BRADENTON — By today’s standards, the 1994 Southeast High football team was the best-kept secret in America.
Despite coming off a state championship with a star-studded cast of players and a No. 1 national ranking, few people outside of Manatee and Sarasota counties knew much about these Seminoles.
Those who missed the USA Today national rankings were likely oblivious to this once-in-a-lifetime team head coach Paul Maecthle was assembling.
Outside of the Sunshine State, most people didn’t know Peter Warrick from Peter Pan, and they had no idea he would become Peter The Great. Warrick, who would go on to star at Florida State and become the fourth overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, was just another football player.
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He wasn’t a household name like Southeast defensive back Jon Dowling became last summer or like this year’s local football celebrity, Manatee running back Mike Blakely.
Warrick did prove that whatever era you live in, if you have talent, it will eventually rise to the surface, and the right people will find you. It’s just not as much fun.
“We went out there and did what we had to do on God’s gift,” Warrick says. “During the summer before our senior year, we never had anyone come and tell us this is what you need to do. We worked hard, lifted weights and trained.
“Not many people knew about us, but when people don’t know about you, you go out and make a name for yourself, so that makes it better.”
Warrick would’ve been an Internet sensation these days. He quarterbacked his football team to a state title and was the point guard on the Noles’ state championship basketball team.
“He was the best athlete this area ever produced,” says long-time Manatee High receivers coach Chuck Sandberg.
The elder Sandberg has seen this media tsunami crash through the front door of his house with his son, Cord, a sophomore quarterback at Manatee who has yet to start a regular season game, but is already on the college football radar screen.
“It’s just unbelievable what is happening. The coaches want to look at kids who are so young. Didn’t Lane Kiffin offer a seventh grader? How do they find out about those players,” Sandberg said.
Colleges can discover kids at such a young age, which couldn’t be done in the mid-1990s, when newspapers and word of mouth were still the best means of getting prep football information out. High school football players today are the product of a technological revolution, and their sport will never be the same.
Though these kids play for fun and most will never see a big-time college field, there is big-time money being made off them. Recruiting websites, sports apparel companies and television networks are turning healthy profits thanks to their endeavors.
“People found that reporting on recruiting high school kids could be a money-maker, and there was an explosion,” Maecthle said. “The jury is still out on whether it’s good. Nike and other companies give these kids stuff at their combines. I guess they figure some of them will play on Sunday, and they are sending them a message: ‘Remember me.’”
National signing day for high school football players today has become arguably as big as the NFL Draft, and many people see it as more popular.
The movement to bring high school football onto the national level started in the 1980s with periodic magazines, newsletters and 1-900 phone numbers that provided information. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
The Internet and the advent of college recruiting websites such as Rivals.com and Scout.com took the whole process to another level. It meant kids, some not old enough to drive or shave, would become dot-com celebrities and command an audience that was willing to pay for information on them and at times hang on their every word.
In August 2001, several months after the original Rivals website had folded, a group of people officially changed its name to Rivals.com and in December 2001 named Vince Young as the No. 1 recruit in the country. On college football’s National Signing Day in 2007, Rivals.com reported it had a record 74.3 million page views.
What the website’s success proved is that many fans care — a lot — about what players their alma mater is recruiting. Fans are very interested in who is in a prospect’s top-five choices and what rating websites such as Rivals.com and Scout.com give each prospect.
Last year, a conversation between Dowling and Venice High quarterback Trey Burton about Florida coach Urban Meyer was a popular item on Rivals. People were hanging on the words of 17-year-old kids.
Warrick and his teammates missed the opportunity to have their names bantered across the country. He might have been a five-star recruit — the highest grade possible — in both football and basketball and had sporting goods companies knocking down his door when he was eligible to sign a contract. There is no telling how much money Warrick lost by being born just a few years too early.
Only college coaches and hardcore football fans, who craved every bit of information they could get, knew about Warrick. There was even less notoriety for his teammates, who included running back Dyral McMillan (signed with Miami), Reggie Davis (Florida) and Brett Timmons, who would play on Tulane’s 1998 undefeated team.
They spent the summer of ’94 in obscurity playing basketball and doing workouts at the school to get in shape for the upcoming season. The head coach’s most important job was making sure there was an assistant coach assigned to the weight room.
Their lives were drastically different compared to what is going on today, with all the attention being paid to the returning players on the Manatee High football team that reached the Class 5A state final last season and some highly touted prospects from Southeast.
Many of those seniors, along with sophomore Sandberg, have been traveling the country visiting major college football programs to display their wares in person. There are 7-on-7 tournaments, college football camps, camps for every position and elite camps for those deemed the best at their particular position. It’s impossible to make them all.
In a seven-day span that ended July 27, here is what was available to area athletes: ESPN Rise had its elite 7-on-7 tournament in Orlando; IMG hosted a national coaches 7-on-7 tournament; USF had its Sling and Shoot 7-on-7 tourney that attracted more than 1,000 high school players; Florida had its Friday Nights Lights camp; FSU had its second Jimbo Fisher summer camp; and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes had a 7-on-7 Tournament at PAL.
People in the business say things are just getting started. There are going to be more and more regional telecasts of high school football games and showcase games that will pit the top teams in the country against each other (just ask Manatee High, which will open this season in Pennsylvania).
Might as well face it: High school football has become far more than a game. It’s big business.