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Football: As high school all-star games gain popularity, questions about their utility arise

POWDER SPRINGS – On a chilly, overcast late December day at McEachern High School, the coach of a three-day-old football team is mad at the referees.

“That’s terrible!” the coach yells after a pass interference call that goes against the National team, the one wearing white and red jerseys in the sophomore game of the Georgia Elite Classic. The reaction from the stands, about one-third full, is less vehement. The parents and classmates there are gathered mostly to support individual players.

The Georgia high school football season had been over for 13 days – and most of the players gathered had been done for much longer – but the sport had one last go in 2017. The Georgia Elite Classic, run by the marketing agency SCORE Atlanta, brought players from around the state together for three days of position meetings, practices and, on the last day, four full-contact games, one for each high school class.

It isn’t the only event of its kind in the state, though, or even the only one played on Dec. 28. That Saturday also saw the GACA All-Star Classic in Warner Robins, which operates much like the Georgia Elite Classic. The next day, the Minority Coaches Association of Georgia held the Senior Bowl Classic at Lakewood Stadium, and on Dec. 31, the Georgia Junior Bowl was played at Mercer University’s Five Star Stadium in Macon.

These kinds of games, which draw numerous players from Forsyth County, are certainly growing in popularity and number. Their true utility and value, though, is less clear.

‘Somebody’s making a lot of money’

Football is unique among high school sports in one important way: When the season is over, so is the sport. Athletes can still stay sharp, with individual camps and passing leagues and similar activities, but there is no travel scene like with baseball, basketball and soccer.

Any opportunity for an athlete to get extra reps in a game situation or expand their highlight tapes, then, is welcome. That was what Noah Mallard, who played sparingly for South Forsyth as a sophomore this past fall, had in mind when he decided to play in the Georgia Elite Classic.

“I tried making a highlight tape this offseason, and I didn’t really see much I could show a coach,” said Mallard, who played offensive line for the National team. “But acting how I did during this game, I feel like I can show more about what I am and how I can play.”

That chance for greater exposure is a deciding factor for many athletes participating in football all-star games. Rusty Mansell, a writer for the recruiting website with more than 36,000 followers on Twitter, was at the Georgia Elite Classic, watching the games and tweeting about players that impressed him. A handful of college coaches came to the practices and games, and I.J. Rosenberg, the founder and owner of SCORE Atlanta, said that one player received an offer from Reinhardt University after the senior game.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you he got the offer because he was at our thing,” Rosenberg said. “I hope it helped.”

High school football all-star games are not a particularly new concept. The U.S. Army All-American Bowl was first played in 1985, and the Under Armour All-America game started in 2008. Those games draw the best players in the country, though, and the lack of postseason opportunities for players at lower levels was part of what inspired Rosenberg to start his event in 2013. At first, the event was only for juniors, but a sophomore game was added in 2015, and 2017 saw the addition of freshman and senior games. 

The allure of making the play that results in an offer brings participants in, but some coaches are skeptical of how much difference one game could make.

“I think that happens with such a small percentage of it, because a lot of these kids have eight to 10 game films that we’ve got from the past years,” West Forsyth head coach Shawn Cahill said. “So to need any more than that … They don’t.”

West Forsyth head coach Shawn Cahill looks at his players as they answer questions from the media at the 2017 Forsyth County Media Day Wednesday, July 26. - photo by Micah Green

College coaches didn’t come out in great numbers at McEachern that Saturday. Almost all of the coaches standing at field level were with high schools, and an NAIA coach who was watching the junior game said that he was there to check on a few seniors.

The games also don’t replicate what athletes see during the high school season. The Georgia Elite Classic used 15-minute quarters, up from the normal 12-minute intervals, and kickoffs, punts, field goals and extra points weren’t defended. Defenses also weren’t allowed to blitz, which forced Forsyth Central linebacker Jackson Leak out of his typical edge-rusher role and relegated him to coverage.

There’s also the matter of payment. Rosenberg started the Georgia Elite Classic with the idea of it being a free event, but the costs of the event -- from the accommodations and gear provided to the players to what Rosenberg said was a staff of more than 100 people working the games -- put that out of the question.

“We’ve created a price structure where we can make it work and not lose money,” Rosenberg said.

Forsyth Central linebacker Jackson Leak walks off after a play against Dawson County during a game on Aug. 25, 2017 at Forsyth Central High School. - photo by Brian Paglia
The source of that money varied from athlete to athlete. North Forsyth defensive back Honus Wagner said the school’s booster club paid his way, but Leak and Mallard said that their parents handled the cost. All of the West players participating in games paid their own way, too.

Mallard’s parents, at least, had no problem contributing.

“They said they really wanted me to try this, because they really want me to get an offer,” Mallard said.

The Georgia Elite Classic charged players $395, and the GACA game is in that range as well. The Georgia Junior Bowl, which North offensive lineman Jeremy James played in, had no cost, while the Blue-Grey All-American Bowl, a national event that West senior offensive lineman Blake Anderson is set to play in, costs more than $2,000.

“My thought is if you’re going to have an all-star game, don’t charge the kids,” Cahill said. “A lot of these are 400 and 500 dollars for the kid to go play: You put 80 kids on a team, somebody’s making a lot of money off of that.”

‘The last hurrah’

Cahill leans towards skepticism when it comes to all-star games. He isn’t a fan of the cost, doesn’t buy into them being serious opportunities for exposure, and is wary of the potential for coaches to engage in “underhanded recruiting” with players from other high schools.

“It doesn’t have to be flat-out (saying) ‘Come play for us,’” Cahill said. “It’s something as simple as, ‘Hey, you’d fit in great in our system, I wish we had a kid like you.’ The kid starts thinking, so you’ve got to be real careful with them.”

But he recognized that the games have some utility, like the chance for players to measure their abilities against those of high-level prospects and see what level of college football is the best fit. That can pay off at the high school level, too: Forsyth Central head coach Frank Hepler said that all-star games can give coaches an idea of players’ potential heading into the next season, which Bulldogs linebacker/defensive end Mitchell Weber did with a strong performance in the GACA sophomore game.

The main thing Hepler keeps an eye on is whether a game is a blatant ploy to make money off of athletes, and he said the main games in Georgia are above that. Rosenberg said that the revenue from player participation only goes so far.

“We don’t look at this as a profitable event,” Rosenberg said.

And this much was clear, even as the warm glow of the sun was gradually overtaken by clouds on that chilly afternoon in Powder Springs: High school football still has considerable power in this state.

A running back in the sophomore game lost his helmet during a carry but kept rolling forward, even after the whistle sounded, and a voice from the stands yelled in approval: “That’s beast mode, son!” Spectators got into the energy of the games, cheering for plays that didn’t involve the players they came to see, and the sophomore game was competitive, ending in a 38-35 win for the National team.

The games might not have been true recruiting showcases, and the offers might not come for all the participants, but that isn’t the whole point.

“The parents in that last (senior) game and the kids were just having a blast,” Rosenberg said. “… Because they realized, this is it. It's sort of the last hurrah.”