High school football all-star games evolve as national contests go to forefront
Sunday, December 16, 2012
by Jeff Greer
Former Cardinal Newman High coach Sam Budnyk was reminiscing about the 1992 Florida-Georgia Game, a summer showcase of the best high school football seniors in each state. Budnyk, who retired in 2003 after 44 years, was picked to coach a Florida team loaded with blue-chip talent.
"All four of my defensive backs went Division I and played in the NFL," Budnyk recalled.
The landscape has shifted from those days, when Florida-Georgia, the statewide North-South Game and the local Outback Bowl were the premier events for the area's top recruits. Over the next four weeks, more than 100 area seniors will play in one or two of six postseason all-star games, hoping to prove themselves against their peers.
Two of the games -- boosted by national TV contracts and name-brand sponsors -- attract players from across the country. In South Florida, regional games sometimes struggle to stay afloat while competing for players and sponsors.
"I think we don't have the marquee games anymore, but more kids are getting recruited," Budnyk said.
The FHSAA lets players participate in two postseason showcases. The most desirable: the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, which has American Heritage running back Greg Bryant, Atlantic defensive tackle Keith Bryant and Cardinal Newman tight end Matt Burke; and the Under Armour All-America Game, which will include Glades Day running back Kelvin Taylor.
Last year, more than 39,000 attended the Army game in San Antonio; the Under Armour game drew nearly 25,000 to St. Petersburg.
Locally, the hottest ticket is the Jan. 5 Florida-Georgia All-Star Game, resurrected this year with a Palm Beach County vs. Atlanta format. The game at Boca Raton High will have an impressive roster, including 10 of the top 25 in the area as ranked on the PBGametime Big Board.
"We wanted to give kids in Palm Beach County better exposure," said the game's founder, T.J. Jackson of Delray Beach nonprofit Prep and Sports. "We want kids in middle school dreaming about this game."
One of the more enduring showcases is the Nike Florida All-Star Game, which will be played Saturday at Traz Powell Stadium in Miami.
The game, organized by Wesley Frater of Miami-based Tournament of Champions, began in 1996 as Dade vs. Broward. Last year it included Palm Beach County and Treasure Coast players for the first time. It features six of the area's top 25 players.
The best players are no longer playing in the Palm Beach County-Treasure Coast game, which last year had just seven major-college recruits on a roster of 80.
It lost longtime sponsor Outback Restaurants in 2009; since then, West Palm Beach-based Lytal Reiter Smith Ivey and Fronrath Trial Attorneys has backed the game. On a chilly night last January, attendance was about 750.
Also hurting is the Broward-Beach Bowl, a game for private school standouts from Broward and Palm Beach counties. That game is on hiatus after nine years because of lack of sponsorship and school interest.
South Florida's top players mostly elect to stay local rather than play in the Florida Athletic Coaches Association All-Star Game, which will be Wednesday in Sebring. First played in 1949, it was a premier event until the Outback (1993), Nike (1996) and Army (2001) games came along. The original Florida-Georgia Game, first played in 1985, folded in 2001.
"You have a new game every year pop up, and sooner or later the talent pool's going to be thin," Boynton Beach High coach Rick Swain said.
But that also means more opportunity for other players to be seen.
"If we lose five kids to another all-star game, five more kids are getting a chance to play," said Pope John Paul II coach Matt Dillon, who will lead the National (South County) team in the Palm Beach County-Treasure Coast game. This year, that game will host a free, NFL Combine-style event for its 80 players.
That's of great interest to recruiters. Dozens used to hang around the week of Outback Bowl practices to evaluate players up-close. That practice ended in 2008, when the NCAA banned Division I and II coaches from attending non-scholastic events.
Still, today's technology has helped players get noticed -- no matter what showcase game they play in.
"Coaches will always find a way to get their hands on the tape," said Kevin Patrick, a Forest Hill graduate and former defensive line coach at the University of South Florida. "It's unfortunate we can't go, but the game produces a lot of quality film. These days, kids put their highlight tapes on YouTube a few hours later."
That helps recruiters from Division III, NAIA and junior colleges, which can't afford many, if any, South Florida recruiting trips. And free or reduced tuition at a Division III school isn't a bad option. Just ask a wide receiver from John I. Leonard who went to Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio.
"Pierre Garcon made the NFL," Budnyk said. "They'll find you if you can play."