The first Wednesday in February has become an annual ritual for local football players. It’s the day that the area’s best grid prospects put their autographs on collegiate national letters of intent, securing their places in college on full-ride scholarships.
It’s a huge event at some local schools. It’s a chance for the schools to show some pride in their student/athletes, an opportunity for parents and other family members to convene and witness a memorable moment, and it’s the final shot for coaches to heap words of praise on the young men that they had the pleasure of coaching for the past four years.
But more importantly, it’s the first major step for these proud grid warriors, their first real step toward adulthood.
Signing the national letter of intent means you’ve signed a contract with a college. You provide services as a football player. They present you with free tuition and a solid education. It’s a binding contract, a legitimate piece of responsibility.
Because let’s face facts. A good college education costs approximately $30,000 per year now. In some cases it’s even more. So these contracts represent hundreds of thousands of dollars in terms of a commitment. It’s no laughing matter. And it’s definitely a major source of pride.
Thus, National Signing Day has become a major event in Hudson County sports over the years. There have been so many talented football players who have had the chance to gather together on the first Wednesday in February, to bring their family and friends together, give their respective schools some collective pride, and make their coaches beam in glory.
Over the decades, there have been at least 100 players from Hudson County that have put their John Hancocks on scholarship letters on the first Wednesday in February. It’s an astounding number.
Four players sign
This year, you can add four more to the list. Three players from St. Peter’s Prep, namely Corey Davis, Raphael Ortiz and Jake Kaufman, as well as Bryant Worts of Ferris, all signed respective letters last Wednesday.
Kaufman, the 6-foot-8, 340-pound offensive tackle, signed his letter with the University of South Florida of the Big East. You can be rest assured that Kaufman can’t wait for the chance to go up against Rutgers in the years to come.
Ortiz, the brilliant quarterback, signed his letter with William & Mary, where he will eventually get a chance to shine.
Davis, the multi-talented running back/wide receiver/defensive back who last year became one of only a handful of Hudson County players to ever earn Hudson Reporter All-Area honors for three straight seasons, is headed to James Madison University, where he will be a defensive back.
Worts, the 2008 Hudson Reporter Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time All-Area honoree, signed his letter to attend Southeast Missouri State, a school where two former Ferris players currently play and where the head coach, Tony Samuel, is a Jersey City native.
Needless to say, that’s four full rides, more than $400,000 worth of scholarships within a 16-block radius of downtown Jersey City. That’s pretty impressive.
For the Prep players, it’s all part of a regular routine. Ever since 1988, when Prep unleashed its first real class of major college players, National Signing Day is an annual event. Every year, the school opens up its finest conference room, invites the kids’ parents and the media, takes an assortment of pictures and celebrates another parade of Marauder greats moving on.
Rich Hansen, the Marauders’ head coach and school athletic director, doesn’t know the exact total of former players who have signed letters over the years, but it has to be more than 70 since 1988. It means that Prep has sent its products off to major college football with approximately $10 million in scholarship money in their back pockets.
“I never thought about the grand total before, but when you put it in that perspective, it is impressive,” Hansen said. “The whole key is finding the right fit. You don’t want to jump on the first scholarship that comes along. Finding the right place is the challenge.”
Kaufman remained loyal to South Florida, even after the school replaced head coaches last month, firing Jim Leavitt, the coach who first recruited Kaufman, and replaced him with Skip Holtz.
“It was just the right place for me,” said Kaufman, who also considered offers from Georgia, Florida, the University of Miami, and Wisconsin. “I met with Coach Holtz and he wanted me. I was disappointed at first when Coach Leavitt left, but Coach Holtz assured me that I would get a chance. It’s a great place. I’m glad it’s finally over, because it was a stressful process.”
Ortiz had offers from Lehigh, Lafayette and Georgetown, before taking the offer from William & Mary.
“It’s really exciting,” Ortiz said. “I’ve worked for years to get this. I hoped that a day like this would come some day. I wanted to live up to the history and tradition that Prep has had in sending its players to college football. It’s very exciting.”
Ortiz, who will major in business at William & Mary, will more than likely redshirt next year, playing behind Mike Paulus, the brother of former Duke point guard and Syracuse quarterback Greg, who has transferred to W&M from North Carolina.
Davis had offers from Rhode Island and the University of Maine before settling on James Madison.
“It’s a place where I can really see myself being comfortable,” said Davis, who was already decked out in JMU purple for the signing. “I liked the players and the coaches. It’s a place where I think I can do well.”
Davis will also major in business at JMU.
“When I was a little kid, I dreamed of a day like this,” Davis said. “I knew of all the great players who came to Prep and got a chance to go to college. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to be part of that tradition. It feels great to get that chance. It’s really a dream come true.”
Hansen already knows that the tradition will carry on next year, because two of his juniors, namely 2009 Hudson Reporter Player of the Year Savon Huggins and All-Area standout Sheldon Royster, are among the top recruited juniors in the nation. In fact, after the signing was completed Wednesday morning, Hansen took the two juniors to do a television show that CBS Sports is doing on the Class of 2011.
“We’re already getting an instant start on next year,” Hansen said.
A little up the ways on Montgomery Street, Worts was poised to put his pen to paper and sign the letter that secures his trip to Cape Girardeau, Missouri to join former Ferris standouts Chantae “Manny” Ahamefule and Brendan Spann, who already play for the Redhawks.
“It really helped that Coach Samuel is from Jersey City and the other guys are there,” said Worts, who considered offers as well from Maine and Rhode Island. “It’s everything I worked for. It gives me goose bumps to think about it. It’s a great opportunity.”
But Worts will head to Southeast Missouri to play running back, not linebacker, where he was a standout.
“It’s a little bit different, but I know I can do it,” Worts said. “I was shocked when they told me I was going to be a running back. I never thought something like this was possible. I’m pretty fortunate.”
Ferris head coach Wilbur Valdez knows about position changes, because he went from being a linebacker to a fullback at the University of Miami.
“I’m sure he’ll do a good job there,” Valdez said. “This is just a humble kid, a special kid, who always answers with ‘Yes, sir.’ He was never even on a plane before he visited the school recently. I think it helps that Manny and Spann are there and like the way they’re being treated. But I was definitely shocked when they said they wanted Bryant as a running back. I was selling him all along as a linebacker. But they saw what Bryant can do with the ball and they liked it.”
Worts’ signing marked the fifth straight year that Ferris had a player sign on National Signing Day.
“It says a lot about what we’ve been able to build,” Valdez said.
Sure enough, it’s about tradition. It’s about local kids getting a chance to take it to the next level. It’s a moment for all to be proud, because it’s a day where local kids are rewarded for their hard work and dedication. Now, it’s up to them to shine on the collegiate level as well.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.