Determination, drive earn Bates scholarship
The first Wednesday of February is Christmas on the football recruiting calendar. The gift is a college football scholarship, the occasion routinely shared with parents. It caps a senior season that will be remembered for a lifetime.
Little was routine when Brandon Bates -- a 6-foot-3, 235-pound defensive end -- walked into the library at A.C. Flora (Columbia, S.C.) to sign last February.
No senior season. No parents, at least none whom he remembers.
But maybe no senior across the country treasured the gift of a letter of intent more than Bates. His young life has been spread among foster homes and state facilities. The transient existence contributed to him having to sit out the 2008 season, which was almost more than he could bear.
The Flora coaching staff was instrumental in Bates landing a scholarship to NCAA Division II Elizabeth City State, a historically black college in North Carolina. After he signed Feb. 4 with the other Flora signees in the school library, Bates surprised Falcons head coach Robin Bacon and other staffers by hugging them and saying he loved them.
"As a coach, you try to keep a dry eye," said Freddie Solomon, Flora's receivers coach and recruiting coordinator.
Bates, who has already enrolled at Elizabeth City State, said it's difficult to describe what getting the scholarship means to him.
"It's a blessing," he said.
Bates said he has two brothers and two sisters in South Carolina and Georgia whom he talks to occasionally. But he never really knew his parents and said he first went into foster care around age 9.
Bates has lived the past four years at Carolina Children's Home in Columbia and attended Flora while there. The nonprofit home can house up to 92 residents ages 6 to 21. He lived in a dorm with a roommate, rode the CCH van to and from school. Meals at CCH are served in the dining hall, ending with dinner at 5 p.m. On days when he couldn't make it back in time because of practice, he said special arrangements were made to get him home and provide a later meal.
A representative of the children's home said no one there could discuss any aspect of Bates' circumstances because of confidentiality policy.
Bates said he never played football until he enrolled at Flora. The coaching staff saw the big new kid and invited him to watch practice to see if he'd like to give it a try.
"It came quick, kind of natural," Bates said. "I was kind of a headhunter, just started going after the ball. Then I started learning techniques."
Bacon immediately recognized a combination of strength, speed and most of all, drive.
"The biggest thing is his passion for the game," said Bacon, who recently resigned as Flora coach after 10 seasons to become athletic director at nearby Lower Richland (Hopkins, S.C.). "He's an emotional kid who has a reason for playing sports. It's a place where he could go. His sanctuary. Where he belonged."
Flora is a Class 3A school in the South Carolina High School League, located in inner-city Columbia and, Solomon said, maybe the most diverse campus in the state. The Falcons' past three records were 3-7, 6-5 and 6-5 (first-round playoff losses in 2007 and '08), but Flora often sends players off to play college football. Offensive lineman Kenneth Page signed with Clemson in 2008. Last year's group included Conor Hozey, who will play for Navy.
Last summer, Bacon and his staff were especially diligent in making sure Bates would attend offseason camps and be seen by college coaches. Solomon projected him as a major college linebacker.
About that time, a check of Bates' academic records revealed he'd attended another high school before enrolling at Flora. He didn't play any sports at Calhoun County (Saint Matthews, S.C.), but his athletic eligibility had expired.
Bates was devastated and assumed his chance to play college football was over. Bacon sat him down along with Solomon and defensive coordinator Brian Thompson, and they told him that they'd keep trying to land him a scholarship.
"He broke down. I broke down," Solomon said. "I told him, 'Don't give up. Just trust me.'"
Bates couldn't participate in any portion of the football program. Coaches and players encouraged him to attend games, but he found that difficult. At times, he said, he considered dropping out of school.
"I felt like there wasn't any point," Bates said. "I used to get mad. I used to feel bad on Fridays when they went to go play and I couldn't go."
In early December, Elizabeth City State coach Waverly Tillar visited Flora to see if any senior Falcons might fit his program. Bacon was off campus, helping coach at the annual North-South All-Star Football Game in Myrtle Beach, S.C., so Tillar met with Solomon.
"The first thing that came to my mind -- Brandon Bates," Solomon said. "We talked for an hour."
Solomon explained Bates' unusual situation and showed Tillar some film of Bates' junior season.
Tillar was sold. Bates was called out of his Spanish class and told to see Solomon in the school atrium. Tillar told Bates that he would be mailing him the necessary paperwork for a football scholarship as soon as he returned to campus.
"Other than my marriage and the birth of my kids, I can't remember a time as emotional," Bacon said. "The community, the faculty and the kids at Flora were behind Brandon all the way and were so excited for him. Having been fortunate to have a lot of kids get scholarships in my 22 years as a football coach, none was more rewarding and satisfying than Brandon's.
"He is a true role model to the other kids at Carolina Children's Home."
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at email@example.com.
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