Academics for so many high school football players have become an afterthought. If not for football, high school would not even be an option. They’d drop out. No concern for the future.
No matter how much society preaches the importance of education, there are still those who never quite grasp its true impact.
This year alone, 33 of the Top 100 senior football players in Central Florida were unable to qualify for NCAA admission. It’s a baffling number. It’s a huge problem with no end in sight.
But the ones who do qualify should be celebrated, of course. There are hundreds of student/athletes every year who use sports to land a free college education.
Then there are guys like Alec Thompson of Winter Garden Foundation Academy and Jake Lawton of Orlando Bishop Moore. For them, football has never been the way to get an education. In fact, for these two, real “student/athletes,” academics have been a way for them to continue playing football.
“For me, football opened up more doors to places I never thought I would be able to go,” says Thompson, a quarterback at Foundation who will be enrolling this summer at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, the top-rated undergraduate engineering school in the world by U.S. News and World Report.
“Like if I went to an Ivy League school, football would have propelled me there because compared to the regular kids who go to those schools I’m not the same as them with the test scores and GPA.”
But, of course, his test scores and GPA aren’t too shabby, either. Thompson, who also considered Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Carnegie-Melon and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), achieved a 4.9 GPA on a 5.0 scale, and his ACT composite score was 29.
Lawton, a linebacker who averaged almost eight tackles per game during his senior season, is headed to Bucknell University, a small school in Lewisburg, Pa. The Bison play in the Patriot League and Bucknell is ranked as one of the Top 35 liberal arts colleges in the nation in the 2014 edition of Best Colleges.
“That was our goal from the beginning. We searched out all of the Patriot League schools and sent e-mails to all of them,” said Lawton, who finished with a 3.6 GPA and had an 1150 score on the two-part SAT. “It was kind of crazy actually because it was either go to one of these really good [academic] schools or bust and go to Florida State, so I’m very thankful.”
Lawton said he would not have tried to walk-on at FSU, instead enrolling as a regular student.
“I think it would have been the end, but thank God for Bucknell because now I get to continue doing what I love,” Lawton said.
It’s a different path than the way most college hopefuls see their trip to the future. For these two, and a select few other players around Central Florida, like Bushnell South Sumter salutatorian Elijah English, a defensive end headed for Georgetown, football will be truly extra-curricular.
It won’t exactly be Football U., but not all roads are paved with pigskin.
“Whenever I tell someone I’m going to Bucknell, either they have no idea where it is or they’re like, ‘Oh, I know somebody from Bucknell. It’s a really great school. It’s good. It brings a smile to my face every time I’m able to tell somebody I’m going to that school.
“The day I found out, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.”
The educational focus for the Thompson family got going from the early part of his high school days, when he transferred from Groveland South Lake to Foundation, where younger brother, 2017 WR-CB Evan also plays.
“Academics have always been my first priority and football kind of came next. When I was looking at schools, I would search all engineering schools, not the best football schools,” said Thompson, who threw for 1,375 yards and 12 touchdowns on 91-of-184 passing last season.
While one could jump to the conclusion that this is a tale of wealth and privilege, it is not. It’s about focus and prioritizing. Hard work, determination and will power are the ingredients that make talented football players. For some reason, however, those traits are overcome by laziness, lack of motivation and direction when it comes to academics.
It’s funny how it works. A football coach can stand on a football field, call a player a moron and tell him to run through a wall. The player hits the wall, no questions asked. If a teacher asks a student nicely to bring back a homework assignment the next day, the task will be met with excuses as to why it was not done and questions as to why it’s important in the first place.
We’ve been running into the same wall since players put on leather helmets. If there has ever been a classic example of failure to learn from the past, it’s today’s failure to learn … period.
To think that some of the best football players in the entire country, 33 of them from right here in a seven-county region, failed to qualify for admission should be embarrassing … to the schools, the teachers, the coaches, the parents and most of all, the student/athlete.
Chris Hays is the Sentinel's recruiting coverage coordinator and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter at @Os_Recruiting and Facebook at Orlando Sentinel Recruiting, and on Instagram at os_recruiting.