It was early February 2011, and Timber Creek wide receiver Damiere Byrd was ready to make his college choice official.
After drawing offers from eight power-conference football programs, including a pair of northeastern options in Rutgers and Pittsburgh, Byrd had locked in South Carolina. All he had to do was sign a national letter of intent, and he’d be a Gamecock for at least the next three years.
The only problem? Byrd, an elite sprinter, was more than 6,700 miles from his hometown of Sicklerville.
“He was one of the first guys to not be a part of our ceremony,” Timber Creek coach Rob Hinson recalled. “He had to sign in Japan [where he was competing with USA Track], and that was one of the more interesting signing day experiences.”
Most local prospects, however, won’t be halfway across the world when the regular signing period for Division I and II football begins Wednesday. Instead, hundreds of student-athletes will put pen to paper in front of family and friends, capping a years-long process that can include many trips, camps and meetings.
And while National Signing Day is also a celebratory moment for coaches, the path to getting there is equal parts maddening, challenging and thrilling.
Once a player signs his letter of intent, it’s all over. There is no more wavering, no flip-flopping — you’re locked in with that school for the next year, barring any wild, unforeseen circumstances.
That means it’s important to get the decision right.
“I try to push the kids … to get out and experience and go to camps and visit campuses,” Kingsway coach Mark Hendricks said. “It’s really hard to know what you like if you’ve never really been many places. So the more visits you take, the more you know.”
But not every player has the chance to explore all those options. Trips costs money, and camps require time.
As vital as exposure is for players to be seen by college recruiters, it’s equally important for those players to understand the university and college communities of which they might one day be a part.
And, as Northeast coach Eric Clark explains, “You have to commit to a school to say, ‘This is where I can see myself academically first, socially, and then athletically after that.’ ”
It’s a major reason why Clark and his staff organize annual trips on which he and select players make visits to several different types of schools outside the area.
Last summer, the group from Northeast went to Texas, stopping at Baylor, Texas A&M, Houston, Rice and Sam Houston State. This summer, they’ll explore the Carolinas, although the stops have yet to be finalized.
He hopes those trips can show his players what they are ultimately building toward.
“It’s some of our kids’ first times out of the city boundaries, and it’s most of their first times on a college campus,” Clark said. “It’s something new, something fresh, and something that they’ve dreamed of all their lives. To experience it is awesome [and] it’s made them work harder in the classroom when they come back to school.”
As much as visiting colleges and understanding firsthand what each school is about, a lot of the recruiting process comes down to relationship building — something that Hinson, Hendricks and Clark all emphasized.
That responsibility often falls on high school coaches, who are typically the first and primary point of contact between player and recruiter.
“Supporting my players [throughout the process] is a priority,” Hendricks said. “I always try to return every form of communication that comes from a college coach. Having coached in that realm, I can tell you that being readily available to answer questions or talk about specific players, that goes a long way.”
Hendricks, who was the defensive coordinator at Division III Rowan before serving as a defensive backs coach at FCS school James Madison, pointed to Hinson as an example of a resource for recruiters.
“I’m constantly on the phone, calling and texting,” Hinson said. “Being honest in your evaluation of your kids and their stats and size and that kind of thing [is important] so coaches build that trust with you.
“Sometimes they offer my guys, and sometimes they don’t. … But overall, recruiters seem to value and trust my evaluation of my guys and other guys in the area.”
And while coaches like Hendricks don’t necessarily like to tell their players what level they are capable of playing at, it’s important that the fit goes both ways.
“You try to work them through what the process looks like,” Hendricks said. “If you add it up, you’re talking about $140,000 over the course of four years. Let’s make a good decision that involves your studies and your career. Don’t just start shelling out money because you want to play football.”
Whether it’s Alabama, Penn State, Miami or Syracuse, Northeast has become a stop for premier college programs on their way through Philadelphia.
It’s a testament to what Clark and former head coach Phil Gormley have built.
But not every player is going to starring for a Big Ten or SEC school once they graduate. In reality, most won’t even play at the Division I level.
Local Division II programs such as Bloomsburg, West Chester, Millersville and Shippensburg pull plenty of their talent from within Philadelphia as well as South Jersey.
And nobody knows a player better than his coach.
So, when Timber Creek’s Tarheeb Still flew under the radar for most of the recruiting process, Hinson did everything he could to make sure his player ended up in the best situation possible.
“I was telling [recruiters,] of the guys I’ve had in this program, he’s right there with them,” Hinson said of Still, who signed with Maryland during the early period in December. “Guys were kind of slow on him, saying, ‘We don’t know about his speed.’ And I’m like, ‘This dude is a state champion in track and field.’
“He played this whole season with a bad hamstring, and it came down late where schools [such as Notre Dame and Ohio State] started coming in. … It wound up working out perfectly for him.”
Each player’s recruitment is different, and there’s rarely a perfect path.
But the goal is always the same: find a spot where a player can continue to excel.