National Signing Day is memorable.
It’s memorable for the recruits whose dreams are tied to the letters of intent they’re signing.
It’s memorable for the coaches whose jobs depend on seeing a good percentage of those recruits develop into productive college players.
It’s memorable for the fans whose hope is that each quarterback will be the next Peyton Manning, each defensive lineman the next Reggie White, each linebacker the next Al Wilson.
It’s even memorable for the reporters whose job is to cover one of the wildest days of the year.
I’ll never forget National Signing Day of 2003. Tennessee had just 14 commitments on the eve of Signing Day and appeared on the verge of a poor recruiting class. The Vols were still battling for some uncommitted stars, however, as the sun came up on Signing Day morning. No one could have imagined that the Big Orange was poised to make one of the greatest recruiting rallies in NCAA history.
Incredibly, eight uncommitted players committed to and signed with Tennessee that day, Feb. 5. The cream of the crop was five-star wide receiver Robert Meachem (Tulsa, Oklahoma), rated the No. 37 prospect by Scout among all Class of 2003 recruits. Another huge get was Camden, New Jersey four-star Turk McBride, ranked No. 3 among defensive ends and No. 42 among all recruits. Tennessee’s talent-shy receiving corps got another shot in the arm when Brett Smith of Warren, Oklahoma, rated No. 19 nationally among wideouts, cast his lot with the Vols.
Also choosing Tennessee on that fateful day were future NFL defensive lineman Tony McDaniel (Columbia, S.C.), future NFL offensive lineman Arron Sears (Russellville, Alabama), defensive backs Jonathan Hefney (Rock Hill, S.C.) and Jarod Parrish (Summerville, Georgia), plus junior college defensive tackle Zarnell Fitch.
Even as Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer prepared to address the media on Signing Day afternoon the suspense was continuing. Five-star quarterback JaMarcus Russell of Mobile, Alabama, rated Scout’s No. 14 overall recruit, was still deciding between LSU and Tennessee. Given the incredible momentum the Vols had going for them, most of the assembled reporters (including me) figured the Big Orange would get Russell, too.
Even when word arrived that Russell had signed with LSU, Fulmer was all smiles. No wonder. In a matter of perhaps six hours his signing class had grown from a 14-man disaster to a 22-man haul that included future NFL Draft picks Meachem (Round 1), Sears (Round 2) and McBride (Round 2).
There were no national recruiting services back in the 1980s, so Signing Day surprises were not as rare as they are today. One that really stands out in my mind was the year – I believe it was 1984 – that Tennessee signed an obscure linebacker out of Graysville named Jesse Messimer. Apparently, no one viewed him as a major-college prospect except Vol head coach Johnny Majors, who liked Messimer’s toughness and aggressiveness.
As they scrambled to find out just who Jesse Messimer was, Vol beat reporters figured Majors had lost his marbles. In fact, Messimer wound up being an exceptional special-teams player until an injury prematurely ended his college career.
The best part of covering National Signing Day is meeting prospects who have achieved lifelong dreams by joining their favorite program. Seeing a young man with a beaming smile on his face and excitement in his voice as he prepares to launch his college career is incredibly rewarding.
I have a lot of fond memories from past Signing Days but I also have a tragic one. My sister telephoned me at 11 p.m. on Signing Day eve in 1994. She was despondent. Divorced but receiving no child support from her ex-husband, she had been scraping by on a part-time waitress’ salary. Now, due to a bulging disc in her back, she had to give up the waitressing job, leaving her with no way to support herself and her three-year-old son. She filed for disability insurance but was denied. A subsequent appeal was denied, as well. I assured Cindy on the phone that night that our parents and I would be happy to help her out financially until her luck changed. I thought I had convinced her everything was going to be OK. I was wrong. Minutes after hanging up the phone, she shot herself, dying in the wee hours of the morning on Feb. 4, 1994 … National Signing Day
Most people remember it as the day Tennessee football gained a future Hall of Famer named Peyton Manning. I remember it as the day I lost my sister.
I’m sorry to deliver such a depressing story on such an uplifting day but I felt led to share it. I guess the message I’m supposed to convey is this: National Signing Day is one of the most exciting times of the year – a day for fans to celebrate recruiting victories and grumble about the ones that got away.
But please keep it in perspective: It isn’t life and death. I learned that lesson the hard way.