SI.com's Andy Staples recently accompanied the South Florida Express travel team, which includes 25 of Florida's top prospects, on an unofficial recruiting trip to a national tournament and four schools in the South. From The Grove to South Beach, Staples got a firsthand look of what it's like to be a top recruit. This is the first installment of a five-part series.
SOMEWHERE ON THE FLORIDA TURNPIKE -- Wayne Lyons had stretched his body into a position no normal human would find comfortable. Lyons, a blue-chip defensive back from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., sprawled across two bus seats, his legs dangling into the aisle. He slept soundly.
While Lyons dozed, his South Florida Express teammates sitting in the rear of the bus hatched a plot. The mastermind was B.J. Dubose, a star defensive end at Northeast High in Oakland Park, Fla. The first of their coaches who dared enter the bus bathroom would find himself trapped inside, the door braced by coolers and elite athletes.
Brett Goetz, the Fort Lauderdale stock broker who created the traveling seven-on-seven team two years ago, knew his players far too well to fall for their ruse. Still, he had his own issues. As he sat in the first row, Goetz pressed an iPhone to his ear.
"Which NCAA rule is it?" Goetz asked, knowing he didn't want to hear the answer to his question. In the next few hours, Goetz would receive an unpleasant piece of NCAA news, one of his assistant coaches would be locked in the bus bathroom for several hilarious minutes and several players would commandeer the bus microphone for a freestyle rap contest that didn't conclude until every passenger had been properly skewered. Only hours into the six-day trip, Goetz stood in the aisle and yelled to no one in particular.
"I've lost [bleeping] institutional control!"
Welcome to the nascent world of elite travel football, the burgeoning sport that could someday mirror AAU basketball, with apparel companies footing the bill for teams loaded with top prospects to criss-cross the country to face other teams loaded with top prospects. Until that happens, Goetz will continue to scrounge for sponsor dollars, cut deals with bus companies and stay only in hotels that offer a free hot breakfast. Last week, Goetz allowed SI.com to ride along as his 25-man team -- made up of some of the best skill-position players in South Florida -- visited colleges en route to the Badger Sports Elite 7-on-7 National Championship in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Along the way, the Express endured NCAA issues, traffic jams, larcenous team members and the combined flatulence of 33 males cooped up in a bus. Players also formed friendships that will last long after their return home. They devoured 26 slabs of ribs, a gallon of baked beans and five quarts of banana pudding at a world-famous barbecue joint. At the tournament, some turned in performances that will draw more scholarship offers. Best of all, they took home a national title.
Goetz already has a name in the world of college football recruiting. It's just not the name he wants. During an interview with a BCS-conference head coach in May, Goetz's name was mentioned. "Oh," the coach said. "The Ohio State guy."
Goetz acquired that reputation because linebacker Etienne Sabino,one of the players from the Optimist Club football league Goetz runs in Miami Beach, signed with the Buckeyes two years ago along with Dr. Krop High teammate Travis Howard. Goetz has taken other prospects to Columbus while visiting Sabino. He also has taken players to his alma mater, Florida, and to a variety of other campuses, but Ohio State is the one everyone associates with Goetz. For the tournament trip, Goetz made plans to stop at Florida State, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State so his players -- most of whom are heavily recruited -- could tour the campuses and meet with coaches in what the NCAA terms "unofficial" visits. After the tournament, which took place on Alabama's campus, Goetz planned a stop in Gainesville.
"This is the cover-up trip," Goetz said, laughing at his reputation as a shill for the Buckeyes. Sabino and Howard, Goetz said, were turned on to Ohio State by the late Sonny Spielman, a Dr. Krop assistant coach and the father of former Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman. Goetz admits he likes the Buckeyes' staff and program, but he said he appreciates a lot of excellent programs. That's why he wanted his players, most of whom can't afford to pay for multiple unofficial visits, to see as many campuses and coaches as possible on the trip.
Unfortunately for Goetz, the NCAA had other ideas.
The Express assembled at 6:30 a.m. on June 29 in Hollywood, Fla. On the bus were Lyons and Dubose, who have each received more than 30 scholarship offers. Joining them were Boyd Anderson High linebacker Kent Turene, who is coveted by most of the programs in the top 25, and Miami Southridge High defensive backs Gerrod Holliman and Andrew Johnson, who each hold more than 20 scholarship offers. The team also featured committed players such as Plantation High linebacker Ryan Shazier (Florida), Plantation safety Jeremy Cash (Ohio State) and Miami Northwestern quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (Miami).
Also on the bus were players seeking more exposure. Plantation linebacker Jerome Howard, who has offers from Marshall and Florida Atlantic, hoped to drop off a highlight video at Mississippi State. Plantation safety Terrance Mitchell, whose only offer is from Kentucky, hoped to raise his profile and meet more coaches. North Broward Prep receiver A.J. Sebastiano hoped to play his way into his first scholarship offer. Meanwhile, several potential blockbuster members of the class of 2012 came along to get a taste of what to expect from the recruiting process. Ely High receiver Avery Johnson, the younger brother of LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, came to see schools (LSU, Alabama, Florida) that already have offered him scholarships. Meanwhile, University School offensive tackle Abraham "Nacho" Garcia was invited so he could visit schools and use his 6-foot-5, 347-pound frame to give Bridgewater a massive target on goal-line plays.
Goetz called each school's coaching staff weeks in advance to set up the visits. While official visits -- trips paid for by the school -- are off-limits until Sept. 1 of a prospect's senior year, the NCAA allows coaches to host players who pay their own way to campuses with few exceptions. A few hours into the trip, Goetz and the Express learned about one of the exceptions.
That exception is spelled out in NCAA bylaw 184.108.40.206 (b), which states: "Contact shall not be made with the prospective student-athlete from the time he or she reports on call (at the direction of his or her coach or comparable authority) and becomes involved in competition related activity (e.g., traveling to an away-from-home game) to the end of the competition even if such competition-related activities are initiated prior to the day or days of competition."
In other words, a team traveling to a competition cannot take unofficial visits, whereas a team traveling home from a competition can take as many visits as it wants. Goetz learned this in a June 29 phone call from Florida State associate athletic director Jody Smith as the bus rolled toward Tallahassee. "The rule is ridiculous," Goetz said. "You can't go before, but you can go after. After we leave, what's the difference? It's the same trip."
Not according to the NCAA. NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson wrote in an e-mail last week that the membership didn't want high school athletes to face the added pressure of visits as they prepared for competition. "NCAA members have made it a priority," Christianson wrote, "to preserve the opportunity for prospective student-athletes to participate in high school level competition while having separate, specifically defined opportunities for recruiting visits."
Goetz would learn that, despite weeks of advanced planning, a coach at Florida State had waited until the day of the scheduled visit to run the plan past the compliance office. Compliance officials told the staff to cancel the visit. Someone then contacted the SEC office to ensure that the other schools the Express planned to visit before the tournament (LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State) also followed the rule. Coaches at those schools and Florida received the same e-mail from the SEC office reminding them of the rule.
Goetz quickly called coaches at each school. The coaches confirmed the Express could still receive the same tour that any prospective student would. One school would take advantage of this fact and reap the rewards. Three would not.
After a stop for lunch in Gainesville, Goetz told his players the unofficial visits had been canceled at every stop except Florida. Gators coaches could host the Express because the visit would come after the tournament. In its desire to obey NCAA rules, Florida State had actually given its archrival a significant advantage.
What frustrated Goetz most was that none of the college coaches -- all of whom are required to pass a test on NCAA recruiting rules -- checked on the rule in the weeks leading up to the trip. Had Express coaches known, they would have simply gone to the tournament first and visited all the schools on the way home. "It's just upsetting that we've had this planned for months," Goetz said, "and nobody did their homework."
It was especially upsetting because Goetz estimated the trip would cost from $15,000-$17,000. Goetz spent months raising the funds to pay for a bus, food and hotel rooms for the 33-member Express traveling party. Goetz and his cousin, CPA Brad Sokol, bargained with hotel managers for the best rates. They haggled with all-you-can-eat buffet managers for free sodas. They also secured sponsorships to ensure the bulk of the cost didn't come from their own pockets.
An elite travel basketball team -- especially one loaded with top college prospects -- can count on Nike or adidas to fund much of its travel. That isn't the case with travel football, which is a relatively new phenomenon. Though seven-on-seven tournaments are summertime staples in football hotbeds such as Florida and Texas, they typically feature teams composed of players from the same high school. Traveling all-star teams are common in basketball, baseball, soccer and volleyball, but not in football.
One sponsor was The Garner Foundation, a Miami-based charity that gives primarily to educational causes. Co-director Gerald Moore has given to Goetz's youth football league. Moore, who considers himself more of a basketball fan, saw value in allowing a group of athletes to visit potential college destinations. Plus, Moore believes in Goetz. "I can just tell by being with Brett that his heart and soul is in it," Moore said. "He does it because he loves it -- not because someone is paying him."
Another sponsor was Title Sports Drink, a newcomer to the market dominated by Gatorade and Powerade. On the trip, players wore Title-branded shirts and quenched their thirst with coolers full of Title's product, which tastes a tad sweeter but has fewer calories than regular Gatorade.
Some companies didn't offer sponsorships, but they did offer discounts. Gunther Meyer, the president of Miami-based TravelByBus!, considers himself a hardcore recruitnik. He knew most of the players from reading about them on Rivals.com and Scout.com. So Meyer cut the Express a deal for a bus that featured leather seats, on-board televisions and wireless internet. "These kinds of opportunities," Meyer said, "can open doors for kids."
Or close them.
The visit to Florida State included an abbreviated tour and a meal in the dining hall. Players also visited FSU's practice field, where they walked through an open gate and saw current Seminoles playing their own games of seven-on-seven as part of the team's voluntary summer workouts. Express players exchanged high-fives with Express alumnus Lamarcus Joyner, an FSU freshman defensive back. Meanwhile, Bridgewater, who already has verbally committed to play quarterback at Miami, razzed his future rivals by throwing up the U -- making a U with his hands to symbolize Miami's iconic helmet logo.
Moments after the team boarded the bus, assistant coach Rob Hirsch pulled up CaneSport, a Rivals.com site that covers Miami, on his phone. A message board poster had relayed the news of the visit in real time. "My brother who goes to FSU just texted me that he saw TB and [Express teammate and fellow Miami commitment] Eli Rogers watching practice along with [Express offensive coordinator and former Miami receiver] Kevin Beard," the poster wrote at 5:44 p.m., while the players were still on the practice field. "I just thought this was extremely strange. Anyone know what is going on?"
The team stayed overnight in Milton, Fla., and then waited out a traffic jam on Interstate 10 en route to LSU. Once in Baton Rouge, the players received another abbreviated tour, ending at Tiger Stadium. After visiting the stadium, the players scattered. Some watched LSU's live mascot, Mike, lounge in his on-campus habitat. Others followed Johnson to the football complex, where he had gone to visit his brother.
Express players didn't meet any coaches at LSU, but just as they did at FSU, they watched players take part in voluntary workouts. Then they boarded the bus and got comfortable for the long drive to Oxford, Miss. About 45 minutes into the drive, Goetz received a disturbing call from Peterson, the LSU cornerback, and another from LSU assistant coach Billy Gonzales. Someone from the Express had stolen Peterson's watch from the LSU locker room. A security camera had captured the theft. LSU coaches didn't know the culprit's identity, but they would soon enough by matching Express players' photos with the surveillance video.
Goetz and his fellow coaches fumed. Goetz grabbed a microphone and blasted the players. He told the culprit to send him a text. He wouldn't reveal the player's identity to his teammates, but he would get the watch back. For the next few hours, coaches priced flights and bus tickets and debated whether to ship the offending player home. On the road to Oxford, Goetz received a text from the thief. That night, he collected the watch to send back to Peterson.
After a mostly sleepless night, Goetz decided not to send the player home. Had an SI.com reporter not been in the traveling party, Goetz admitted, he probably would have jettisoned the player. But since doing so would have made the thief so easy to identify, Goetz held back. He wanted the player to learn his lesson, but he didn't want to see him blackballed entirely. That, Goetz admitted, might happen anyway. In the insular college football coaching community, coaches talk.
The next morning, Express coaches sat eating breakfast at a Holiday Inn Express in Oxford. Goetz looked at his phone and sighed. An LSU coach had forwarded him an image of a different player caught on video stealing cleats from the Tigers' locker room. Express coaches and players also declined to name this player, but Goetz said he planned to cut ties with the watch thief and the shoe thief after the trip. Goetz collected the stolen items to send back to Baton Rouge, and it seems unlikely anyone at LSU will press charges, but the incident could have long-term consequences for the players. If the thefts come up in conversation between two gossiping coaches -- and they will, because coaches love to gossip -- those players' scholarship offers will evaporate.
Ole Miss was the only school that truly took advantage of the chance to host 25 star high school football players. Express players never even set foot in the Rebels' practice facility, but the majority of them ranked their visit to Ole Miss as their favorite at trip's end. The school assigned three admissions counselors to explain the school's academic requirements and give the players a tour of campus. Dana Ros, Rachael Shook andJenny Kate Luster understood their audience. After a brief rundown of the academic requirements to be admitted to Ole Miss, the counselors took the players to The Grove, the nation's finest tailgating spot. There, they explained the Walk of Champions, in which players march through The Grove high-fiving fans on their way to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium for games.
Then the ladies stopped the tour. "Are you ready?" they yelled in unison. Then they got a little dirty.
"Hell yeah! Damn right! Hotty Toddy, gosh almighty, who the hell are we? Flim-flam! Bim-bam! Ole Miss, by damn!"
"The only cheer in the nation with cuss words," Ros said with a tinge of pride.
The counselors also gave the players a more practical look at campus. Ole Miss was the only school to show players a sample dorm room. The counselors also took the players to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. They said most prospective students end their tour at the stadium -- though some begin it there -- because football is so ingrained in the campus culture. Express players emptied out of the stands and onto the field. The massive Garcia caught touchdown passes, while Boyd Anderson High cornerback Corey Tindal ran routes with his body covered in Ole Miss bumper stickers. The counselors bade the team farewell with another rendition of Hotty Toddy, and then the bus rolled back to the hotel for practice.
After the visits and the drama, the players seemed refreshed to be back on the field, even if it was a pockmarked stretch of barely alive grass outside a Holiday Inn Express on a 95-degree day. Coaches handed out wristbands featuring all the offensive plays, and Bridgewater and Beard went to work fixing any flaws in the offensive scheme. Meanwhile, Plantation High's Cash fumed. The Ohio State commitment had surgery to repair knee cartilage less than two months ago, but he had permission from his mother and his future position coach to play in the tournament. He did not, however, have permission from his father, and he couldn't reach his dad by phone before practice began. "He's at Toy Story 3 with a bunch of little kids right now," Cash said. Maybe the notoriously emotional ending to the film would leave Cash's father vulnerable and make him change his mind about the tournament. Cash hoped it would.
Later, players and coaches toured the Square in downtown Oxford. With virtually no one in town because of the upcoming Independence Day weekend, players bored quickly. Ole Miss had lost luster in some of their eyes because of the moribund social scene on that particular night. That changed later when several players stumbled upon a fraternity party held at a sports bar across the street from the hotel. After a night spent dancing and flirting with college girls, Express players held Oxford in high esteem.
The Express had been scheduled to visit Mississippi State on the morning of July 2, but the impending holiday weekend made it impossible for the school to arrange a tour. Plus, the late night in Oxford had wiped out the players' energy reserves. So Goetz decided to skip Starkville, Miss., and travel directly to Tuscaloosa.
At about 2 p.m., the bus pulled into a Tuscaloosa institution. Players piled into the original Dreamland Barbecue, where 26 slabs of ribs awaited. Talking ceased as servers handed out plates piled high with pork spareribs. After about 30 minutes, it became clear that three Express players had a particular affinity for ribs. Shazier, Rogers and Bridgewater had accrued massive piles of bones. Naturally, the future Gator and the two future Hurricanes had to determine which school would sign the superior rib-eater. So they counted the bones.
In the 2000 presidential elections, dangling chads commanded the attention of the nation. In the 2010 Dreamland Eat-off, a dangling piece of bone caused the controversy. As he was counting his bones, Shazier discarded a small piece of bone. He didn't count it, but Rogers thought he had. So, when Shazier was declared the winner for eating 18 ribs (a slab and a half), Rogers challenged the result. Video evidence determined Shazier was the champ.
Players dropped their belongings at their hotel and headed to the Alabama football complex for a Friday night skills competition against other players. There, they met the Mamba.
According to Rivals.com, the nation's No. 5-rated prospect in the class of 2011 is named De'Anthony Thomas. No one calls him by that name, though. To everyone who follows recruiting, the cornerback/tailback/receiver/kick returner from Crenshaw High in Los Angeles is known as the Black Mamba.
Obviously, another high-profile Los Angeles athlete (Kobe Bryant) claims that nickname, but when Snoop Dogg bestows a sobriquet on a Pop Warner player -- as he did for a young Thomas -- the name tends to stick. The Black Mamba was the star of the 1925 All-Stars, the Los Angeles-based team coached by offensive coordinator Keyshawn Johnson and defensive coordinator Brian Kelly (the former Tampa Bay cornerback, not the Notre Dame coach). As the players waited to receive their jerseys for the tournament, Express players and 1925 All-Stars mingled. Despite the fact that all 14 teams in the tournament featured college prospects, it became immediately apparent that the Express and the 1925 were on a collision course.
The teams returned to their respective hotels to rest for the tournament. While the Express slept, bus driver Eduardo Ibertis waited at a garage as a mechanic fixed the bus' broken air conditioner. For ensuring the air conditioner was fixed before the trip back to Florida, Ibertis was the unsung hero of the trip.
The schedule originally called for the teams to meet Saturday afternoon in a preliminary round, but organizers quickly changed it to ensure the best of the east wouldn't meet the best of the west until Sunday's single-elimination round -- preferably in the final.
Saturday, the teams lived up to their billings. The Express won its four games against teams from Georgia, Tennessee and Michigan. Bridgewater and receivers Brandon Snell (Miami Norland High) and Jessie York (Boyd Anderson High) were the offensive stars. Dubose came on the trip to play tight end, but he found a new role when he was inserted at linebacker to shut down 6-6 Memphis tight end Cameron Clear.
Mitchell emerged as the chief trash-talker for the Express. His go-to phrase? "I'm eatin," Mitchell said, acting as if he was downing huge spoonfuls of food from an enormous bowl. The gesture made opposing receivers want to throw up, and it so infuriated one official that he ordered coaches to remove Mitchell from a game for a series. Mitchell later apologized to his teammates for going overboard, but he didn't stop eatin'. "I think I've got a tapeworm," Mitchell yelled on the sideline after one defensive stop. "I've eaten so much. I'm still not full."
Playing one-hand-touch football with no linemen, the Express went 4-0 in Saturday's round-robin. The 1925s went 4-0 also. The defense, led by the Black Mamba, gave up only one touchdown all day.
That night, Express players mingled with 1925 players at a barbecue thrown by tournament organizers. When 1925 players, many of whom are committed to USC, realized that the Trojans were recruiting Turene of the Express, they huddled around Turene and answered many of his questions about the program and the school. (This would be important later.) Meanwhile, Lyons -- who has UCLA on his list of potential schools -- chatted with 1925 quarterback Jerry Neuheisel, the son of UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel. The younger Neuheisel also tried in vain to woo some of his teammates as Johnson, a former Trojan, extolled the virtues of USC. "Hey Key," Neuheisel said. "If they like bowl games, they'll go to UCLA." Johnson laughed and fired back: "Hey Jerry, if they like bowl games, they won't go to UCLA."
Today's teens have a saying: Game recognize game. It means that the best at anything will instantly offer respect when confronted with an obvious peer. At the barbecue, South Florida players and Southern California players didn't talk trash to one another. They only compared notes. As the barbecue ended, more than a dozen people -- including several top prospects -- stopped the Black Mamba and asked if he'd take a picture with them. Express players watched, knowing they would get their shot at the Mamba and his team the next day.
Sunday's early games played out as expected. The 1925s beat a team from Texas to reach the final, and the Express -- playing with Cash, who received last-minute permission from his father after sitting out Saturday -- pounded a team from Louisiana to reach the final. The teams met at midfield, and the trash talk began. It continued through the game, but on the side where the Mamba covered Ely High's Johnson, it was quiet.
Johnson scored the game's first touchdown, and the 1925s answered with a touchdown pass to Class of 2012 USC commitment Jordan Payton. The teams traded touchdowns again, but Holliman's interception of a conversion attempt allowed the Express to cling to a 14-13 lead. On the next Express play, Bridgewater hit Johnson on a 10-yard hitch. Johnson exploded upfield and outran the entire defense for a 40-yard touchdown. "That just doesn't happen in seven-on-seven," Goetz said of the play. Players emptied off the Express sideline and dogpiled Johnson. The Express failed on its one-point conversion attempt, but when Lyons broke up a pass intended for USC commitment Victor Blackwell, the Express clinched the win and the national title.
"That's the way you do it, Sports Illustrated," Miami Columbus High cornerback Deon Bush yelled. "Miami, 305, we're in the building. The best football in America."
The players won't all stay in South Florida after high school. After the title, Holliman and Southridge teammate Johnson decided to go public with their commitments to Ole Miss, given two weeks earlier on an unofficial visit sweep of the southeast led by Southridge coach Patrick Burrows. The next day, Turene would call USC assistant Willie Mack Garza and decide to go public with his commitment to the Trojans. Turene has yet to even see USC, but he plans to visit in a few weeks.
Players celebrated their title with a meal at Ryan's, an all-you-can-eat buffet in Tuscaloosa. Coaches wisely covered their drinks with napkins to avoid salt sprinkles from mischievous players, and players loaded up on fried chicken and ice cream. That combination would prove almost lethal in a closed space during the eight-hour drive to Gainesville for the tour's next stop.
The bus rolled into Gainesville at about 1 a.m. Players either went to bed or walked to a 24-hour McDonald's. Later Monday morning, the bus arrived at Florida's campus for a true unofficial visit. Because NCAA rules forbid schools from publicizing a recruit's visit, SI.com was not allowed to follow as Florida assistant D.J. Durkin showed Express players the Gators' facilities.
In interviews later, Turene and Lyons -- two Florida targets -- said they watched video with Durkin that showed how each would be used in Florida's defense if he chose the Gators. Other than that, Florida coaches barely used the advantage they'd received from the NCAA rule. The tour was short and sweet, and Express players were munching pizza at a local buffet less than two hours later.
During the final team meal before the return trip to South Florida, Dubose approached his coaches and offered a handshake and a thank-you for bringing him on the trip. Goetz smiled. That thank-you, he said, made everything -- the fund-raising, the out-of-pocket expense, the missed work and the lost sleep -- worthwhile.