Welcome to the budding world of elite travel football, recruitniks
Express travel team visited four schools, participated in national 7-on-7 tourney
Team endured NCAA issues, traffic jams, larcenous members, severe flatulence
Burgeoning sport of elite travel football could someday mirror AAU basketball
SI.com's Andy Staples recently accompanied the South Florida Express travel team, which includes 25 of Florida's top prospects, on an unofficial recruiting trip to a national tournament and four schools in the South. From The Grove to South Beach, Staples got a firsthand look of what it's like to be a top recruit. This is the first installment of a five-part series.
SOMEWHERE ON THE FLORIDA TURNPIKE -- Wayne Lyons had stretched his body into a position no normal human would find comfortable. Lyons, a blue-chip defensive back from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., sprawled across two bus seats, his legs dangling into the aisle. He slept soundly.
While Lyons dozed, his South Florida Express teammates sitting in the rear of the bus hatched a plot. The mastermind was B.J. Dubose, a star defensive end at Northeast High in Oakland Park, Fla. The first of their coaches who dared enter the bus bathroom would find himself trapped inside, the door braced by coolers and elite athletes.
Brett Goetz, the Fort Lauderdale stock broker who created the traveling seven-on-seven team two years ago, knew his players far too well to fall for their ruse. Still, he had his own issues. As he sat in the first row, Goetz pressed an iPhone to his ear.
"Which NCAA rule is it?" Goetz asked, knowing he didn't want to hear the answer to his question. In the next few hours, Goetz would receive an unpleasant piece of NCAA news, one of his assistant coaches would be locked in the bus bathroom for several hilarious minutes and several players would commandeer the bus microphone for a freestyle rap contest that didn't conclude until every passenger had been properly skewered. Only hours into the six-day trip, Goetz stood in the aisle and yelled to no one in particular.
"I've lost [bleeping] institutional control!"
Welcome to the nascent world of elite travel football, the burgeoning sport that could someday mirror AAU basketball, with apparel companies footing the bill for teams loaded with top prospects to criss-cross the country to face other teams loaded with top prospects. Until that happens, Goetz will continue to scrounge for sponsor dollars, cut deals with bus companies and stay only in hotels that offer a free hot breakfast. Last week, Goetz allowed SI.com to ride along as his 25-man team -- made up of some of the best skill-position players in South Florida -- visited colleges en route to the Badger Sports Elite 7-on-7 National Championship in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Along the way, the Express endured NCAA issues, traffic jams, larcenous team members and the combined flatulence of 33 males cooped up in a bus. Players also formed friendships that will last long after their return home. They devoured 26 slabs of ribs, a gallon of baked beans and five quarts of banana pudding at a world-famous barbecue joint. At the tournament, some turned in performances that will draw more scholarship offers. Best of all, they took home a national title.
Goetz already has a name in the world of college football recruiting. It's just not the name he wants. During an interview with a BCS-conference head coach in May, Goetz's name was mentioned. "Oh," the coach said. "The Ohio State guy."
Goetz acquired that reputation because linebacker Etienne Sabino, one of the players from the Optimist Club football league Goetz runs in Miami Beach, signed with the Buckeyes two years ago along with Dr. Krop High teammate Travis Howard. Goetz has taken other prospects to Columbus while visiting Sabino. He also has taken players to his alma mater, Florida, and to a variety of other campuses, but Ohio State is the one everyone associates with Goetz. For the tournament trip, Goetz made plans to stop at Florida State, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State so his players -- most of whom are heavily recruited -- could tour the campuses and meet with coaches in what the NCAA terms "unofficial" visits. After the tournament, which took place on Alabama's campus, Goetz planned a stop in Gainesville.
"This is the cover-up trip," Goetz said, laughing at his reputation as a shill for the Buckeyes. Sabino and Howard, Goetz said, were turned on to Ohio State by the late Sonny Spielman, a Dr. Krop assistant coach and the father of former Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman. Goetz admits he likes the Buckeyes' staff and program, but he said he appreciates a lot of excellent programs. That's why he wanted his players, most of whom can't afford to pay for multiple unofficial visits, to see as many campuses and coaches as possible on the trip.
Unfortunately for Goetz, the NCAA had other ideas.
The Express assembled at 6:30 a.m. on June 29 in Hollywood, Fla. On the bus were Lyons and Dubose, who have each received more than 30 scholarship offers. Joining them were Boyd Anderson High linebacker Kent Turene, who is coveted by most of the programs in the top 25, and Miami Southridge High defensive backs Gerrod Holliman and Andrew Johnson, who each hold more than 20 scholarship offers. The team also featured committed players such as Plantation High linebacker Ryan Shazier (Florida), Plantation safety Jeremy Cash (Ohio State) and Miami Northwestern quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (Miami).
Also on the bus were players seeking more exposure. Plantation linebacker Jerome Howard, who has offers from Marshall and Florida Atlantic, hoped to drop off a highlight video at Mississippi State. Plantation safety Terrance Mitchell, whose only offer is from Kentucky, hoped to raise his profile and meet more coaches. North Broward Prep receiver A.J. Sebastiano hoped to play his way into his first scholarship offer. Meanwhile, several potential blockbuster members of the class of 2012 came along to get a taste of what to expect from the recruiting process. Ely High receiver Avery Johnson, the younger brother of LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson, came to see schools (LSU, Alabama, Florida) that already have offered him scholarships. Meanwhile, University School offensive tackle Abraham "Nacho" Garcia was invited so he could visit schools and use his 6-foot-5, 347-pound frame to give Bridgewater a massive target on goal-line plays.
Goetz called each school's coaching staff weeks in advance to set up the visits. While official visits -- trips paid for by the school -- are off-limits until Sept. 1 of a prospect's senior year, the NCAA allows coaches to host players who pay their own way to campuses with few exceptions. A few hours into the trip, Goetz and the Express learned about one of the exceptions.
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