This Saturday in San Antonio, Texas, the nation's top 90 high school football players will once again gather to display their athletic prowess on a national stage at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. For the past 14 years, this year-end tradition has showcased top preps such as Adrian Peterson, Tim Tebow, Andrew Luck, Michael Oher, Reggie Bush, Vontaze Burfict and Ndamukong Suh.The game will be televised live on NBC at 1 p.m.
This year's athletes are the biggest, fastest, strongest and quickest at their positions. They are the enviable owners of off-the-chart statistics that make many of them look like they produced those numbers playing Madden. They attended off-season testing at local and national combines that are showcase events. And they entertained scholarship offers from many of the nation's top schools.
Many of them have one more thing in common.
Six years ago, Football University (FBU) was created to train the nation's top football athletes from sixth grade through 12th grade. The highlight of the three-day "mini-camps" is a specialized curriculum overseen by legendary coaches from the National Football League like Hall of Fame player Rod Woodson, Howard Mudd, Jim McNally and long-time assistant coach Bob Wylie.
From the 2014 All-American class, 25 players participated in previous training sessions. Connor Mayes, an offensive lineman from Van Alstyne, Texas, attended 10 camps since the sixth grade. Kyle Allen (Scottsdale, Ariz./Desert Mountain H.S.), who is arguably the nation's top quarterback prospect in 2014, attended the Phoenix-area camp this past summer. The list goes on.
The FBU program was founded by Rich McGuinness, a former NCAA Division II wide receiver who started the U.S. Army All-American Bowl 15 years ago, along with his partner, Doug Berman. They relished producing the annual showcase event but noticed a real gap in the training of these top preps.
"They were tremendously gifted with great physical ability, but many lacked proper technique," said McGuinness. As he and Berman tracked more than 1,500 All-Americans, they calculated only 25 to 30 percent would be good enough to play in the NFL. "The rest of the pack caught up to them physically," Berman said, "and their lack of technique was a deciding factor."
The difference between a successful NFL career and a great college career was a matter of degree, they concluded. "Tom Brady and Wes Welker would not have made our All-American team because they would not have blown you away physically by the time they hit 11th grade," McGuinness said. "However, their quest for technical perfection at their position over the next few years has been the difference in their careers."
McGuinness and Berman constructed the training program for young football athletes who demonstrated good physical ability and were at the top of their grade and position. The program stressed technique to complement the player's physical ability. The key ingredient was then finding respected football personnel who could explain it better than anyone else. "There were about 50 to 60 retired NFL coaches who were considered 'master coaches' based on their NFL pedigree," Berman says. "They were the great teachers of football technique."
At the time, many of the coaches were jumping in and out of the profession and many were training top college athletes for the NFL Draft. "We scooped up the elite coaches and had them focus on the top youth and prep athletes," McGuinness said. "It was an unbelievable match; top young athletes who were looking and deserving of elite-level NFL coaching and NFL legends excited to put their stamp on talented athletes." The FBU program was not designed for the average athlete. Berman suggests, "It was built for the best and the hungry; it is not for everyone."
What drives the FBU engine is its national scouting network. Operating national All-Star games for 14 years, FBU has forged relationships with scouting companies like 247Sports and thousands of prep and youth football coaches from around the country who provide feedback on top athletes.
The FBU national identification program, titled I-350, seeks to identify the top 350 football players in 38 U.S. cities, Canada and Europe from 6th to 12th grade. From this national and international network, FBU invites the top athletes to train. At 200 to 250 total slots per mini-camp, there's room for only a select few athletes compared to the tens of thousands who play prep football each year. "When you consider the number of slots at each position and each grade, it really is a small group—about six to eight athletes," McGuinness says.
In addition to the scouting system, FBU opens the program to "walk-ons" who may nominate themselves online. "There is no way to cover the entire country, no matter how hard we try," explained McGuinness. Football is played throughout America by great athletes. This year, FBU expect 18,000 athletes to nominate themselves, up from 15,000 last year. "The goal," McGuinness says, "is to not miss anyone."
Besides the intense training, every camp features a former college coach with experience in the recruiting world to provide an evaluation per athlete starting in the 8th grade. This report is sent to more than 100 colleges. "The colleges realize that the FBU training will make them better college football players and ready to step on the field earlier," McGuinness believes. "We get more colleges asking for our 8th grade top-100 list than ever before."
The FBU training program is unique on two other levels. It is not facility-based, which would require athletes to travel across the country and pay exorbitant costs. The FBU program is conducted at high schools in 38 major markets from April to July. And, it is affordable.
"Our NFL coaches told us they needed a field and a classroom, nothing fancy," Berman says. "By taking these NFL legends to 38 cities, most of our athletes and parents can drive to each camp."
For the FBU athlete, McGuinness emphasized it's all about accessibility and affordability. "At about $35 an hour, the cost is equal to piano or gymnastics lessons, but the difference is that we load the program into three days for a total of about 18 hours. We also developed a payment plan so every parent can finance the tuition if needed." Parents are urged to participate all weekend and have their own classroom training on an array of hot topics related to athletic development and recruiting. "A lot has changed over the past 25 years, and parents need to know more," McGuinness says.
Hundreds of college and NFL athletes are FBU alumni. Twenty-five All-Americans in the Class of 2014 trained at FBU, most in the program's brief history. In addition, the companion youth all-star games played in San Antonio, which includes the Eastbay All-American Game, showcasing the nation's top 7th and 8th graders, boast 55 All-Americans who trained at FBU.
FBU also organizes All-Star football teams in 64 cities, featuring the top 6th, 7th, and 8th graders from across the country. McGuinness believes they have constructed the largest and most efficient pipeline for the nation's top football players. "We see them from coast to coast, from the 6th grade to the 12th grade, and most importantly, we see them live."
McGuinness and Berman are excited to watch this year's crop of All-Americans, casting an eye on the FBU alumni. They are hesitant to predict who will make the NFL and who might not. Says McGuinness, "Given their FBU training, we expect big things from them this weekend and in the future."
Starting in April, they are excited to see the next class of All-American training at FBU.
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