Big Bend student-athletes made it official during Wednesday’s National Signing Day by signing with their choice of college.
Most schools held signing ceremonies, and Democrat staffers attended events from Wakulla High to Madison County. Here is how the day unfolded:
Godby High, 9:30 a.m.
The Class 5A state champion Cougars celebrated $1.5 million in athletic scholarships – quite an impressive chunk of change and savings for families – before a standing-room-only crowd in the school’s auditorium.
Twelve players signed, headlined by Division I recruits Khalid Thomas (Kentucky/running back), Lester Thomas (Florida Atlantic University/defensive back), Luke Helms (Florida A&M, linebacker) and Tim Longmire (Troy State).
Thomas was nervous about speaking in front of the large crowd.
“But it’s a good nervous, an overall nervous that it’s finally here,” smiled Thomas, who will be reunited at Kentucky with older brother Pancho Thomas, a sophomore linebacker. The Wildcats will be coached by Mark Stoops, recently hired from Florida State.
“It’s going to be pretty cool that I get to play in the SEC and with my brother,” Thomas continued. “There’s a lot to look forward to. It took a lot of hard work to get to this point, but I have to take it to the next level now and work even harder.”
Helms, who transferred to Godby from North Florida Christian prior to his senior season, is looking forward to play for the Rattlers and first-year coach Earl Holmes. Helms helps headline a local group signed by FAMU.
“Coach (Holmes) has a lot of (local) kids coming in, so it should be fun because we have a lot of players here who can play football really well,” Helms said.
Godby’s signees also included six players headed to Southeastern University in Lakeland, which welcomes NAIA football in 2014.
Southeastern assistant Richie Marsh attended the ceremony and congratulated the group that featured inebacker Bud McDonald, defensive back Kenny McIrvin, linebacker/running back Markise McQueen, offensive lineman Jonathan Mundinger, receiver Wade Philipp, and defensive lineman Clayton Simmons.
“When you are getting players from a state championship teams, it’s very exciting,” said Marsh, a former prep coach in Frostproof, Bartow, Valdosta, Ga., and Thomasville, Ga. “I think the Panhandle is full of talent and full of kids passionate about football.”
Receiver Earl Calloway (Jacksonville State), defensive back Kenyan Davis (Alabama State) and volleyball setter Lauren Beltz (Pensacola State College) also signed.
Rickards High, 9:30 a.m.
Linebacker Brandon Denmark could hardly stop smiling at the news that his younger brother, Brian, decided to play college football at FAMU. Their mother felt a sense of relief too as she witnessed the third of four boy children sign his scholarship papers Wednesday morning at Rickards.
She was happy that Brian didn’t take the same path as Brandon did; heading to Illinois before transferring back home last year to play his final two seasons at FAMU.
“Brandon came back at a time when I think Brian needed him most,” said Timbre Denmark. “Brandon influenced Brian and helped change his focus. I’m not sure; but it seemed like he wanted to wander a little but his brother at that time became somewhat of a compass for him and he spent a lot of time with him to mature him and get his focus back.”
Brian Denmark had quite an impressive senior season as a defense end for the Raiders. He finished the year with 46 solo tackles, 13 for losses, with nine sacks. He forced four fumbles and recovered one.
“Trust me; he is going to do his thing in college,” said Elton Patterson, Denmark’s position coach at Rickards.
Defensive tackle Christopher Elias, cornerback Craig Mackey and receiver Tra’Von Holmes also got high marks from their coaches on signing day. Holmes and Mackey also are going to FAMU, while Elias signed to play at St. Augustine College.
“Expect big things out of Chris,” Patterson told their students, administrators and parents who gathered in the Rickards auditorium for the signings. “I’m proud of you.”
Head coach Quintin Lewis said he expects at least six more Rickards players to sign within the next few days.
“We treated them as if they’re already there (at the college level),” Lewis said. “We expected them to get scholarships because we put them in those situations every day. These guys have really stepped to the challenge of doing everything with their grades and test scores and on the field. They have to have somebody who is going to hold them accountable for what they have to do and push them every day.”
Brandon Denmark plans to be the one doing that for his brother.
“He is my brother but he is going to know that he’s going to have to work,” the older Denmark said. “We’re going to push each other all the way through.
“Nine times out of 10 a person already knows that they can do something but they need to hear from that right person. Being his big brother, hopefully my encouraging words and the way I work will push him and keep him on the right track.”
NFC, 10:30 a.m.
The Eagles had a small signing class (four seniors of nine on the roster) but it was still impressive.
Three players are headed to Division I programs — linebacker Garrett Hudson (Purdue), running back/cornerback Marcus Clark (FAU) and receiver Branton Lee (Southerm Mississippi).
Defensive lineman Evan Gentry signed with the University of Sioux Falls.
Lee was a feel-good story, especially since he missed his entire senior season following knee surgery. Lee was injured during preseason practice in August.
“It shows the commitment that Southern Miss has in recruiting athletes,” said Lee, who was cleared on Monday by his surgeon to start running.
“For me to go down like that, before the season started, they could have pulled my scholarship and went to the next athlete. But for them to hold on to me like that, it really made me feel they wanted me and it’s the right place for me.”
Hudson, of course, will get the opportunity to play for his father, Greg Hudson. Greg coached linebackers at FSU and was recently hired at Purdue as defensive coordinator.
“I don’t know how awkward it will be, but it’s going to be great,” Garrett said of about playing for his father. “It’s going to be fun. When I went up there for my visit, I knew right away it was the right place. It felt perfect to me.”
Florida High, 11:15 a.m.
The Seminoles are known for sending players to the next level. Wednesday was no different.
Football players Austin Logan (Purdue), Khari Lewis (Tennessee State), Tevin Floyd (Citadel), Zack Hoover (Fairmont State), Jason Coste (Miles), Darryl Copeland (Stetson), C.J. Danser (Hardin-Simmons) and Dustin Roberts (Ave Maria) joined accomplished swimmer Megan Walker (Thomas University) in signing their letters before a large crowd in the school’s gymnasium.
“It’s a blessing and a curse in itself,” joked Logan about the conclusion of the recruiting process. “The blessing is you see the hard work pay off, you see everybody that’s in your life come out and support you.
“But the curse is now you have to live up to the expectations. The recruiting process was very hectic, and for it to be over is good.”
Walker, an All-Big Bend swimmer and the holder of multiple school records, was the lone non-football signee. But it was her announcement that drew the largest ovation at the beginning of the ceremony.
Football coach Jarrod Hickman was all smiles as he watched his former players decide where they will spend their future player.
Eight of the 12 seniors from last year’s squad signed to play in college, a staggering number for a team that doesn’t carry as many players as the bigger public schools.
“It’s extremely rewarding (as a coach). It’s one of those days you can’t do anything to mess it up,” Hickman said. “We’ve never signed eight guys before. It’s very exciting for us.”
The ceremony came at just the right time for Floyd. He and Copeland play for the Seminoles’ boy’s basketball team, which played Godby High in Wednesday’s district tournament.
“I’m glad it’s over so I can turn my focus completely to basketball,” Floyd said.
Lincoln High, 11:30 a.m.
The phone will be a lot quieter now for Lincoln High receiver Reggie Davis.
After signing his scholarship papers to play at the University of Georgia, Davis said he was looking forward to a little peace and quiet now that the recruiting season is officially over for him.
“It wasn’t the phone calls,” Davis said. “It was the text messages. A lot of them. I’m glad it’s all over now.”
Davis said reporters from all of the major recruiting web sites flooded his phone with interview requests the past year, even though he committed to Georgia as a junior and never wavered from that decision.
“Everyone wanted to know if I had a top 5 and all of that,” Davis said. “I was like, ‘Naw. I’m a solid commit.'”
Davis was one of 10 Lincoln players to finalize college choices Wednesday.
The others included lineman Chole Sims, who will play at FAMU next season. Sims is one of more than a half-dozen Big Bend players to sign with first-year Rattlers coach Earl Holmes.
“When I went there I saw a good program getting started,” Sims said. “I saw a new head coach and I knew he was heading in the right direction. Plus it was close to home, so that’s where I wanted to be.”
In addition to Sims and Davis, the other Lincoln players to sign were: defensive back Jamerson Blount (Samford), lineman Dakota Deyent (Elon), receiver Myles Gaines (Yale), lineman Andrew Laubach (Jacksonville), lineman Jonathan Mason (Carson-Newman), running back/defensive back Ben Robinson (Charleston Southern), fullback Austin Sabolic (Bethel) and defensive back Dominic Washington (Fullerton College).
Shakir said he expects as many as seven more players to sign in the coming weeks, including top prospects Taj Williams and James Hearns.
East Gadsden, 1:30 p.m.
Jaguars coach Corey Fuller, a former prep, college (FSU) and NFL star, opened the ceremony by explaining what the day meant for his five players.
“This is why we as coaches work day in and day out to get these kids on the right track,” Fuller said.
“It’s been a long journey for a couple of these guys, but they’ve all worked hard and deserve this here today. Too many people have wasted these kinds of opportunities. Football is a means to a free education, and that is what’s important here.”
Quarterback Treveze Robinson started things off by announcing that he’ll stay close to home and attend FAMU.
“Being so close to Quincy played a big role in me choosing FAMU,” Robinson said. “I just want to be able to come back and make a positive impact on my community one day.”
Rounding out the signees were running back Jarrell Reynolds (Southeastern University), linebacker Erick Bethea (Fairmont State), defensive back Kyle Francis (Fairmont) and receiver Jannorris Cunningham (Fairmont).
Fuller ended the ceremony an proud, emotional note.
“You guys are no longer teenagers, you’re now young men,” Fuller said. “I can remember when some of you first came to me, and to look at you now, this is what it’s all about.”
Leon, 2 p.m.
It was difficult season for the Lions, but the program continued its legacy of sending players to college.
Offensive lineman Doug Waddell signed with Wingate University. Waddell graded out at 88 percent and averaged six pancake blocks per game last season.
Waddell, whose father played at Nebraska, was a starter in the Florida versus Georgia All-Star Border War Classic. He also was recently awarded the 2013 Bernard Miller Offensive Lineman of the Year.
Madison County, 2:15 p.m.
The six of them flanked Mike Coe, each one with a special connection to the Madison County head coach.
And as he introduced his six seniors who signed scholarships on Wednesday, Coe couldn’t help but thank each of them for their contributions to the Madison County program. The seniors helped the Cowboys advance to the state championship game the last two seasons.
“These guys were sophomores when I took over,” Coe said. “They’ve been with me the whole time. Every kid up here is a three-year varsity player.
“It’s like seeing one of your sons sign. You’re happy for them. You’re happy to see the smiles on their families’ faces. You’re hoping they do the right things and take care of business and become better men because of it.”
One of those seniors with the biggest smile of all is linebacker Brandon Crawford, who actually had zero scholarship offers are recently as three weeks ago. The schools that had been recruiting him pulled their offers because of commitments from other prospects, leaving Crawford without a scholarship.
But Coe said a coach from the University of Buffalo was in Tampa three weeks ago recruiting another player when he heard about Crawford, and then drove to Madison to offer a scholarship.
After a recruiting visit to Buffalo, Crawford committed to the Bulls.
“I put in a lot of hard work and God hasn’t brought me this far to leave me now,” Crawford said. “For that school to come down here — that has never been to this school before — I knew it was for a reason.”
The Cowboys also celebrated the signings of receiver/defensive back Sheddrick Williams (Butler Community College), quarterback D.J. McKnight (Tallahassee Community College baseball), Javarus Jones (Webber University) and Gerard Brown (Webber).
Wakulla High, 2:30 p.m.
The War Eagles’ ceremony was held after school, but still featured a packed auditorium as eight players signed.
The group was headlined by offensive lineman Chris Griffin, who signed with Georgia Tech.
“Once I got to Tech’s campus, I knew that’s where I wanted to me,” said Griffin, who expects to leave for Atlanta in June. “I am just ecstatic (teammates) got the opportunity to sign was well. It was a great experience.”
Other signees included quarterback Caleb Stephens (Brevard University in North Carolina), defensive back Mikal Cromartie (Coffeyville Community College), linebacker Fred Cummings (Coffeyville), linebacker Kevin James (Coffeyville), running back Demetrius Lindsey (Southeastern University), linebacker Dalton Bohannon (St. Francis) and offensive lineman Jonathan Chunn (Washington University of St. Louis).