Welcome to budding world of travel football (cont.)
The visit to Florida State included an abbreviated tour and a meal in the dining hall. Players also visited FSU's practice field, where they walked through an open gate and saw current Seminoles playing their own games of seven-on-seven as part of the team's voluntary summer workouts. Express players exchanged high-fives with Express alumnus Lamarcus Joyner, an FSU freshman defensive back. Meanwhile, Bridgewater, who already has verbally committed to play quarterback at Miami, razzed his future rivals by throwing up the U -- making a U with his hands to symbolize Miami's iconic helmet logo.
Moments after the team boarded the bus, assistant coach Rob Hirsch pulled up CaneSport, a Rivals.com site that covers Miami, on his phone. A message board poster had relayed the news of the visit in real time. "My brother who goes to FSU just texted me that he saw TB and [Express teammate and fellow Miami commitment] Eli Rogers watching practice along with [Express offensive coordinator and former Miami receiver] Kevin Beard," the poster wrote at 5:44 p.m., while the players were still on the practice field. "I just thought this was extremely strange. Anyone know what is going on?"
The team stayed overnight in Milton, Fla., and then waited out a traffic jam on Interstate 10 en route to LSU. Once in Baton Rouge, the players received another abbreviated tour, ending at Tiger Stadium. After visiting the stadium, the players scattered. Some watched LSU's live mascot, Mike, lounge in his on-campus habitat. Others followed Johnson to the football complex, where he had gone to visit his brother.
Express players didn't meet any coaches at LSU, but just as they did at FSU, they watched players take part in voluntary workouts. Then they boarded the bus and got comfortable for the long drive to Oxford, Miss. About 45 minutes into the drive, Goetz received a disturbing call from Peterson, the LSU cornerback, and another from LSU assistant coach Billy Gonzales. Someone from the Express had stolen Peterson's watch from the LSU locker room. A security camera had captured the theft. LSU coaches didn't know the culprit's identity, but they would soon enough by matching Express players' photos with the surveillance video.
Goetz and his fellow coaches fumed. Goetz grabbed a microphone and blasted the players. He told the culprit to send him a text. He wouldn't reveal the player's identity to his teammates, but he would get the watch back. For the next few hours, coaches priced flights and bus tickets and debated whether to ship the offending player home. On the road to Oxford, Goetz received a text from the thief. That night, he collected the watch to send back to Peterson.
After a mostly sleepless night, Goetz decided not to send the player home. Had an SI.com reporter not been in the traveling party, Goetz admitted, he probably would have jettisoned the player. But since doing so would have made the thief so easy to identify, Goetz held back. He wanted the player to learn his lesson, but he didn't want to see him blackballed entirely. That, Goetz admitted, might happen anyway. In the insular college football coaching community, coaches talk.
The next morning, Express coaches sat eating breakfast at a Holiday Inn Express in Oxford. Goetz looked at his phone and sighed. An LSU coach had forwarded him an image of a different player caught on video stealing cleats from the Tigers' locker room. Express coaches and players also declined to name this player, but Goetz said he planned to cut ties with the watch thief and the shoe thief after the trip. Goetz collected the stolen items to send back to Baton Rouge, and it seems unlikely anyone at LSU will press charges, but the incident could have long-term consequences for the players. If the thefts come up in conversation between two gossiping coaches -- and they will, because coaches love to gossip -- those players' scholarship offers will evaporate.
Ole Miss was the only school that truly took advantage of the chance to host 25 star high school football players. Express players never even set foot in the Rebels' practice facility, but the majority of them ranked their visit to Ole Miss as their favorite at trip's end. The school assigned three admissions counselors to explain the school's academic requirements and give the players a tour of campus. Dana Ros, Rachael Shook and Jenny Kate Luster understood their audience. After a brief rundown of the academic requirements to be admitted to Ole Miss, the counselors took the players to The Grove, the nation's finest tailgating spot. There, they explained the Walk of Champions, in which players march through The Grove high-fiving fans on their way to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium for games.
Then the ladies stopped the tour. "Are you ready?" they yelled in unison. Then they got a little dirty.
"Hell yeah! Damn right! Hotty Toddy, gosh almighty, who the hell are we? Flim-flam! Bim-bam! Ole Miss, by damn!"
"The only cheer in the nation with cuss words," Ros said with a tinge of pride.
The counselors also gave the players a more practical look at campus. Ole Miss was the only school to show players a sample dorm room. The counselors also took the players to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. They said most prospective students end their tour at the stadium -- though some begin it there -- because football is so ingrained in the campus culture. Express players emptied out of the stands and onto the field. The massive Garcia caught touchdown passes, while Boyd Anderson High cornerback Corey Tindal ran routes with his body covered in Ole Miss bumper stickers. The counselors bade the team farewell with another rendition of Hotty Toddy, and then the bus rolled back to the hotel for practice.
After the visits and the drama, the players seemed refreshed to be back on the field, even if it was a pockmarked stretch of barely alive grass outside a Holiday Inn Express on a 95-degree day. Coaches handed out wristbands featuring all the offensive plays, and Bridgewater and Beard went to work fixing any flaws in the offensive scheme. Meanwhile, Plantation High's Cash fumed. The Ohio State commitment had surgery to repair knee cartilage less than two months ago, but he had permission from his mother and his future position coach to play in the tournament. He did not, however, have permission from his father, and he couldn't reach his dad by phone before practice began. "He's at Toy Story 3 with a bunch of little kids right now," Cash said. Maybe the notoriously emotional ending to the film would leave Cash's father vulnerable and make him change his mind about the tournament. Cash hoped it would.
Later, players and coaches toured the Square in downtown Oxford. With virtually no one in town because of the upcoming Independence Day weekend, players bored quickly. Ole Miss had lost luster in some of their eyes because of the moribund social scene on that particular night. That changed later when several players stumbled upon a fraternity party held at a sports bar across the street from the hotel. After a night spent dancing and flirting with college girls, Express players held Oxford in high esteem.
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