach Jim McElwain, who Saturday was still waiting for a signed letter of intent from Baker County five-star recruit CeCe Jefferson.

The nation's No. 2 defensive end and No. 9 overall prospect, Jefferson orally committed on ESPNU on the afternoon of signing day. Since then, he has been embroiled in a family drama in which his father as of Saturday had refused to sign his letter of intent.

Leo Jefferson and his son gave conflicting reports as to why he had not faxed his letter, including concern over the resignation of Florida defensive line coach Terrell Williams. On his Twitter account, CeCe Jefferson insisted he would be a Gator when it's all said and done.

The strife and stress that come with the recruiting process — and flipping at the last moment — is known well by Dante Fowler Jr. and his family. The former Lakewood High star was orally committed to Florida State for about a year before signing day, but he changed his mind at the last minute and signed with the Gators. The wrath of fans came down on him hard.

Fowler played his last game with the Gators in the Jan. 3 Birmingham Bowl, saying he had no regrets, though he missed out on being part of Florida State's national championship team as Florida struggled.

And that, Fowler said, is the ultimate goal: choosing a place where you'll be happy regardless of what happens.

That might be why he became so emotional Wednesday as fans on social media began to attack Cowart. Fowler, who is training for the NFL draft in Pensacola and could not be reached for comment, took to Twitter to defend Cowart and admonish fans.

He congratulated Cowart and wished him well "pursuing his dreams and going to AU." He chastised Florida fans who insinuated he hadn't done enough to influence Cowart. "What, you want me to grab Byron by his throat and force him to come to UF?"

And then he reminded them who should have the ultimate decision in where an athlete attends school. "He is his own man and he has his own dreams. … It's not my decision or YOURS, it's BYRON decision."

But Dante Fowler Sr. said that allowing the athlete to make his own best decision is sometimes difficult. He wanted his son at Florida State. That type of conflict between parents and children can cause serious problems if not handled properly, he said.

"You should sit down together and go over your pros and cons, but in the end, you've got to let your son make that decision," Fowler Sr. said. "In the end, the kid should have the final say-so to go where he wants to go. He's the one that's got to be comfortable, and not the parents. Parents can adjust."

Fowler Sr. sympathizes with Cowart and Jefferson.

"It's a tough process, especially in CeCe's case," he said. "You thought you had one D-line coach, then all of a sudden you're getting another D-line coach. … I understand why these kids play the games that they play because the coaches, they're just car salesmen."

Thanks to social media's popularity, lingering doubts are no longer a private affair, and that can cause a recruit even more problems. Twitter has helped recruits in some ways, letting an athlete get his message out to more people and eliminating the massive number of individual calls from reporters who specialize in recruiting.

But there's an ugly side.

"The direct access to recruits can be good when (fans are) cheering them on, but when (fans) turn on them it's just not a good thing at all, and it stresses some of these kids out," said Derek Tyson, SEC recruiting analyst for ESPN.

Tyson recalled an incident last week on Twitter involving Hale Hentges, a Missouri tight end who signed with Alabama.

"There was a Missouri fan cursing at him and calling him all sorts of names," Tyson said. "It lasted 10 to 15 tweets, and he was just berating this high school kid, whom I've met, and he's a very good kid. These poor kids get just blasted when they don't go to the school these fans want them to go to."

The wrath of fans adds to the enormous stress of the process.

Fowler Sr. said the social media aspect haunted his son, and in a frightening twist, it gave strangers direct access to his son.

"Believe it or not, those kids look at that stuff," Fowler Sr. said. "They read it, and it forms their opinions and everything. It was tough. There were a lot of people contacting Dante that we didn't even know about until the end, until it was all over and we talked about it. And there were a lot of people coming at him — fans, alumni. That social media, it's crazy."

Having been recruited himself, Sailor uses his experience and Unsigned Preps to help recruits handle a process that looks a lot different than it did when he was going through it. Still, Sailor tries to give the best advice he can to kids who are feeling overwhelmed.

"(I tell them) just remain humble, be who you are — because you're very good at being who you are — and then constantly just telling them what's real and what's not real," he said.

"What's not real is all the social media fanfare. That's not real because in two or three days, Byron Cowart won't be mentioned anymore … because it's on to the next one."

Kelly Parsons can be reached at Follow @_kellyparsons. Antonya English can be reached at Follow @TBTimes_Gators.