Back in 1986, I was a senior tight end at a high school football powerhouse in Ohio. We won back-to-back state championships in my sophomore and junior seasons before lining up a murderers’ row of a schedule in my senior year, in which we finished 7-3. In each of the two years prior, we had multiple kids getting full rides to NCAA D-I schools, from our record-setting tailback who turned down offers from Ohio State and Michigan to play at Cincinnati, to our state lineman of the year who went on to Indiana, to our monster of a defensive tackle who chose Rutgers, and more.
Outside of winning a third state title, there was nothing I wanted more than to add my name to that list of D-I scholarship players to come out of our school.
I received letters of interest from anumber of schools, but I was never on the level of my superstar teammates, and I knew it. The best I was hoping for was a shot at a MAC school such as Toledo or Bowling Green — just so I could say I was a scholarship player. The closest I got was Toledo, which told me I was on the bubble, so to speak, for one of their last scholarships, but when they landed a 235-pound tight end near the end of the signing period, they no longer had the desire to spend two years adding the necessary bulk to my 210-pound frame — so I was left on the outside looking in.
I ended up at a Division III school not far from Toledo, where I got to play right away, but I never got over the disappointment of not making the grade at a big school. In fact, I never even told my coach when I made my verbal commitment to my recruiter, because I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t make D-I. And for years, whenever I was asked about my college football days, I’d mention that I went to Heidelberg College — but that I was almost signed by Toledo. That’s how much it meant to me.
In retrospect, I wouldn’t change a thing about my college experience, but that comes from the vantage point of a 40-year-old man who is much better able to prioritize than was the disappointed 18-year-old kid whose dreams fell short.
Maybe that’s why I can empathize with 18-year-old Kevin Hart, a big kid with even bigger dreams. And an even bigger imagination.
The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Hart, the pride of the small town of Fernley, Nev., which had never produced a scholarship athlete, held a press conference last week to announce his decision to play for Jeff Tedford at Cal instead of Mike Bellotti at Oregon. As we all know by now, neither Tedford nor Bellotti ever recruited Hart, who admitted that he had faked the entire recruiting process because he “wanted to play D-I ball more than anything,” and “made up what I wanted to be reality.”
A despicable hoax, to be sure. Many people were embarrassed, including Hart, his family, his coaches, and his school. He has become the butt of national jokes for his ego-driven charade, and he now spends his days hiding in shame. But given the ridiculous amount of hype devoted to high school athletes these days, is it really so shocking that a kid would go to these extremes to be included in the club?
College kids have been exploited by the media for years, earning billions of dollars for their universities in exchange for their scholarships. High-profile players are high-profile targets, and are oftentimes treated as harshly as paid professional athletes by the press. As if judging college kids wasn’t bad enough, national publications such as Sports Illustrated have lowered the bar even further, now devoting entire sections of their weekly magazines to high school players, digging into the lives of teenagers and, usually, stroking their already super-sized egos.
High school sports were once a fun way for kids to challenge themselves in the spirit of competition. But somewhere along the way, the pressure to be bigger and better than everyone else has become so intense that kids will resort to anything to get noticed. From steroid-addled fake bodies to emotion-laden fake scholarship offers, the kids are doing crazy things.
Blame Kevin Hart, sure. But blame Sports Illustrated, too. And ESPN. And Fox Sports, CBS Sports and Rivals.com. There’s enough blame for everybody.
Sports personality Bob Frantz is a regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at email@example.com.