By NICK CHILES
Finally, it is here. Today is our son’s signing day, when he publicly signs his letter of intent to play football for Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. In one form or another, we have been working our way toward this day for the past decade or so, when that sweet little seven-year-old boy pulled on a helmet and shoulder pads for the first time and got injected with a serious case of football fever—and dragged the rest of us along with him. For every football parent, aside from perhaps making an NFL squad, college signing day is the mountaintop, the gold at the end of a very long rainbow across which we have been slogging our way for years, through bad coaches, hot summer two-a-days, last-second losses, last-minute victories, difficult (expensive) injuries, nagging pains, triumphant seasons, fabulous feats. And most difficult of all, the college football recruiting process. I have a close friend who went through it all the year before we did—his very large and accomplished son is now playing at William and Mary—and while he accurately conveyed the ins and outs, ups and downs, of the process, I still wasn’t prepared for it to be so…hard. Strange as it may sound, I told Denene that not until I went through this college recruiting process with Mazi did I fully appreciate what it was like to be a woman. Please let me explain.
While it has some exhilarating moments, the college football recruiting process puts the kid and his family in a remarkably passive and vulnerable position. You are like the shy girl waiting for somebody to ask her to the prom, the eager young lady who had a promising first date but can’t understand why the guy has stopped calling. Unless your kid has been widely hailed as the greatest gift to football since Peyton Manning or Reggie Bush, in which case he can assume a bit of control over which suitors come calling, he’s likely to suffer many days of anxiety and disappointment. What we found is that we got a lot of calls from schools that didn’t interest us, but not enough from the schools that we coveted. I started becoming expert at things which I had never in my life given a passing thought—like college graduation rates, red-shirt policies, academic indexes, academic bands, official visits, the college clearinghouse, the differences between Division 1 and 1AA, between Division 2 and Division 3. Unless you have your own budding high school star at home, you don’t need to give any of these terms another thought, but suffice to say that I can now teach a graduate-level seminar.
The most difficult part of the process for me was watching the effect it had on Mazi. It turned my normally laid-back, confident child into a nervous wreck. The moment he hit the house for the past two months, his first question was: “Anybody call?” If I shook my head, his would fall, just a little. You could see it eating him up.
During the season, every time he stepped on the field under the glare of those beaming Friday night lights, in the back of his mind—and sometimes in the front of his mind—he knew that not only his athletic but his academic future could be determined by one bad play. He knew that even if there weren’t college coaches in the stands during a game (and he never knew if there were), it didn’t really matter because the coaches, by the magic of videotape, eventually would be assessing his performance on every play of every game. They were watching to see if he “took off” any plays during the game—like when he saw from his defensive lineman position that the ball was being run to the opposite side of the field, did he still try to fight through the block and pursue the ballcarrier from behind, or did he just give it a half-hearted effort and wait for the next play to do damage. And he couldn’t rest in practice either because he knew his own coaches were watching his movements at all times, and eventually the college coaches would be having serious heart-to-hearts with the high school coaches, who would tell the players over and over that they would never damage their reputations by lying about a player.
And perhaps most importantly for these players, even though far too many of them acted like they didn’t realize this, the performance in the classroom turned out to be even more important than the performance on the field. Mazi knew that on any given day, an especially bad performance on a test could kill his GPA and render 10 years of football performance essentially moot. As I write this, I am saddened by the status of several of his friends, great football players who didn’t take care of business in the classroom and are watching their phones remain silent as their bad grades scare away college coaches. Mazi’s 3.62 GPA, class rank of 38 out of 540, and 1930 SAT scores made him a very attractive recruit and started luring inquiries from some great schools. Penn, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, Brown, Carnegie Mellon, Furman, Samford, Western Carolina, Stanford, The Citadel, Rhodes, University of Richmond, Lafayette—Mazi fielded phone calls and school visits from coaches at all of these schools and at least a dozen more. We had coaches doing Powerpoint presentations in our living room. Our heads were all spinning. The attention was overwhelming, confusing, exciting. Mazi and I had many long, perplexed conversations, trying to make sense of it all.
We haven’t heard from Penn in two weeks—what does that mean?
Yale hasn’t invited us up for an official visit—is that bad?
Lafayette hasn’t returned our last two phone calls—does that mean they’re no longer interested?
Finally, when the season had ended—his high school team, the South Gwinnett Comets, finished the year at 10-2 and made it to the second round of the brutally competitive Georgia division 8AAAAA playoffs—and the dust had settled, we found ourselves on the campus of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. A small, prestigious liberal arts college, Lafayette seemed to have the ideal combination of academics and football. The football team won the Patriot League Championship three of the last six years; and the annual Lafayette-Lehigh game, which has been played since 1884, was picked by ESPN as the eighth best football rivalry in the country—Sports Illustrated wrote that seeing it “is something you have to do once in your life.” Mazi was thrilled by the school’s science and engineering programs, which every year send undergraduates all around the world doing fascinating research projects. I watched his face light up as we toured the campus, the science buildings, the football facilities, the dining halls and libraries, and I knew we had found a new home.
Finally, this bruising but satisfying ordeal is over. And I already ordered a full complement of Lafayette gear for the whole family. Come fall, it will be Pennsylvania or bust for the official Mazi Chiles Cheering Section.