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Friday, October 26, 2007
Traditional powerhouses producing NFL talent

By Christopher Lawlor
ESPN.com

It was a game for the ages. The talent on the field was top-shelf; so were the teams.

It transcended borders of a typical high school football game, and coach Bob Ladouceur of De La Salle High of Concord, Calif. had the best seat in the house on Oct. 6, 2001.

"Looking back, it was a privilege and an honor to witness," he said. "I've marveled at the quality of the players (on both teams) that night."

The nation's top two teams, No. 1 Long Beach Poly and No. 2 De La Salle, both California powerhouses, met at Veterans Stadium in Long Beach to settle bragging rights.

What was billed as "the game of the century" was a watershed moment for high school football, helping launch the prime-time careers of several players who would later play in the NFL.

It's no surprise according to opening day NFL rosters both schools top the list with the most graduates with six each. Eight of the 12 players -- four from each school -- played in the 2001 game at Long Beach.

"Both teams could've competed and held their own against a college team," said Ladouceur, a member of the National High School Hall of Fame. "I felt a number of players that game would eventually play in the NFL."

Maurice Jones-Drew is one of six De La Salle High School graduates currently in the NFL.
One player who benefited from the grand stage was relatively-unknown running back, Maurice Drew (now Jones-Drew). A diminutive sophomore, Jones-Drew, scored four touchdowns for De La Salle in a 29-15 victory over Poly before an overflow crowd of 17,321.

"He (Jones-Drew) hadn't done a lot until that point, but we knew he had tremendous potential," Ladouceur said. "He had the speed and strength we needed against a team like Poly."

The roster of players from both California schools is impressive.

De La Salle graduates (in the NFL) include: quarterback Matt Gutierrez, New England Patriots; Jones-Drew, and defensive lineman Derek Landri, both of Jacksonville Jaguars; wide receiver Amani Toomer, New York Giants; wide receiver Demetrius Williams, Baltimore Ravens; and linebacker D.J. Williams, Denver Broncos.

Poly alumni are: offensive tackle Winston Justice and linebacker Pago Togafu, Philadelphia Eagles; tight end Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars; linebacker Willie McGinest, Cleveland Browns; wide receiver Samie Parker, Kansas City Chiefs; and defensive tackle Manny Wright, Giants.

The totals are based on the nearly 1,700-player 2007 NFL Kickoff rosters (Sept. 6, 9-10). The NFL players represent 1,384 high schools in 48 states and the District of Columbia, three foreign countries and one U.S. territory (American Samoa).

Signature players

These days, McGinest is veteran for the Browns. In the in the late 1980s, he was an All-American at Poly and an all-state performer in two sports (also basketball).

McGinest also had a keen sense for the ball, separating blockers and pinning the ball-carrier on the turf. In his 14th season -- he earned three Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots and is the club's third all-time sack leader (with 78) -- playing for pay, McGinest harkens back to the simple times when Poly helped shape his career goals and led the way for a scholarship to Southern California.

"Long Beach Poly means a lot to me. The school is a melting pot of ethnicity, and you not only got a great education, but you also learned about life," McGinest said. "The coaches and administrators made sure you focused on your schoolwork. It is not a surprise to me that so many people who went to Poly have gone on to do great things. They prepare you for the next phase of your life."

This weekend, Toomer is a continent away in London as the Giants prepare for a game against the Miami Dolphins at Wembley Stadium. Toomer and teammates will make history when the NFL plays it first regular season outside of North American.

He's also part of De La Salle history, having played on the last team to lose before the Spartans embarked on a national-record win streak of 151 games, which ended in 1994. When De La Salle lost to rivals Pittsburg in the CIF-North Coast Section, 3A final, Toomer walked off the field with a sour taste before heading for a stellar career at Michigan.

The loss could not overshadow a fine career at the all-male Catholic school located in northern California near Berkeley.

"The thing I learned from high school football was the focus it takes to be successful," said Toomer, who became the Giants' all-time leading wide receiver earlier this fall. "We had a very successful run at De La Salle, and what I remember most about it was that everybody was really focused about playing every week.

"It was just a good feeling that you knew the guy next to you was going to try his hardest to be the best and you could trust him," he said.

Ladouceur recalls, "Amani hated to lose; he showed up for big games. He was generally quiet but a fierce competitor."

A Handful

Also making noise are storied programs, DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.) and Dillard (Fort Lauderdale), which contribute five players to NFL rosters. Fourteen schools have four players, ranging from Kahuku (Hawaii) to Lower Richland (Hopkins, S.C.).

Bill McGregor, the NFL's 2004 High School Coach of the Year, from DeMatha maintains a close relationship with all five, which are on speed dial.

"I called them all before the season to say how proud we are of them," said McGregor, whose team is No. 20 in the current ESPN HIGH Elite 25 high school rankings. "It's quite an accomplishment and says something about their hard work."

Not even the swirl of Xs and Os and thousands of faces over the years can dull McGregor's images of his players.

Here's a snippet of the each player, provided by McGregor:

Jacob Bender, Jets: "One of the biggest overachievers I've coached."
Quinn Ojinnaka, Atlanta Falcons: "At first, he resisted attending DeMatha. He made excuses to his mother and me about switching from a public to private school."
John Owens, New Orleans Saints: "A polite, well-mannered, and respectful young man."
Josh Wilson, Seattle Seahawks: "Quick witted with a great smile."
Brian Westbrook, Eagles: "A great, focused competitor. You can't measure what's inside."

Said Westbrook, "He (Bill McGregor) continues to be an inspiration and source of support."

Additionally, McGregor said two players -- Byron Westbrook (Brian's brother) and Brian Bell -- are one Washington's practice squad and another, Cameron Wake, is defensive end for the CFL's British Columbia Lions.

In Florida, Jacksonville quarterback Quinn Gray, who attended Dillard, experienced heartache this summer. His father, Otis Gray, who coached wide receiver Isaac Bruce (of the St. Louis Rams) at Dillard in the 1980s, died of colon cancer.

Quinn Gray, a fourth year player from Florida A&M, learned of his father's passing prior to a preseason game in Green Bay but elected to play "because that is what my dad would want me to do," he said in a team issued statement.

Current Dillard alums are Gray, who did not play for his father, along with Bruce; Chris Gamble and Stanley McClover, both of the Carolina Panthers; and Jovan Haye, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"The big thing about going to Dillard was the tradition. It started back when my dad (Otis Gray) was a coach there from 1979-90. He started a real tradition as far as winning football games and excellence in the classroom," said Quinn, whose father came back for one final season in 2006.

By the numbers

The league also released these nuggets: High schools with three players on rosters (29); with two players (185), and with one player (1,150).

No surprise the football hotbeds of California (with 209 players); Texas (184); and Florida (178) comprise the top three states; they are followed by Ohio (92) and Georgia (77).

Hometowns with most players also reflect statewide figures: Miami (with 37 players); Houston (32); and Los Angeles and San Diego (13). Removed from the Sunbelt are Midwest rustbelt cities of Detroit (with 13 players); Cincinnati and St. Louis (12); Cleveland (11); and Chicago (10).

American Samoa supplies four players, including two with the Cincinnati Bengals -- defensive tackle Domata Peko and defensive end Jonathan Fanene -- plus Miami DT Paul Soliai and San Francisco DT Isaac Sopoaga.

Players with foreign roots include 11 from Canada; three from Australia; and one from England (Rhys Lloyd, Ravens).

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also for worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, where he ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.