Thursday July 9th, 2015

BEAVERTON, Ore. — Robert Smith has been running slant and out routes since the third grade, but the rising high school senior knows that in all likelihood he’s not destined for NFL greatness.

He’s 6’3” and 185 pounds but lacks the breakaway speed to attract Division I scholarship offers. Or, really, any scholarship offers. Still, he’ll graduate next year with a line on his high school resume that most die-hard football junkies would kill for: Elite 11 participant. And in 10 to 15 years, when Smith is lounging on his couch on Sundays, he’ll likely be able to tell his friends, “Yeah, I caught a pass from that NFL quarterback once.” And that, he says, is about as cool as it gets.

Each July, the top high school football prospects from around the country gather on the Nike Campus outside Portland for Elite 11, an American Idol-type quarterback competition, and The Opening, a showcase for all other positions. This summer, quarterbacks like Shane Buechele (Texas commit), Brandon Peters (Michigan) and Jarrett Guarantano (Tennessee) are milling around campus. But the first two days, before 166 receivers, linemen and linebackers arrive, the 18 quarterbacks need bodies to throw to. And that’s where Neil Lomax comes in.

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A former two-time Pro Bowler and eight-year NFL veteran, Lomax is a legend around the Portland area after going from benchwarmer to NCAA record-holder at Portland State, graduating 1981. Since his pro career concluded, Lomax has coached high school ball and tutored local college QB hopefuls (two of his sons Nick and Jack played at Boise State and Oregon State, respectively). One of his tasks with Elite 11 is to track down local receivers and defensive backs who can run routes and defend passes because the best high school quarterbacks in the country need somebody, anybody, to throw to.

“My pitch to high school coaches is always: Your kids will have the most challenging, highest quality workout of their careers—and it’s with their peers!” Lomax says. “It’s easy when you go to Sunset, Jesuit, Beaverton High, you sorta forget that Nike and all these great athletes are right in your backyard, just down the street. But this is a big deal—and you don’t get this type of experience every day.”

Lomax reaches out to every high school coach in the Portland metro area, asking for any and all college-type receivers. The first time he called Bill Smith, Robert’s dad and head coach at Century High in Hillsboro, Smith burst out laughing. “He said, ‘I need your Division I prospects,’ and I started laughing because we don’t have any D-I prospects,” says Smith, who sent 10 receivers, all first- and second-string varsity kids, to Elite 11 this week.

More important than talent is that the guys are scrappy, hungry and willing to repeat hundreds of thankless routes. High-fives and chest bumps from the future of football are just a bonus.

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With temperatures in the high 90s this week and limited shade on the Bo Jackson Field, Lomax aimed to sign up 100 local kids and hoped 40-50 would show up Monday morning. They’re needed for three sessions—Monday morning, Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning—and after the first one, a few kids always sneak away, intimidated by the talent and often out of breath.

“Sometimes in high school, I feel faster than everyone else,” says Terrell Jackson, a 5'6", 135-pound rising junior at Century who ran routes at Elite 11 last year, too. “Then I come here, and it’s like, wow, I’m average.”

Kameron Harvey, a rising sophomore at Tigard High, understands the work ethic and talent it takes to excel in athletics because his dad, former Portland Trailblazers power forward Antonio Harvey, spent a decade in the NBA. A skinny 6’4”, 152-pounder, Kameron Harvey estimates he dropped “the first 20 balls” because he wasn’t used to the velocity of these 17-year-olds. “It’s, uh, different,” he says. “These guys are waaaaay better than your average high school quarterback. You hear they’re the best quarterbacks in the country, and yeah, it’s true. As soon as you make the cut, the ball is there.”

Century scheduled passing workouts for this week, but Bill Smith told his team running routes at Elite 11 would act as a substitute. This is the second year he’s sent players, and he admits he “holds that out as a carrot” during tryouts each fall; it’s well known in the halls of Century High that varsity receivers and defensive backs get to participate in Elite 11. They’ve got the Nike t-shirts, shorts and gloves to prove it.

“My hope for sending kids there is that they get to see the next level of play,” Smith says. “It’s awesome to go there and see them stick their chest out a little bit, get a big smile on their face. I mean, oh my goodness, they’re catching balls from fantastic quarterbacks. It’s a memory they’ll never forget.”

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It helps the guys throwing, too. Jacob Eason, the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2016 class and a Georgia commit, says throwing to new guys is “awesome” because great quarterbacks can toss completions to anyone of any talent level. “It’s all about touch and timing,” Eason says. “This is just good practice for all of our future camps.”

Often, there’s a receiver who stands out, and because he’s unknown, Elite 11 coaches yell encouragement like, “Nice catch, Pink Socks!” and ask each other “Who’s Gold Cleats? He can play.” There’s always the chance a receiver or defensive back will impress enough that one of the Elite 11 coaches, all of them well-connected to college recruiters, will pass on a name and a scouting report. But for now, the cool factor outweighs everything else.

“You imagine what it would be like to play with these guys, have them high-five you, but you worry they might be stuck up just because they’re so much better than you,” says Robert Smith. “Then you get here and man, it’s exactly what you’re hoping it would be.”

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