After growing up in North Carolina, Hakeem Nicks decided to stay local when he committed to the University of North Carolina. (Anthony J. Causi/Icon SMI)
INDIANAPOLIS -- "Man, I still remember it like it was yesterday ..."
Nine years after D.J. Ware inked his national letter of intent to play college football, the mere mention of college football's National Signing Day, which took place Wednesday, sent the Giants running back and former Rockmart (Ga.) High School star into a reflective haze. Amidst the chaos of New York's pre-Super Bowl practice media session, Ware, smiling and shaking his head wistfully, recounted the day he officially became a Georgia Bulldog.
"Only one other guy from my football team was going to (play college football) at the same time I was -- he went to Kentucky, I went to Georgia," Ware recalled. "We went up to school, had a couple of cakes there -- one with Kentucky colors and one with Georgia's. We had our suits on, then gave our announcements.
"You’re getting ready to leave all your teammates, friends, schoolmates to go somewhere else with people you don’t even know to try to get in position to be a player, a starter. It’s a fun and almost frightening experience at the same time."
College football's annual signing day has become a hyped-up extravaganza, with an unending stream of analysis regarding which schools landed the best classes, which players made surprise decisions and so on.
Years removed from it, several members of the Giants and Patriots remembered it another way: As a huge step toward getting them to the NFL and, eventually, the Super Bowl.
"That was the biggest accomplishment in my life before this," said New England defensive back Sergio Brown, who spent four years at Notre Dame.
"National Signing Day is a turning point in a lot of young guys' lives," Brown's current teammate and former LSU star Stevan Ridley said. "It’s an opportunity to be very thankful for."
Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks and Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes followed similar paths to Signing Day. Both players grew up in North Carolina, competing against each other in basketball and football. They then teamed up in a football game pitting North Carolina's prep all-stars against a team from South Carolina.
Nicks, who stayed home to play for the Tar Heels, put the full-court press on to get Spikes to join him. But Spikes announced at the Army All-American Bowl that he would attend Florida -- "I had all the hats out on the table," Spikes said. "I think it was Miami, LSU, Alabama, Virginia Tech and then I picked Florida." -- and held firm to that decision, despite being pressured to change his mind before signing.
"Some of it was negative attention because people wanted me to stay in state," Spikes said. "Hakeem thought we had a chance to win a national championship (at North Carolina), but I wanted to get away from home."
Spikes' decision turned out just fine: He won two BCS national titles at Florida, playing alongside guys like Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, and was a two-time consensus All-American. Nicks, meanwhile, set North Carolina single-season records for yards receiving and touchdowns (1,222 and 12, respectively) in his junior season before bolting to the NFL.
"We only lost four or five games while I was at Florida," Spikes said (the number was actually seven). "Hakeem said it would have been the same if I went to North Carolina, but I don't know ..."
There's been a little push in recent years to move Signing Day up, mostly from coaches who are tired of seeing recruits change their minds before sealing the deal. Brown can understand that line of thinking.
"I committed a little while before the Signing Day, but still went back and forth," he said. "The more time between, the more time there is for players to pick up information, good and bad."
It's that possibility for a late flip-flop that adds most of the drama to college football's Feb. 1 circus. But for the guys who have been through it, like the majority of the 100-plus players that are here for the Super Bowl, the end result far outweighs all the emotional and difficult moments that went with selecting a college team.
"Once I signed my name on the dotted line," Ridley said, "it changed my life forever."