When Josiah Blandin signs his national letter of intent to attend Arizona State on Wednesday, the Long Beach Poly (Long Beach, Calif.) senior wide receiver will be doing what millions of high school football players dream about but only a tiny fraction ever achieve: securing a scholarship from a major Division I program.
He's one of five Poly players expected to sign with ASU.
As hard as those Division I scholarships are to secure, there are high schools around the country that send multiple players on to BCS schools each year. The players from these schools generally don't just make it to competitive schools -- they thrive. Poly, the school that produced Mark Carrier, DeSean Jackson, Marcedes Lewis and Willie McGinest, had five players on NFL opening-weekend rosters (see sidebar). St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) led the pack with eight players in the league, while Woodland Hills (Pittsburgh), where New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski graduated from, had seven.
The schools are diverse -- public and private, rich and poor -- but they share a number of characteristics that help produce a disproportionate amount of Division I and pro talent.
Not coincidentally, the bulk of NFL players come from the most populous states, with the exception of New York. California (226), Florida (184) and Texas (183) supply by far the most players. This trio also constitutes three of the top four player-producing states for this year's Super Bowl.
Within those states, Miami (27), Houston (24), Los Angeles (18) and Dallas (15) produced the most NFL players, and all four rank among the nation's eight largest metropolitan areas. All four also happen to be warm-weather cities -- New York and Chicago are nowhere to be found. While the Northeast deals with sub-30 temperatures and snow, it's another beautiful day in Los Angeles.
"You can practice all the time," Poly coach Raul Lara said last week. "Right now in Long Beach it's 84 degrees."
Football has become a year-round sport nationwide, but particularly in California, Florida and Texas. There the school season is typically longer; the offseason regimen -- either formally or informally -- begins by January; there are spring practices and games; and summer 7-on-7 passing leagues have become football's answer to AAU basketball.
Which isn't to say warm weather is a prerequisite for producing top talent. Cities like Cincinnati (13), Detroit (13), Cleveland (10) and Pittsburgh (10) also produce Division I and professional talent at a high clip.
Those are all, of course, major metropolitan areas, but there's slightly more to it than that. New York and Illinois (the nation's third- and fifth-largest states, respectively) have traditionally produced more basketball talent, while Pennsylvania and Ohio (the sixth- and seventh-largest states) have a reputation as football states.
"In our communities here, football is important," said Woodland Hills coach George Novak. "Part of it is the Steelers. We're a large market. The community believes that football is important."
So we know there's a lot of talent in Southern California or South Florida. But within those markets, how is it that some schools consistently produce top-level talent?
Simply put, success breeds success.
"Growing up, I was always around the Long Beach area and it was always Poly this, Poly that," said Blandin, who attended most of Poly's home games as a middle schooler. "I always wanted to be a part of that tradition."
For schools that have won multiple state championships or produced a number of college and NFL players -- or, in some instances, all three -- getting talented kids in the first place becomes a much simpler proposition.
Most of these schools are dominant in more than just football. Poly was named the Sports School of the Century by Sports Illustrated in 2005, while Aquinas had both football and track POWERADE FAB 50 national champs in 2010-11. DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.), which had four players on NFL opening-weekend rosters this year, is known just as much for basketball as it is for football.
"When you refer to DeMatha, it's definitely a brand," said football coach Elijah Brooks, "not only in this area but throughout the country. When we're going out and trying to attract kids to come to this school, the track record -- it speaks for itself. Many of the kids that attend DeMatha, they understand the standard and the expectations."
The cynical way of looking at this is that schools are recruiting, or at least drawing the best talent away from other programs. This is certainly true to an extent, especially for private schools, in districts where an athlete can choose his public school, or in the case of transfers -- which are normally prohibited by state associations if they are for athletic reasons.
Such was the case with Gronkowski, who was ruled ineligible by the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League after his father was quoted in Pittsburgh newspapers suggesting part of the reason the two relocated prior to Gronk's senior year was the caliber of play at Woodland Hills -- which has sent more than 90 players on to Division I schools during coach Novak's 25-year tenure -- versus his old high school, Williamsville North (Williamsville, N.Y.). The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association reversed the decision, however, and the rest is history.
But unlike in basketball (at which, it should be noted, Gronk also excelled), where the addition of two players can make or break a squad, football teams need more athletes than schools can realistically recruit, even where it's allowed. And so right or wrong, both public schools (like Poly and Woodland Hills) and private ones (like DeMatha and Aquinas) rely on historic and sustained success to draw talented players.
But talent alone won't get you to college or the NFL. Talent doesn't even necessarily produce a good high school team.
One component for all of these schools is a rigorous tutoring program. Most of these schools have strong academic reputations, and so the football teams employ a variety of tactics to keep players eligible for the season and for college. Some have specifically assigned academic advisors, while others have mandatory after-school or tutoring sessions during the season.
Lest you scoff at the academic component, consider this: In addition to a pair of blue-chippers signing with Miami and the University of Florida, on Wednesday Aquinas will have two players signing with Princeton, one with Yale, one with Penn, and one deciding between Brown and Dartmouth.
"I think it's a compliment to our faculty, they do a tremendous job and it shows that academics are extremely important here at St. Thomas Aquinas," said football coach Rocco Casullo. "These guys understand that you've got to get it done in the classroom, and they do that. And those are guys that turned down Division I schools."
There's also a practical element that attracts recruiters -- convenience. Poly has an academic coach, Monica Kim, who not only helps players but makes sure their information is readily available for interested college coaches.
"She stays late, 'til 8 o'clock tutoring and stuff like that," said Blandin. "Coach Kim, she has everything ready. She always has a profile, a transcript. It's ready to go for a college coach coming."
In the whirlwind recruiting process, coaches can save time by going to a school that not only will have a number of potential Division I players, but players they won't have to worry about academically.
"Colleges consistently return to DeMatha because they know when they recruit a DeMatha kid, he not only is going to qualify to get into college, but he's going to have the preparation to remain there for four years," said Brooks. "When you're dealing with us as coaches, you're not going to have to jump through hoops."
Ready for Whatever
Finally, players from these schools tend to be well-coached, which is important for the increasingly complex offensive and defensive schemes colleges employ. And while players from small schools might put up big numbers against inferior competition, there's no doubt about the players from these schools.
"My practice play and my work ethic was already at a high level," said Blandin. "Going into college, that helps. It won't be shocking to me, I'll be ready to lock and load and earn my spot."
Talent still rules the day when it comes to which recruits will sign with major Division I programs, but student-athletes have significant advantages depending on the school they attend.
"If it comes down to two kids," said Brooks, "a DeMatha kid might get preference over an equally talented player from another school, and that is what our kids invested in when they decided to attend DeMatha. We take pride in having that advantage."