TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — High school football players representing the class of 2020 accomplished something unprecedented this year, playing a full season through a global pandemic.
But as those rightful celebrations came to an end the long-term effects of COVID-19’s role in high school football lingered on, leaving many to wonder simply, what’s next?
“You got a lot of great kids at this school and all over Leon County, South Georgia and again all over the country that have worked extremely hard, that deserve a chance and are good enough to go play college football," said Florida High head football coach Jarrod Hickman. "But without having a season, with seniors being granted a chance to come back where do they fit in.”
The NCAA’s decision to grant a full year of eligibility back to college athletes who missed their season due to the coronavirus was met with much support.
That decision created a domino effect, shaping high school fall recruiting.
“The roster management right now is just a nightmare, it’s a challenge. Obviously, with us not having a season and the NCAA granting everybody another year of eligibility, meaning that in the 2021 season all of our seniors will still be seniors, our juniors will be juniors, and so forth," says Valdosta State head football coach Gary Goff. "With all of our seniors coming back and not freeing up any scholarship dollars what do you do.”
With a lack of scholarships and overall capital, college football programs have turned to offer some recruits with “preferred walk-on” spots. Meaning high school student-athletes from all walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds are now having to find a way to come up with the money to pursue their dream as a college football player.
“They sit down with them at the end of the visit and they give him their offer sheet and there’s a little sticker shock. And they say, 'hey you come in here and you win a starting job and you do what we ask you to do.' We’ve got these seniors that are leaving, we can revisit this number," adds Thomasville head football coach Zach Grage. "With the intent of saying,'We’re going to be able to increase that and this should be the highest amount you have to have to pay for your four years of school here.'”
While these young men, most of whom are 18 years old or younger, battle an altered new reality in college athletics, a new beast has emerged to wreak even more havoc.
“It’s a combination of two things. COVID-19 has really backed things up and made it very hard for these kids to get exposure back in the spring and the transfer portal," says Hickman.
In NCAA division one football alone the transfer portal has skyrocketed, seeing up to over 100 student-athletes in a single week enter their name into the growing pool of those hoping to find a new home.
“With the portal, I mean let’s be honest our rosters could change tomorrow, our rosters could change all the way up until July right before we’re expected to get into camp," Goff added. "It is a new challenge, there’s nothing we can do about that, My advice to young men is be careful. Know what you want, know what your opportunities might be or might not be. Because I’ve learned from experience, the grass is not always greener on the other side.”
High school football programs now have to reestablish the love for the game of football to offset the trickle-down effects of the Transfer Portal.
“But just getting these kids to still love football and still love Thomasville and still love where they’re from, I think that’s one of those lost arts that’s slowly dwindling," Grage says. "And I hope I’m not around when it comes to the fact of open game, and the 7 on 7’s become more important than the Friday night lights."