Welcome to budding world of travel football (cont.)
The Express had been scheduled to visit Mississippi State on the morning of July 2, but the impending holiday weekend made it impossible for the school to arrange a tour. Plus, the late night in Oxford had wiped out the players' energy reserves. So Goetz decided to skip Starkville, Miss., and travel directly to Tuscaloosa.
At about 2 p.m., the bus pulled into a Tuscaloosa institution. Players piled into the original Dreamland Barbecue, where 26 slabs of ribs awaited. Talking ceased as servers handed out plates piled high with pork spareribs. After about 30 minutes, it became clear that three Express players had a particular affinity for ribs. Shazier, Rogers and Bridgewater had accrued massive piles of bones. Naturally, the future Gator and the two future Hurricanes had to determine which school would sign the superior rib-eater. So they counted the bones.
In the 2000 presidential elections, dangling chads commanded the attention of the nation. In the 2010 Dreamland Eat-off, a dangling piece of bone caused the controversy. As he was counting his bones, Shazier discarded a small piece of bone. He didn't count it, but Rogers thought he had. So, when Shazier was declared the winner for eating 18 ribs (a slab and a half), Rogers challenged the result. Video evidence determined Shazier was the champ.
Players dropped their belongings at their hotel and headed to the Alabama football complex for a Friday night skills competition against other players. There, they met the Mamba.
According to Rivals.com, the nation's No. 5-rated prospect in the class of 2011 is named De'Anthony Thomas. No one calls him by that name, though. To everyone who follows recruiting, the cornerback/tailback/receiver/kick returner from Crenshaw High in Los Angeles is known as the Black Mamba.
Obviously, another high-profile Los Angeles athlete (Kobe Bryant) claims that nickname, but when Snoop Dogg bestows a sobriquet on a Pop Warner player -- as he did for a young Thomas -- the name tends to stick. The Black Mamba was the star of the 1925 All-Stars, the Los Angeles-based team coached by offensive coordinator Keyshawn Johnson and defensive coordinator Brian Kelly (the former Tampa Bay cornerback, not the Notre Dame coach). As the players waited to receive their jerseys for the tournament, Express players and 1925 All-Stars mingled. Despite the fact that all 14 teams in the tournament featured college prospects, it became immediately apparent that the Express and the 1925 were on a collision course.
The teams returned to their respective hotels to rest for the tournament. While the Express slept, bus driver Eduardo Ibertis waited at a garage as a mechanic fixed the bus' broken air conditioner. For ensuring the air conditioner was fixed before the trip back to Florida, Ibertis was the unsung hero of the trip.
The schedule originally called for the teams to meet Saturday afternoon in a preliminary round, but organizers quickly changed it to ensure the best of the east wouldn't meet the best of the west until Sunday's single-elimination round -- preferably in the final.
Saturday, the teams lived up to their billings. The Express won its four games against teams from Georgia, Tennessee and Michigan. Bridgewater and receivers Brandon Snell (Miami Norland High) and Jessie York (Boyd Anderson High) were the offensive stars. Dubose came on the trip to play tight end, but he found a new role when he was inserted at linebacker to shut down 6-6 Memphis tight end Cameron Clear.
Mitchell emerged as the chief trash-talker for the Express. His go-to phrase? "I'm eatin," Mitchell said, acting as if he was downing huge spoonfuls of food from an enormous bowl. The gesture made opposing receivers want to throw up, and it so infuriated one official that he ordered coaches to remove Mitchell from a game for a series. Mitchell later apologized to his teammates for going overboard, but he didn't stop eatin'. "I think I've got a tapeworm," Mitchell yelled on the sideline after one defensive stop. "I've eaten so much. I'm still not full."
Playing one-hand-touch football with no linemen, the Express went 4-0 in Saturday's round-robin. The 1925s went 4-0 also. The defense, led by the Black Mamba, gave up only one touchdown all day.
That night, Express players mingled with 1925 players at a barbecue thrown by tournament organizers. When 1925 players, many of whom are committed to USC, realized that the Trojans were recruiting Turene of the Express, they huddled around Turene and answered many of his questions about the program and the school. (This would be important later.) Meanwhile, Lyons -- who has UCLA on his list of potential schools -- chatted with 1925 quarterback Jerry Neuheisel, the son of UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel. The younger Neuheisel also tried in vain to woo some of his teammates as Johnson, a former Trojan, extolled the virtues of USC. "Hey Key," Neuheisel said. "If they like bowl games, they'll go to UCLA." Johnson laughed and fired back: "Hey Jerry, if they like bowl games, they won't go to UCLA."
Today's teens have a saying: Game recognize game. It means that the best at anything will instantly offer respect when confronted with an obvious peer. At the barbecue, South Florida players and Southern California players didn't talk trash to one another. They only compared notes. As the barbecue ended, more than a dozen people -- including several top prospects -- stopped the Black Mamba and asked if he'd take a picture with them. Express players watched, knowing they would get their shot at the Mamba and his team the next day.
Sunday's early games played out as expected. The 1925s beat a team from Texas to reach the final, and the Express -- playing with Cash, who received last-minute permission from his father after sitting out Saturday -- pounded a team from Louisiana to reach the final. The teams met at midfield, and the trash talk began. It continued through the game, but on the side where the Mamba covered Ely High's Johnson, it was quiet.
Johnson scored the game's first touchdown, and the 1925s answered with a touchdown pass to Class of 2012 USC commitment Jordan Payton. The teams traded touchdowns again, but Holliman's interception of a conversion attempt allowed the Express to cling to a 14-13 lead. On the next Express play, Bridgewater hit Johnson on a 10-yard hitch. Johnson exploded upfield and outran the entire defense for a 40-yard touchdown. "That just doesn't happen in seven-on-seven," Goetz said of the play. Players emptied off the Express sideline and dogpiled Johnson. The Express failed on its one-point conversion attempt, but when Lyons broke up a pass intended for USC commitment Victor Blackwell, the Express clinched the win and the national title.
"That's the way you do it, Sports Illustrated," Miami Columbus High cornerback Deon Bush yelled. "Miami, 305, we're in the building. The best football in America."
The players won't all stay in South Florida after high school. After the title, Holliman and Southridge teammate Johnson decided to go public with their commitments to Ole Miss, given two weeks earlier on an unofficial visit sweep of the southeast led by Southridge coach Patrick Burrows. The next day, Turene would call USC assistant Willie Mack Garza and decide to go public with his commitment to the Trojans. Turene has yet to even see USC, but he plans to visit in a few weeks.
Players celebrated their title with a meal at Ryan's, an all-you-can-eat buffet in Tuscaloosa. Coaches wisely covered their drinks with napkins to avoid salt sprinkles from mischievous players, and players loaded up on fried chicken and ice cream. That combination would prove almost lethal in a closed space during the eight-hour drive to Gainesville for the tour's next stop.
The bus rolled into Gainesville at about 1 a.m. Players either went to bed or walked to a 24-hour McDonald's. Later Monday morning, the bus arrived at Florida's campus for a true unofficial visit. Because NCAA rules forbid schools from publicizing a recruit's visit, SI.com was not allowed to follow as Florida assistant D.J. Durkin showed Express players the Gators' facilities.
In interviews later, Turene and Lyons -- two Florida targets -- said they watched video with Durkin that showed how each would be used in Florida's defense if he chose the Gators. Other than that, Florida coaches barely used the advantage they'd received from the NCAA rule. The tour was short and sweet, and Express players were munching pizza at a local buffet less than two hours later.
During the final team meal before the return trip to South Florida, Dubose approached his coaches and offered a handshake and a thank-you for bringing him on the trip. Goetz smiled. That thank-you, he said, made everything -- the fund-raising, the out-of-pocket expense, the missed work and the lost sleep -- worthwhile.
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