Are They Ready for Some Football?

With <b>Maurice Clarett</b> poised to erase NFL draft-eligibility limits, high school football players face the imminent possibility of being able to go pro right away. But are they ready? SchoolSports recently examined the issue by talking with several players and coaches from the prep football ranks and beyond.

This article originally appeared in SchoolSports' Dec. '03 national magazine

North Babylon High (N.Y.) junior tailback Jason Gwaltney is undeniably a genetic wonder. Already 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds at age 16, he's on pace to shatter Long Island's career rushing yards record and earlier this season churned out an inhuman 467 yards in one game.

When the 2005 NFL Draft commences, Gwaltney will be a month removed from his 18th birthday. And if exiled Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett, as many experts speculate, wins his lawsuit challenging the NFL's three-years-from-high-school-graduation draft-eligibility rule (a decision is likely before Feb. 1 of next year), Gwaltney might be free to enter that April's draft.

Eligible, yes. But ready?

"As a (would-be college) freshman? I don't know, man," says Gwaltney. "Maybe at a special teams position, but I'm not sure. I definitely think you should have the option, and I definitely think it's possible. If you can do it in basketball, they should let this (complaint by Clarett) go through. I mean, there's a 16-year-old kid playing at Louisville."

True. Nigerian-born University of Louisville true freshman Amobe Okoye, a 6-foot-2, 320-pound defensive tackle who turned 16 this past summer after attending secondary school in Nigeria, played regularly for the Cardinals this fall.

It seems reasonable, then, that the occasional high school graduate could possess the physical skills necessary to fill an NFL roster spot without so much as filling out a college application. After all, the nation's three other major professional sports leagues — the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball — allow players to go straight from high school to the pros.

But just because pro leagues can't legally enforce an age minimum (NBA commissioner David Stern recently backed off his push for a 20-year-old age requirement for draft eligibility, essentially because the league would lose any court challenge) doesn't mean the notion is nonsense.

Think of Gwaltney cutting back into a Warren Sapp body slam. Not a pretty picture.

Selecting boys — grown-up physiques notwithstanding — to play a man's game remains a much-debated practice. Ethically, sociologically and from a safety standpoint. Are we so consumed with age limits being arbitrary and restricting young players' earning power — and are we so busy asking whether we could strike them down — that we're forgetting to ask whether we should?

"What do you mean whether ‘we' should?" counters Clarett's Manhattan-based attorney, Alan C. Milstein. "How did you or anyone other than the individual and his family get a vote? Was it in Bill Gates' best interest to leave Harvard after one year to found Microsoft? … Was it in Steve Jobs' best interest to leave San Jose State after his freshman year to found Apple (Computer, Inc.)?"

A compelling point. But Steve Jobs didn't turn in his dorm key to run crossing routes into Ray Lewis. You gotta compare Apple to apples. Even comparing apples to oranges bears fruit.

"I think it's tougher to make the jump in football because of the nature of the game and how physical it is," says Dru Joyce, LeBron James' high school coach at St. Vincent-St. Mary (Ohio). "Especially for a guy like Clarett, who's going to be the object of a lot of hits. I'm not in any way trying to make a case for the NFL and its rule; it's just a different ballgame.

"I think a lot of the NBA kids are mature beyond their age," he continues. "Maybe Kobe and maybe Travis Outlaw didn't have an adult body, but the other guys were just further along than most people their age. Bron was just that. Maybe if you had a football guy like that at a position where he wasn't going to be so exposed to punishment, maybe that could work."

A Man's World
Bobby Carpenter certainly isn't the only guy to jump straight from high school to the NHL. But he was the first. Carpenter was a Sports Illustrated cover boy and the Washington Capitals' third overall selection in the 1981 Entry Draft out of St. John's Prep (Mass.), the first American ever taken in the first round.

Physical mismatches were not his most immediate or biggest obstacle as a teenager in the world's best professional hockey league.

"More than physical, I think it's the mental jump that's the hardest," says Carpenter, 40, now a New Jersey Devils assistant coach. "Maturity-wise, to step up to that level is huge, and if you can't do it, you're not going to make it anyway. The physical part for me wasn't demanding at first. What was hard was coming from a high school schedule where we played 18 games and then playing 80. Three-quarters of the way through that first year, that became a hardship."

So preps to pros is OK in his book?

"Actually, I think a lot more players these days with the talent to play in the NHL are staying in school longer to build up their physical capacity to play in the league," he says. "(Colorado Avalanche left wing) Paul Kariya is a perfect example of that. He stayed an extra couple years at Maine to build up his strength. A guy my size (6-0, 200), I don't think I could make the direct jump today. We survived more on talent back then."

If physical maturation is a concern in hockey, it stands to reason football may be the one arena begging for a line to be drawn before we let teenagers step between the lines.

"It's a much more physical game, and I'd say it'd be the hardest to make the jump in," says De La Salle High (Calif.) head football coach Bob Ladouceur, who entered his 25th season with the Spartans this fall riding a national-record 138-game winning streak. "Young men reach their physical maturity in their mid to late 20s. You may have an anomaly, but are you going to be able to leave someday when you're a high school junior?"

Grand Prairie High (Texas) All-American senior quarterback Rhett Bomar reckons it's up to the individual.

"I think (going pro) depends on the situation of the person," says Bomar, 18, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder who is headed for the University of Oklahoma next fall. "I wouldn't do it. The game is so physical at the pro level, you've got to take time to develop. Maybe in (Clarett's) case it's the best thing because he has no other options. But even for a college sophomore to make the jump, that'd be tough. It's just so physical."

Still, the NBA, where physical mismatching isn't such a charged issue, hasn't escaped criticism for plucking players at age 18. From its own commissioner, no less. Yet baseball, far more active in the teen market, seems to fly under the radar.

"That's because there's very little instant gratification of going right to any level of professional baseball," Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, then the Oakland A's assistant GM, told for a recent report on baseball's amateur draft. "Let's face it, if you're a really good baseball player in college or high school, you have to prove it all over again in the minor leagues. The vast majority of these guys disappear from the spotlight, at least for a while."

The point is well taken. Toiling in the minor leagues is nothing like checking in at the Staples Center scorer's table. And in baseball, only 68 percent of first-round picks even make it to the majors someday, according to Baseball America. What's more, even the most successful minor leaguers don't generally pal around with millionaire teammates, sign head-spinning endorsement contracts or date Madonna.

Thanks in large part to its youth movement, the NBA often takes heat for presenting a watered-down product — kids "long on attitude and short on fundamentals," according to Associated Press columnist Jim Litke. That's a label the WNBA is trying to avoid via strict draft-eligibility requirements. Which means that even if she wanted to, someone like Naperville Central High (Ill.) senior Candace Parker — often called the LeBron James of girls' basketball — couldn't actually follow LeBron's path to the pros.

"The idea of playing after college is still relatively new for high school girls," says Angela Taylor, senior manager of player personnel for the WNBA, noting that U.S. players aren't draft eligible in the league until their college class year has graduated. "From the get-go, players are preparing for life after basketball. This league and its players understand the value of a college education."

Money Talks
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says Clarett's lawsuit runs contrary to "the best interest of Maurice Clarett (and) college football players in general."

It certainly won't help college football itself. The sport does $3.5 billion worth of business annually, and NCAA figures show more than 60 percent of major programs are turning a profit. Losing potential stars to the pros will hurt.

Opponents of the NFL's draft rule, instituted by commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 1990 with the Players Association's verbal permission, depict NFL owners as desperate to preserve a minor league system (college football) that serves up players with a built-in national following. Those same critics suggest the rule would change if it suits the league's bottom line, citing a 1988 exemption predating current eligibility rules that allowed Barry Sanders to enter the NFL after his junior season at Oklahoma State.

For that matter, observers contend that no NFL owner — their moralizing about pitting boys against men aside — would pass on a high school kid his scouts say is ready in the draft.

"The current rule requires three years from high school graduation — it's not an age rule," says Milstein, Clarett's lawyer. "If you graduate at 16, you can get in at 19. If you graduate at 19, you can't get in until 22. No less than 50 players have joined the NFL who are the same age as or younger than Clarett will be (20) if allowed to be in the draft this year. Nobody will be drafted who doesn't deserve to be drafted, and no one will play a down unless the experts believe he is ready."

Again, convincing. But allowing kids whose physical maturation is incomplete to play pro football, many believe, is to risk smashing still-developing growth plates like dining room china. To others, it just doesn't seem right.

"You can't buy the experience of being the go-to man in college," says Craig Dahl, the head hockey coach at perennial national title contender St. Cloud State University (Minn.). "You can ‘buy' the pro experience, but then all you've got is that signing bonus money. You haven't developed to your full potential."

"I guess I'm old-fashioned, but I think nobody should get picked out of college until their eligibility is complete — in any sport," says De La Salle's Ladouceur. "These NBA teams stockpile these kids until they're ready to go. They teach them basketball at the pro level instead of giving them an education."

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