College Football: How Young Is Too Young?

Apr 5, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Lane Kiffin at spring practice at Howard Jones Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

He’s tall, lanky, and has a cannon for an arm. His personal coach, the renowned quarterback guru Steve Clarkson, has compared him to all-time great signal callers Brett Favre and Fran Tarkenton.

Who is this, you ask? If you guessed USC’s Heisman hopeful Matt Barkley, or some highly recruited high school football star, try again. It’s eighth grader Tate Martell, who just last week gave his verbal commitment to play quarterback for the University of Washington in the fall of 2017.

For a teenager, who is just hitting puberty and not that far removed from attending his first junior high dance, accepting an invitation to suit up for a top college football program, is not at all surprising anymore. The Trojans were the first program to kick off the mini trend by offering a scholarship to 13 year-old quarterback David Sills in 2010, and merely a day later, LSU did the same to 14 year-old Dylan Moses.

On the surface, these commitments mean very little on both sides. Teenagers change their mind as often as their underwear, just about everyday. There is no guarantee that they will feel the same way about these schools tomorrow, next week, or even a few years from now. Heck, there’s even the possibility that these youngsters will end up choosing a different sport all together. From the coaching aspect, who knows if the head coach will still be at their current school, or even running the same offense when the official commitment day comes. There are so many variables involved, and a lot can change seemingly overnight.

However, a deeper look at this issue raises a huge question: how young is too young?

The minute kids, like Sills, Martell, and Moses, accept that offer, the spotlight shines brighter by the day. First, there is the initial national attention that comes with it. Then, the mention of their name on websites like ESPN, Max Preps, and Rivals.com. Word quickly spreads through hometowns and the surrounding areas. The hype quickly builds. Suddenly, everybody wants to come see the latest prodigy and witness his ascent to greatness. Every single move on the football field is dissected with a fine tooth comb.

On top of that, you have these personal coaches like Clarkson, who fuel the hype machine. Comparing Martell to Hall of Fame quarterbacks, who have set records and won super bowls, is utterly ridiculous and unfathomable. Maybe his skill set is off the charts for someone his age, but he hasn’t even stepped foot on a high school or college football field yet. At best, he is a minimum of six years away from reaching the pros. Even that has to be considered a long shot at this point. So many things have to go just right in order for him to reach that highest level.

I am in no way suggesting that Clarkson isn’t a fantastic coach. He’s worked with Barkley, Jimmy Claussen, and Ben Rothlesberger, amongst others. His track record speaks for itself; but that’s a tremendous amount of pressure to be putting on the shoulders of a child that age. There have been countless athletes at the high school, college, and NFL levels who haven’t been able to deal with that kind of continuous scrutiny. How can we expect seventh and eighth graders to?

Only time will tell how the futures of these phenoms will play out. A few might be able to deal with the demands that are placed upon them, even go on to have successful football careers, but most will fall short of these unrealistic expectations.

The culture of college football recruiting is relentless and daunting. It’s one thing to pursue high school players; for the most part, they are more mature and better equipped to handle all the twists and turns that happen throughout the process. When it comes to middle school athletes though, that is where we have to draw the line.

It’s simply pushing too hard, too fast.

Topics: David Sills, Matt Barkley, Steve Clarkson

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  • GoJoeBruinUCLA
  • the-child-in-me

    I appreciate the perspective that sports and competition is healthy, but the fact that college level sports programs are now exploiting kids that aren’t even in high school–that is plain WRONG!!! Let these kids have a chance at being kids, they grow up to become adults soon enough–only 15 +/- being a child, 50-70+/- as an adult. They certainly don’t need “adult” pressures before puberty has even taken complete hold. Kids don’t know the difference at 13; they feel honored and so grown-up, thinking they can handle it. But down the road, when they are 40-50, guess what–that is when the resentment will settle in. Mark my words!

    You only get one chance to be a kid–ONE. Once you take that away prematurely, that moment is lost…forever.

    PS. What a shame that schools only care about the bottom line and NOT the person/child who lives within. Those kids lives just aren’t in the equation. I guess the powers that be have forgotten that they were once kids too :(

  • Paul K.

    The NFL should be putting together a development league and pay young players. If they have real potential they should be getting money for their families as early as the league wants to pay them. Take the European Soccer example. The NFL has plenty of money. College sports should be about scholastic first. Penn State is a great example of a sports program running the entire school into the ground. Ok not necessarily a sports problem, but still, they have too much power. Your article brings up some really interesting topics that should be discussed by the larger community.

    • Mike

      what good does paying young kids do when you can’t put a value on the potential future harm to that child i.e., early physical injuries caused by the extreme pressures of trying to live up to his “potential” as well as all the media hype?

      JUST LEAVE THE YOUNGER KIDS ALONE. PERIOD.

      However, I do agree with your comment that colleges have too much power, and they use it without any regard to human life or well being, except their own! Money always talks