By Joe Scalzo
“Is it bad that I still think about football every night before I go to bed?”
@Mhandel 223, Jan. 9
Sometime in Dec- ember, soon after Mark Handel led Cardinal Mooney to the Division IV state championship game and became known as the guy who got flagged with the world’s worst pass interference call — “I swear I’m gonna be 40 years old in a bar and someone’s gonna tell me it was a bad call” — he sat down with his parents and made a decision that, in Youngstown, seemed as sacrilegious as putting mozzarella cheese on a Brier Hill pizza or pronouncing the “b” in Campbell.
He decided not to play college football.
He did this even though he had scholarship offers to several schools, including a full ride to Youngstown State. He did this even though he was a first-team all-Ohioan with BCS-level speed. He did this even though he carries a 3.95 GPA and scored a 26 on the ACT. He did this even though he’s barely suffered more than a bruise on the football field. He did this even though his profile photo on Twitter is from ScoutingOhio.com, a website devoted to helping Ohio high school players earn college football scholarships.
Heck, he did this even though his uncle is Ron Stoops, who coaches defense at YSU and whose family is as synonymous with college football as Script Ohio, Hook ’em Horns and Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer.
“I just don’t see it being worth it in the long run,” he said. “It becomes a job at the next level, you know?”
It’s the type of decision that, in 2014, seems smart and sensible and understandable. But in a place like Youngstown, where football is as popular as Mafia jokes and wedding soup, it also seems a little ... well, weird.
How rare is it?
Each year, a little more than 700 high schools field football team in Ohio. Each year, the state produces about 150 Division I prospects. And each year, ScoutingOhio.com director Mark Porter gets hundreds of emails from players asking the same question: What can I do to become one of them?
“Maybe in the general population it’s not that strange to turn down a D-I football scholarship, but to the people I deal with, it’s absolutely insane,” Porter said, chuckling. “Parents would die for it. It’s like hitting the lottery.
“The only time I see a kid turn down a D-I offer is when they go to an Ivy League school. Other than that, with the kids I know, it’s like a never.”
It’s the same story across the country. Last year, Michigan State recruit Jay Harris made headlines when he walked away from a scholarship so he could start a rap career. (It later came out that MSU had already revoked his scholarship when it discovered the only thing more offensive than his rap lyrics was his report card.) A Texas high schooler turned down a scholarship to Baylor to join the Marines. And Mike Farrell, the national recruiting director for Rivals.com, said it’s pretty common for players to turn down football scholarships to play another sport like baseball or basketball.
But that’s not what Handel is doing. He’s planning to attend Ohio State as a regular student.
“To turn down a full ride just because you’re quitting football is very, very rare,” Farrell said.
Scott Kennedy, the director of scouting for Scout.com, isn’t so sure.
“If you went to Ohio State and scouted the intramural fields, you would find dozens of guys who could play I-AA or Division II but opted for a university experience,” he said. “Football is hard. I’ve said for my entire career that playing Division II or Division III is a matter of will moreso than talent in a lot of cases.
“Relatively speaking, Youngstown State is an affordable education for a middle income family and above. The family has to ask themselves if the financial aid is worth the sacrifice it takes to play football. For a lot of kids, the answer is no. And they end up being terrific intramural players at big universities.”
‘Use the game’
Over the last decade, Mooney coach P.J. Fecko has won four state championships and sent close to a dozen players to BCS schools. But when one of his players is deciding where — or if — he should play college football, Fecko follows one rule: Stay out of it.
“Ultimately, it has to be up to the student-athlete and his family, because those are the people who have to live with that decision for the rest of their life,” he said.
But when a player asks for Fecko’s decision, he does have one piece of advice: Use the game, don’t let the game use you.
Are you using football to get scholarship money, or to get into a school that wouldn’t normally accept you, or to get extra help in the classroom (through tutors and study tables and extra accountability) or because you love the game and don’t want to stop playing?
“Well, then you’re using football,” he said.
But if you’re playing because it’s someone else’s dream, whether it’s your parents or your siblings or (yes) your city, then you’re letting the game use you.
“One thing that’s difficult to explain to youngsters today is the fact that what they see on TV is not necessarily what they’re going to see in college,” Fecko said. “They hear about people running through the tunnel at the [Ohio Stadium] Horseshoe or at Notre Dame stadium in front of a packed house and they think they’re going to get there and have all that attention or that glamour. But often, especially at smaller schools, that’s not the case.
“I think you have to look at it and decide, ‘Why are you playing?’ And ask yourself, ‘Do you really want to play?’”
Just one thing. When Fecko was asked if he ever had a player turn down a full scholarship, he said, “It is pretty rare. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it as a coach.”
Four years ago, “To play or not to play?” was an easy question for Donald D’Alesio. Like Handel, he was a standout football player at Cardinal Mooney. Like Handel, he had a scholarship offer to Youngstown State. But unlike Handel, D’Alesio wasn’t ready to quit.
He’s still not, despite suffering several injuries over his four-year career, including a shoulder injury that ended his sophomore season after three games.
“I would do it all over again if I had the chance,” said D’Alesio, who enters his final fall with 31 career starts at safety. “Football is what I love. I’ve been doing it since second grade and I obviously have so much fun, even when I’m practicing.
“Just the people I’ve met, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I have connection with guys from Florida that I’ll have for the rest of my life. Even the coaches I’ve worked with and the lessons they’ve taught us, I wouldn’t change anything. It’s definitely worth it.”
D’Alesio said this on a day when he got up at 5:15 a.m. so he’d be ready for a 6 a.m. practice. He said this even though he spends most of his fall in class, in meetings, in practice or in bed. He said this even though he fully admits he had no idea how much work was involved when he signed his letter-of-intent.
“People see us play on Saturday but they have no idea what goes into it,” he said. “It’s a lot of work to play college football at any level. If you’re not 100 percent sold on giving everything you’ve got, it’s the right choice not to play.”
Porter agreed. A former Kent State tight end, he said playing college football was the toughest thing he’s ever done.
“There’s nothing life can do to me, other than being in the Army or the Navy Seals, that will test me the way it tested me, mentally and physically,” he said. “You’re constantly challenged to be the top dogs of other alpha males. I tell kids all the time,’ Be careful what you wish for.’ There’s a lot of 6 a.m. workouts, training tables, meetings, practices, study tables ... It’s hard when your friends are having a great time and you don’t have 10 minutes for yourself. You’re constantly exhausted, constantly looking to take a nap.”
That’s why so many players burn out. When D’Alesio was a freshman, there were six Mooney players on YSU’s roster. Only D’Alesio survived to his senior year.
“I have coaches tell me, ‘If I sign 22 kids and half see the field by their senior year, that’s a successful class,’” Porter said. “If you get a scholarship, there’s a 50-50 chance you’ll make it, whether it’s grades or injuries or who knows the reason. I don’t think most kids realize that.”
Eyes wide open
Which brings us back to Handel, who has spent the last month playing varsity basketball for the Cardinals but is still sending out tweets like the one at the top of this story. After playing wide receiver in 2012, Fecko switched him to running back this season and he responded by leading the team in rushing (1,350 yards, 14 TDs), receiving (450 yards, 3 TDs), punt return yardage, kicking return yardage and scoring, all while playing lockdown coverage at corner. He was a first team All-Ohioan and The Vindicator’s offensive player of the year and if you ask Porter, he’s plenty good enough to play at a Mid-American Conference school.
“I had him rated as a D-I kid,” Porter said. “He’s a helluva player. He’s definitely got D-I speed. I dare you to find someone on tape that caught him from behind. When he got in the open field, it was over.”
He didn’t get a MAC offer, not that it would have mattered. Unless it was a Big Ten school or one in the Ivy League (he nearly ended up at Yale), his answer was going to be the same. No thanks.
“Nothing against the schools that did offer me a scholarship — I really appreciated it — but I think it depends on how much you truly want to play at the next level,” he said. “It’s a big change from high school. You work out year-round and I think it would have been really hard. I know college wouldn’t be the same as high school, where you’re playing with your best friends and your classmates.”
Money wasn’t a factor. (“I was fortunate enough that my parents and I have been saving for college”). Neither were injuries. (“Me being a smaller guy, I’m sure something would have happened eventually, but it’s not something I was too worried about. I’ve been lucky enough so far.”)
He just decided that the chance to play in his hometown — at his high school stadium, for his uncle, for free — wasn’t for him.
Is it weird? Arguably.
Is it understandable? Definitely.
Is it the start of a trend? Unlikely. Ohio Stadium may have one of the best game day atmospheres in the country, but guys like Handel aren’t used to watching. They’re used to being watched.
“I’m sure I’ll miss it,” Handel said, “no doubt about that.”
If you believe his Twitter account, he already does.