The high school football season is about to start, one of the best parts of the sports calendar. The whole thing is a hoot, the pep rallies, the assemblies, the homecoming motorcades, the cheerleaders, sometimes even the games.
One of the things that makes me uneasy about high school football now, however, is that some of the players get interviewed and too many of them say things like, "my goal is to have a career in the pros."
I wince when I hear that. Usually I make it a point not to step on the dreams of young people, but most high school football players from around here have a better chance of being struck by lightning than they do playing for money.
We have our occasional Shane Conlan, Daryl Johnston, Ron Jaworski, Craig and Ron Wolfley and Jim Burt, but Western New York is not to be confused with Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas and definitely not Florida or California. Even so, the "struck-by-lightning" theory also applies to most good players from those states.
Take, at random, the 1983 Parade Magazine high school All-America team. Its top player was Alvin Miller, a receiver from Kirkwood, Mo. Beyond high school he never did anything notable. The story quoted a Texas A&M recruiter as describing Jeff Atkins, a halfback from Ft. Worth, Texas, as "better right now than Earl Campbell and Billy Sims were in high school." Campbell and Sims won the Heisman Trophy. Campbell is in the pro football Hall of Fame and Sims might have been except for injury. Atkins? He became anonymous.
There were 13 players good enough to have their photographs in the magazine that year. None made it to an NFL training camp.
A couple of seasons earlier, I visited Moeller High School in Cincinnati to write a column about its coach, Gerry Faust, on the verge of becoming head coach at Notre Dame. I watched films of Moeller's playoff victory of the night before with Faust. Moeller was truly awesome but only its star, running back Hiawatha Francisco, a defensive back at Notre Dame, was ever heard from in college. Another Moeller back did pretty well in a different sport: Barry Larkin, the Reds' all-star shortstop.
In 1984, the top backs on Parade's All-American team were Ryan Knight, who ended up at Southern California, and Lars Tate, who went to Georgia. Each had brief moments, yet a little back from Sugar Land, Texas, also honored, had a great many big moments. It was Thurman Thomas. He didn't rate a spot in the photo spread.
About 20 percent of the quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers elected to high school All-American teams ever do much of anything in college, much less the pros. With linemen it's about 5 percent.
It has to do with the physical maturing of young boys. Some reach maturity far sooner than most. Tom Mack, the Rams' guard who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last month, talked about it. "I went to an academic school, Cleveland Heights High School," said Mack. "Our best record was 5-5. I wasn't very good. I was a better swimmer and that's how I got into Michigan, on my swimming coach's recommendation. After I became All-America I was home one summer and went to a party where I met an old high school teammate. 'What happened?' " he asked me. " 'How did you get good?' "
Some rare years high school football is full of naturals. That happened in 1978, probably the greatest crop of prospects ever. I covered an NCAA function that year and did a recruiting survey. Notre Dame's Dan Devine told me "We've got the best quarterback in the nation, John Skronski of Staten Island." No one has heard of Skronski since. Terry Donahue, then at UCLA, told me he missed out on a great quarterback prospect, "a kid named John Elway from Granada Hills, Calif. He's going to Stanford."
That night George Welch, then coaching Navy and consequently a bystander in big-time recruiting, sat next to me at dinner. "I heard you asking about the best high school quarterbacks," he said. "Pitt is getting the best in the country. He's from Pittsburgh Central Catholic, a kid named Marino."
Those are rare stories. For most kids about to start their season, the best advice is: Enjoy yourself now. The future always takes care of itself.