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James Burns: Thousands of recruits blaze their own trail

James Burns, sports editor
James Burns, sports editor

On Wednesday, the world of sports will shine a spotlight on high school career centers, gymnasiums and auditoriums across the country.

The focus: the gems of this recruiting season, athletes like Louisiana Bastrop receiver Reuben Randle.

It's all part of National Signing Day -- the first official day that high school seniors can marry their futures to a college program.

Typically, the act of signing makes for great theatre.

ESPN makes sure of it.

A five-star recruit, usually a teen-aged football player with diamond studs so big you'd swear he was already on an NFL payroll, will sit at a table in front of family, friends and coaches.

He'll smile and wave.

Shake a few hands.

And then in a moment dripping with drama, tug on a team cap -- picking one of the four or five major Bowl Championship Series schools courting him.

The crowd will erupt in applause and cheerleaders will pound their pom-poms to the beat of a victory chant.

Mom will cry.

Dad will thump his chest.

And ESPN will capture it all like it were Game 7 of the World Series, beaming the celebration into living rooms across the country, while guru Todd McShay provides voice-over coverage.

Before the lunch bell rings, this kid will be a national superstar.

Within hours, his face and name will grace every major sports Web site ... like he -- not Santonio Holmes -- caught the Super Bowl-clinching touchdown from Steelers quarterback Big Ben Roethlisberger.

It will be special.

Glorifying.

Over-the-top.

And sadly, a gross misrepresentation of the recruiting season.

The truth is that only a small, small percentage of high school athletes are actively recruited.

An even smaller percentage sign national letter of intents to play a college sport, and only a slice of those fortunate few get to play out the whole process on national TV.

According to Avi Stopper of CaptainU, a college recruiting software company, "1.5 million high school athletes are competing for fewer than 400,000 college roster spots, and only 2 percent of athletes are actively recruited by college coaches."

On Wednesday, the big hands that stir the proverbial pot -- conglomerates like ESPN and Yahoo -- will tell you that Randle or Honolulu linebacker Manti Te'o are the gems of the recruiting season.

And they might be right.

After all, to the victor go the spoils of TV time, webcasts and national notoriety.

Right?

But the real warriors -- the kids we shouldn't forget about on Wednesday as we soak up ESPN's sexy Signing Day coverage -- are the trail-blazing athletes like Chowchilla's Wyatt Seaman.

The kids who have all the talent and potential of a blue-chip recruit, but because of exposure or academic issues have to cut their own path to college.

Their stories are of hardship and sacrifice, small-time success on small-town stages.

By all accounts, Wyatt is one of the finest players to come out of Chowchilla's football factory.

The wingback was flooded with letters and nonbinding promises from schools like Arizona State, Colorado and Boise State during his senior year in 2007-08.

Wyatt had it all, including a few red flags on his transcripts.

He was deemed an academic nonqualifier and spent his National Signing Day tracking others as a spectator.

Not a star.

"There were kids that signed that went to the same camps as me," Wyatt said. "It was painful to know that you're better or as good as another, but for whatever reason you're at a JC."

Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Wyatt started down a new recruiting trail -- the kind that's not often talked about during the buildup for Signing Day, yet cuts a path through this country like Highway 50.

He attempted to walk-on with Nevada-Reno, clinging to another nonbinding promise, this one from UNR assistant Barry Sacks.

Wyatt joined a football class and spent every free moment working out in the shadows of the football program.

He imagined himself running back punts and kicks during midnight cone drills at Mackay Stadium. Or handling the full impact of a safety or linebacker while lifting weights.

"It gets pretty lonely," he said. "I would go home and not know what to do with myself. You're home by yourself. No football practice. No film. I used to hate film and now...

"Now I miss it."

Eventually, Wyatt decided to change directions. Yet again.

The 5-foot-10 lightning bolt is back in the Central Valley now, playing at Fresno City where he hopes to grab the attention of the Cal Poly coaching staff as a slot receiver.

"I'm going to be better for this," Wyatt said. "I'm going to make it happen. Trust me, I'll be D-I."

In less than 24 hours, ESPN will begin its long-winded coverage of "the fortunate few." The gems.

They'll use words like "potential" and "upside." They'll forecast conference crowns, Heisman trophies and national championships.

But the real warriors of the recruiting season are the tens of thousands traveling a path not lined with camera crews or personal cheer sections.

Kids like Wyatt.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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