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For most of his life, the top-rated football prospect in Texas thought he was a basketball player.
"I was a little, skinny kid with a big head," said Darius James, a 6-foot-5, 320-pound lineman from Killeen (Texas) Harker Heights. "But they told me I had to play football."
|ESPN 150 athlete Max Redfield said playing football in California helped him feel at ease at the Under Armour All-America Game.|
James listened. He tried running back but outgrew it. He played his first varsity game as a sophomore at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
And like that, he was hooked. Ranked No. 17 in the ESPN 150, James plans to sign next month with Texas. He's the top recruit in the Longhorns' class and the No. 1 center nationally.
Credit the Texas high school football culture. It's inescapable, from the small towns to the population centers around Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston.
"It's bigger than pro football," said kicker Shane Tripucka of Allen (Texas) High School, which opened a $60 million, 18,000-seat stadium last fall.
Yes, the Friday night environment in Texas is likely unmatched nationally.
By no means, though, does Texas stand as the undisputed king in filling the rosters of top college programs. California and Florida can construct equally solid arguments.
With a nod to Georgia -- it placed 10 players among the top 100 prospects this year, including the top two in Robert Nkemdiche and Carl Lawson -- there's no debating the status of California, Florida and Texas as the top breeding grounds for recruits.
If a perfect setting existed to cultivate college-ready talent, it would incorporate the football-saturated atmosphere of Texas, the confidence and savvy of California prospects and the speed and athleticism of Florida players.
Historically, the three states dominate the sport. The numbers bear witness: Over the past half-century, the percentage of California-, Florida- and Texas-bred players on the rosters of top-20 college programs has more than doubled.
In 2010, the most recent year of data examined by ESPN, it was 37.5 percent, up from 34.4 percent a decade earlier, 31.3 in 1980 and 16.3 percent in 1960. In 1960, Ohio and Pennsylvania (241) together had more players on top-20 programs than California, Florida and Texas (179).
Fifty years later, the three premier states counted 782 players on the top 20 teams, nearly six times more than Ohio and Pennsylvania, with 138.
Why the dramatic shift? Societal reasons exist. Census data indicates that the U.S. population has shifted south and west. People are more mobile and follow the warm weather. With fewer scholarships to award, a higher percentage go to the best players -- from the strongest states. And clearly, the power structure in college football has shifted away from the North and Midwest.
But there's more happening. It involves the cultures at work on and around the football fields in those states -- in the homes and schools and towns.
Football isn't something they do to fill time in California, Florida and Texas. They live it.
Let the kids explain.
Notre Dame-bound Max Redfield of Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School, the state's No. 3 prospect in the 2013 class, was born in Connecticut and lived there for seven years.
Now, he said he feels like a "West Coast kid." And Redfield, classified as an athlete and likely to play safety in college, has noticed something interesting about how his football acumen translates out of his home state.
When he practiced with 100 of the nation's top high school seniors recently before the Under Armour All-America Game, Redfield said his California football education boosted his confidence.
"I felt like I had an edge," he said. "I felt like I knew more about what was going on with the whole defense. And I think it has a lot to do with playing in California. More than any other state, they really get into the fundamentals and break down the natural technique -- the intellectual part of football.
"I feel the players are more educated [about the game]. It gives us an advantage in college."
Receiver Sebastian LaRue of Santa Monica (Calif.) High School sees it the same way. For LaRue, the shrewd mentality of California players goes beyond the game.
"Some people can't adjust to the college level," LaRue said, "not just on the field but off. They can't adjust to the media. Being in California, it's Hollywood. We've seen it. I think it gives us an edge."
And hey, California is famous for its laid-back style.
"It's part of the personality of a lot of guys," said quarterback Zack Greenlee of Stockton (Calif.) Lincoln. "I think we thrive under pressure. It's been said about me."
Twenty-two of the top 100 prospects in this recruiting class played high school ball in Florida, including six of the top nine. This year, at least, Florida's pool of top-end talent appears deepest.
That's not a one-year occurrence, said Roger Harriott, coach at Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) University School of Nova Southeastern.
"It's an attitude and a mentality," Harriott said. "The culture takes on a life of its own after a while."
Greatness becomes an expectation. Receiver Jordan Cunningham, who played for Harriott in high school, understands.
|ESPN 150 safety Marcell Harris says what separates Florida players is their speed.|
"A lot of players come from families whose fathers played football," Cunningham said. "If you grow up in south Florida, it's a tradition."
During two-a-day practices in Florida, Cunningham said, his teammates often raced after practice. They were tired. It was hot. But they had to know who was fastest.
"There's no speed like Florida speed," he said.
And in Florida, it really is about speed. Speed distinguished Miami, Florida State and Florida during each of its championship periods over the past 30 years.
"There's an energy in Florida that I don't think you can beat," said safety Marcell Harris of Orlando (Fla.) Dr. Phillips, a Florida commit. "The speed of our game is just faster."
Texans might argue otherwise. Their prospects are known to be fast. Lately, Texas has turned out quarterbacks at a staggering rate. A generation ago, Texas specialized in running backs.
No matter the era, Texas has never lacked that big-time feel.
"It's about tradition and prestige," said Oklahoma State-committed receiver Ra'Shaad Samples of Dallas Skyline. "We take it seriously. There's no other football like Texas high school football."
Running back Keith Ford of Cypress (Texas) Ranch, an Oklahoma recruit, talked almost yearningly this month about the long-gone summer heat.
It's often 100 degrees when they start practice in August -- maybe hotter on the field, with no escape from the sun. Those conditions -- not to mention the pressure of the Texas high school stage -- weed out players who don't love the game.
The survivors are ready for anything.
"It's just a grind," Ford said. "I love it. I love the grind."
Samples played before crowds of nearly 30,000 in high school.
"We've been in big-time situations," Samples said. "We're comfortable in our skin. Texas kids, because of the game we play, are usually not ever timid. We're not shy. And we've got a certain swag about ourselves."
A certain swag. The same could be said about California and Florida. Let the debate rage.