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Commentary: Signing day comes with few guarantees

Signing day has turned into somewhat of a national holiday for the gifted high school football player.

But it comes with red flags and warnings.

History has proven signing a letter-of-intent is the first step in a path that can be treacherous.

So many things can happen before reaching the promised land of the NFL or taking the field at places called The Swamp where childhood dreams come true.

The only guarantee a signee gets is that his first year of college will be paid for if he meets NCAA eligibility rules.

The obstacles he faces are infinite; too hard to imagine for a kid barely old enough to vote in most cases. Scandals, injuries, accidents, personal issues and academics are some of the traps they need to avoid.

Manatee County has had its share of shattered dreams and success stories.

Some players made it and got a degree, some never got on the field and others found the classroom more daunting than anybody they faced in a football game.

It was a lesson Southeast High football coach Paul Maechtle tried to give to his signees on Wednesday.

Southeast had three players sign last year and none are at the school they chose; the most noted Jon Dowling who has since transferred from Florida to Western Kentucky.

A lot of the colleges are guilty of creating the problems. Many over-sign players going well above the 25 per year they are allowed to bring in. They know some who sign won’t qualify and worry about sorting out the numbers at a later date.

If it gets too crowded they can grayshirt a player (let him enroll in the winter or the following season) or scare them away.

Many athletes believe they are getting a four year scholarship when it has to be renewed every year.

At the end of a school year, a coach can take the scholarship away from a player for any reason, including permanent injury -- It’s a way of saying you are released, didn’t make the cut; sorry.

The goal for every signee on Wednesday should be to get a degree, but the graduation rate for Division I football players is only about 50 percent.

And the truth be told: when it comes to your athletic career the colleges own you.

Schools have the power to refuse to release athletes who want to transfer or limit the schools they can attend.

Football players who transfer have fewer rights than those in most other sports. And schools are not required to pay for any of your sports related medical expenses-it is optional (so check that out).

On the other hand, there is glory and the riches of an NFL contract if you are among the fortunate few.

Manatee County has had its share of disappointments, Adrian McPherson being the most notable.

But there also stories of kids who were left out on signing day, refused to give in and wound up having a successful career.

Two of the best examples are Chad Lee and Randy Kelly.

Lee was the starting center on Southeast’s 1998 state final team. He did not receive an offer on signing day, but later that spring a couple of college scouts coming to look at the ’99 class happen to see about 10 plays of Lee on defense. It sparked a scholarship and he wound up starting for three years at Louisville as a linebacker.

A Manatee High grad, Kelly had to go the junior college route, but proved a lot of people wrong and started for two years as a defensive back for Arkansas.

Southeast linebacker Desmond Blue is the consensus best defensive player in the county, but hasn’t received an offer because he has to play safety in college.

He and others feeling empty on this day for celebration should not give up. They should think of Chad Lee and Randy Kelly and the others who didn’t have anything to do on signing day, but eventually made their mark.

Alan Dell, sports reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2112.