Concord (N.C.) defensive end Rick Sandidge Jr. granted USA Today Sports two days of exclusive access for a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like for an uncommitted elite high school football player leading up to and on National Signing Day.
CONCORD, N.C. – Just over nine miles south of the adrenaline rush that is Charlotte Motor Speedway, off to the side of hilly Burrage Road sits Concord High School.
At 2:30 p.m., students are sparse and the gloomy overcast hovers over the nearly vacant parking lot.
It’s serene and low-key, just like Rick Sandidge Jr. likes it.
He’s fully aware that the hype machine that is National Signing Day will shower him with unwanted attention, so on the eve, a big part of Sandidge just wants to bask in this moment.
“I don’t need all of the hype and stuff like that,” says Sandidge. “I know I’m getting more of it because I’m announcing my decision between Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina tomorrow so I don’t mind. I don’t hate attention. I just don’t need it.”
Still, college coaching staffs across the country pull out all the stops to land players like Sandidge and get them to sign a National Letter of Intent with their school. In the high-stakes game of college football, recruiting signatures from elite players can ultimately mean championships for the schools and contract extensions for coaches.
Sandidge rips and runs through drills wreaking havoc on the invisible offensive lineman inside of the practice gym with head coach Marty Paxton and defensive line coach Jason Porter.
At 6-foot-6, 285 pounds, Sandidge, prescription glasses and all, has an intimidating aura, like something straight off of WWE Raw.
And then, suddenly, when you’ve subconsciously judged the book by its cover, Sandidge opens his mouth and reels off more “yes sir” and “no sir” responses than a seasoned cadet in the kindest, most soft-spoken voice imaginable.
“You look at him and you think he’s this big, aggressive guy who’s got this big personality,” Porter says. “But Rick’s the definition of a gentle giant off the field. On the field is when the switch comes on.”
North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia are so invested in having access to said switch that they’ve courted Sandidge for years.
“There’s no pressure on me at all,” Sandidge says with a smile. “I feel good about tomorrow. I’m gonna sleep great tonight.”
SIGNING DAY MORNING
Deion Sanders famously said, “If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you play good. If you play good, they pay good.”
To that end, Sandidge hops in the black leather barber’s chair at Boston’s Finest Barber Lounge early Wednesday morning before he goes to school and holds still while Gilbert Locket meticulously lines him up with the clippers.
The torrential downpour outside has done little to dampen Sandidge’s mood.
“Why don’t you go ahead and cut that hair on off,” says Tavis Graves, Sandidge’s godfather.
Sandidge smiles, but wants no parts of it.
“That’s what the kids are wearing these days,” Lockett says. “They like the wild look on top. Hey, that’s what the girls like I guess. Back in our day they’d be like, ‘You better get a haircut!’ ”
“I mean you can’t even put a hat on that thing!” Graves says.
“Yes I can,” Sandidge replies. “I’ve already tried it on.”
Just then Sandidge’s father, Rick Sr., walks in and immediately it starts to make sense why Rick Jr. is one of the most feared defensive linemen in the country.
If you thought he was intimidating you’d just take off running at the sight of Rick Sr.
Think WWE star Triple H or Big Show or some combination of both.
Rick Sr. jokes with Graves, a devout North Carolina fan, about the impending decision.
Though he never comes out and says which school, Graves thinks he’s got an idea about where Rick Jr. will end up, and if his hunch is right it’s not going to bode well for his beloved Tar Heels.
“I tried to make a last-ditch effort for him,” Graves says. “But… ya know.”
Rick Jr. just smiles and shakes his head.
Truth is, he’s known for at least two days where’s he’s going.
He informed all three staffs on Monday of his decision.
That alone makes him extraordinary. Most elite recruits, no matter the sport, typically leave the awkward “I’m going elsewhere” call to mom or dad.
When it was time to make the call Monday, Rick Jr.’s mom Keshia gave him a stern warning to be direct and, well, “Be a man.”
“She said, ‘And you better not text them either!” Rick Jr. recalls. “It wasn’t too bad. It was hard, but not as hard as I thought it’d be. Now I’m good. I’m not wavering or anything like that. I haven’t had any worries since.”
Not even with tracking down the caps of the teams that will be displayed on the table when he announces. Rick Jr. saved hats he got from a camp this past summer.
“I just had to get the one that I’ll pull out of my bag for the commitment,” he says. “I wanted a visor because of my hair, but I couldn’t find one. It’s all good though.”
To keep his decision under wraps, he had a friend’s mother get the hat for him.
“Smart move,” Paxton says. “You definitely couldn’t go get it and you couldn’t have any of your family members or anyone here get it. Paparazzi would be all over that.”
Yes, it’s that serious.
Here’s some perspective: Georgia head coach Kirby Smart recently landed his helicopter on the 10-yard line at Concord just to chat with Rick Jr., retired NFL star Dre Bly, a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback and Super Bowl champ who attended North Carolina, playfully trolled Rick Jr. on Twitter saying “Jumpman look better on you” after he posted pics of himself in a South Carolina jersey during his visit and Houston Texans star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, a former Gamecock, called Rick Jr. personally while on his visit in Columbia, S.C.
“I was taking pictures of his name on the phone and everything,” Rick Jr. says of Clowney. “I’ve had some crazy stuff throughout this process.”
Amazingly, the two coaches who didn’t hear good news from Rick Jr. on Monday have remained hands off to this point. It’s the schools who weren’t named in his top three that threw last-second Hail Mary attempts to sway him.
“They don’t give up,” Rick Jr. says with a smile. “They just let me know that if I change my mind they want me. That’s not gonna happen though.”
All day students and teachers have either outright asked him where he’s headed or tried to trip him up by shaping the question as if they already know.
“My answer is always ‘I don’t know,” Rick Jr. says. “They try some of everything. I told them to come on after school and find out. It’s about time to get this over with.”
MAKING IT OFFICIAL
A large contingent of students, teachers, administrators and media crowd in the media center as Rick Jr., his parents and younger sister Britany sit at a table to let everyone else know what, outside of the coaching staffs, only they’ve known since Monday.
To make sure 10-year-old Britany knew they meant business about keeping the family secret, the family told her to treat this information like a curse word.
“And my mom doesn’t play about cursing,” Rick Jr. says matter-of-factly.
He thought about practicing what he’d say to precede pulling out the winning cap and placing it on his head but he maintains that he’s “so much better just winging it.”
“I always seem to mess it up when I practice stuff like that,” Rick Jr. says. “I’m just gonna figure it out when I sit down.”
Rick Jr. is so not the guy who plans his outfit so when he shows up stylishly underdressed in his black sweatpants and black pullover no one bats an eye.
“OK now Rick, I’ve got $5 on Georgia!” one guy says.
“I’ve got $10 on North Carolina,” another says. “Don’t cost me money now!”
“That’s on you guys,” Rick Jr. says with a laugh. “We’ll find out in a sec if you’re gonna lose that money.”
Rick Jr. starts in with his speech thanking the coaching staffs for recruiting him, then he thanks his family and his high school coaches before pausing, reaching down in his black book bag and pulling out a South Carolina fitted cap and placing it on his head.
A thunderous applause ensues.
The two boys smile and slap hi-fives.
“Whoa!” one boy says. “I still want tickets!”
FINALLY, IT’S OVER
The bright flashes from the cameras are starting to make Rick Jr. see that blinding white light that’s not really there.
He contends that this is “easily” the most pictures he’s ever taken and, yet, he couldn’t care less because “it’s finally over.”
Sure, it’s technically been over for days, but there’s a certain relief that accompanies dropping the secret aspect of these decisions.
“I’m just happy to be done with it all,” Rick Jr. says. “No more questions, no more having to watch what I say, I’m just happy to be a Gamecock.”
As a South Carolina alum, Keshia is happy too; though, she points out that she would’ve been happy with whoever he chose.
“I’m just proud of him and how he handled this whole situation,” Keshia says. “Of course I’m even happier that it’s my alma mater that he picked.”
Rick Jr. actually signed his National Letter of Intent with the Gamecocks Tuesday night. The staff sent him two copies so he could use one for his announcement.
“I guess we’ll just keep the copy,” Rick Jr. says. “Whatever my mom wants to do with it, I’m cool.”
Rick Jr.’s got plans to go to dinner with a group of his friends to celebrate his decision tonight then tomorrow it’s “back to the lab.”
“Just having everything over and done with makes me want to go even harder now,” Rick Jr. says. “I’m where I want to be and I want to be as prepared as possible. The SEC is tough so I’ve got to step it up. Signing Day was cool, but now is when the real work begins.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY