The popular term is National Signing Day.
But Wednesday actually marked the beginning of the period in which high school students involved in five sports are allowed to sign a national letter of intent to accept an athletic scholarship from NCAA Division I or Division II colleges.
Football players may continue signing through April 1. Field hockey, soccer, track and field and men’s water polo (really) athletes may sign through Aug. 1.
But most high school athletes sign on the first day, for a multitude of reasons. They’re fulfilling a lifelong dream. They’re under pressure from college coaches. They’re afraid of losing their spot if they wait a couple of days. And – in the case of most Division I football recruits – they can’t wait to get it over with.
Salesianum linebacker Troy Reeder and Middletown wide receiver Chris Godwin signed with Penn State on Wednesday. Tight end Brian O’Neill, Reeder’s Sallies teammate, signed with Pittsburgh. The signing ceremonies took place in the afternoon, but all three players actually signed their papers, faxed them to the colleges and received confirmations before 8 a.m.
“I was incredibly relieved,” Godwin said. “It’s been a long process, but at the same time, I’m grateful for everything that has happened to me. I was just thrilled, and now I’m excited to get to work.”
Reeder gave the Nittany Lions a verbal commitment last February, and he never wavered. But it couldn’t become official until Wednesday.
“It’s just a huge weight off your shoulders, knowing for certain that you’re set,” Reeder said. “I’m set on Penn State.”
O’Neill saw it as the first page of a new chapter in his life.
“This process has gone on for a long time now, over a year,” the 6-foot-7 tight end said. “I’m just ready to get it done. A lot of people call it the end of recruiting, but it’s really the start of your college career.”
It is important to remember that these athletes – no matter how big, fast and strong they may be – are high school kids. The recruiting process takes its toll.
“It’s a really nice thing for them to be recruited,” Salesianum coach Bill DiNardo said. “This is what every kid dreams about. But I think once you get into this, it gets to be tough emotionally. Because they have to make decisions.”
Everybody wants you, but you can only choose one school. You have to say no – sometimes a lot – and that isn’t easy. If college football recruiters take no for an answer too often, they are no longer college football recruiters.
Virginia, Boston College and Michigan were among the colleges Reeder had to turn down.
“There were a lot of schools that kept trying to get me to visit,” Reeder said. “They knew there was still a year left to recruit me. But coach DiNardo and I agreed that Penn State was all I wanted, so we kind of shut down the recruiting process.”
Then Penn State coach Bill O’Brien left for the NFL’s Houston Texans, and everybody took another shot at Reeder.
“He left officially on New Year’s Eve,” Reeder said. “The next morning I woke up and already had six calls from six different schools by 8:30 a.m. I was like, ‘Oh, man, here we go again.'”
Reeder held the recruiters at bay until James Franklin left Vanderbilt to fill O’Brien’s job. Franklin and his new staff had tried to persuade Reeder to come to Vandy earlier, so they already had a rapport. Reeder quickly decided to stick with Penn State.
Godwin gave a verbal commitment to Penn State last April, but that meant nothing.
“Even after Chris committed, we were getting calls,” Middletown coach Mark DelPercio said. “[Ohio State’s] Urban Meyer called the day after Chris committed. He just wanted to talk to Chris and see if he could get him to change his mind.”
Godwin’s mind was set – until O’Brien left. All of a sudden, Rutgers, Ohio State, Florida, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Miami, Michigan and South Carolina reappeared.
Franklin and new Penn State receivers coach Josh Gattis also had recruited Godwin at Vanderbilt, and they quickly became reacquainted. Godwin reaffirmed his commitment, but Franklin wasn’t taking any chances. He visited Godwin’s home again a couple of weeks ago, sharing a meal with DelPercio at Applebee’s in Middletown as part of the visit.
“Coaches always want to seal the deal,” DelPercio said. “They want to make sure they’re going to get their guy, right up to the last minute.”
O’Neill was recruited by Maryland, Georgia Tech, Old Dominion, Coastal Carolina and Fordham, but Pitt was always at the top of his list. He committed to the Panthers in June.
“Pittsburgh was the first school that offered me a scholarship, and that said a lot to me,” O’Neill said. “They wanted me, and that’s a good feeling. … It was by far my favorite.”
Other colleges began to show interest as O’Neill’s statistics piled up through the fall and the Sals won the DIAA Division I state championship. Pitt had to feel threatened when Notre Dame made a late push, but O’Neill held firm.
“I wasn’t ready to make that switch. It was way too close to signing day,” he said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere else. But it’s flattering to know a school of that caliber is interested in you.”
That’s why coaches never take a verbal commitment for granted. Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst was among the sellout crowd watching O’Neill and the Sals knock off then-No. 1 Sanford in basketball on Jan. 28. Why would a college football coach come to a high school basketball game? To remind his football recruit that he still cares about him.
Recruiters are just as relentless at the lower levels, too. Hodgson defensive end Bilal Nichols is a Newark resident, as has always wanted to play football at the University of Delaware. When the Blue Hens called, he answered. But that didn’t keep Bucknell, James Madison, Rutgers, Monmouth and Old Dominion from calling. One of them kept calling.
“James Madison still tried to recruit me throughout the process,” Nichols said Wednesday, minutes after signing with the Hens. “I just told them, ‘Thank you for the opportunity, but my heart is at UD.'”
The pressure isn’t limited to football. Goalkeeper Ben Lundgaard was among four players from Salesianum’s state-championship soccer team to sign letters of intent Wednesday. He described Virginia Tech as his “dream school” and was thrilled to sign with the Hokies.
Lundgaard also considered Indiana, Coastal Carolina, Delaware and North Carolina-Charlotte. He committed to Virginia Tech in June, but continued to hear from other colleges into January.
“A few of them stopped, but a couple kept going, kept emailing me and contacting me,” Lundgaard said. “Everyone knows it’s just a verbal commitment. You haven’t signed anything yet.”
Now, most of Delaware’s top athletes have signed. They can enjoy the rest of their senior year while looking forward to college. But they will never forget what a wild ride college recruiting can be.