0

Small school, Big Talent

It's become a yearly occurrence at Buford High School. Every February, on the first Wednesday of the month, a handful of seniors sit down at a table in the school's cafeteria and sign football scholarships to Division I-A universities.

Most Class AAAAA high schools in the county and state are lucky to have one college football signee on their roster. Buford seemingly has a stockpile every year, as evidenced by Wednesday's ceremony on National Signing Day.

The Wolves had four players from the 2005 squad sign national letters of intent with

I-A football programs on Wednesday and another - fullback Jordan Grant - sign with I-AA institution Tennessee-Chattanooga.

"It's a source of pride," Buford head coach Jess Simpson said. "It's an exciting thing. Honestly, it's not a point of focus during the year, but hopefully it's just a product of the program and the level of talent that's in our program."

Lineman Steven Singleton signed with LSU, quarterback Justin Roper inked with Oregon, defensive back Matt Pridemore signed with Duke and defensive end Justin Curry decided on North Carolina.

Most Gwinnett high schools would be completely overwhelmed by having four D-I players officially sign on one day. For Buford, it's ho-hum.

Since the 2000 season, the Wolves have had 28 players sign football scholarships, including 18 to Division I-A programs.

"We take a lot of pride in that," said Buford athletic director Dexter Wood, the school's football coach for 10 years before stepping down before last season. "It's a lot of recognition for the school and the community, but the most exciting thing is what it means to the kids.

"They get to realize their childhood dreams of getting a college scholarship."

But what role does the Buford program itself play in helping realize that dream?

After all, it can't be a coincidence that every year the Wolves have Division I players despite being one of the smallest schools in the county.

"We've had several kids over this stretch that have gotten only one scholarship offer," Wood said, "and we feel like part of the reason they get that offer is because they play at Buford High School."

Said Roper: "It gives us a leg up. Buford is now a renowned program and the (college) coaches around the country know our the coaches here are really good."

The quarterback certainly isn't alone in that opinion.

"I think it does help," Pridemore said. "Coach Wood and Coach Simpson have reputations for being able to produce college football players."

Especially in recent years.

Buford won the Class A state championship in 2001, and two players signed I-A scholarships that year - quarterback Lorne Sam to Florida State and lineman Aaron Scranton to Georgia.

The next year, Buford sent two more to the major college level with lineman Trey Chandler and wide receiver/defensive back Mikey Henderson both inking with the Bulldogs.

Then came 2003.

On what was perhaps the best small-school football team this state has ever seen, a whopping nine players signed football scholarships, including seven to Division I-A universities.

Most notable among the signees was record-breaking running back Darius Walker, who signed with Notre Dame and has since become a household name among college football fans across the nation.

"That was kind of a dream team," Wood said.

Said Simpson: "That team was ridiculous. We have a senior picture of that team hanging in our hallway (at the fieldhouse) and you walk by it and just shake your head. If we didn't win all our games that year we should have all been fired."

During that National Signing Day two years ago, players like Pridemore and Singleton and Curry were sitting in the bleachers, with hundreds of other Buford students, watching the ceremony.

"I remember when I was watching Darius and those guys," Pridemore said, "the whole time I was watching I was hoping, 'Golly, I hope I'm up there one day.'"

And that's what happens at Buford. The younger players see the seniors in the spotlight, posing for pictures and signing with prestigious universities and believe that it will be them up there one day, if they continue to work hard.

"It inspires them even more," Roper said.

Wood is quick to point out that the prestige of the Buford program can only do so much. The player has to have the ability first and foremost to have a college interested in them at all.

Just because a kid plays for Buford doesn't mean Georgia or Auburn will be knocking on their door during the recruiting season.

"We've had a lot of great kids, but God didn't make them 6-foot-6 and weigh 290 pounds," Wood said. "You have to have the ability, and you have to have the size and the weight as well."

But when Buford does have a kid with the mix of ability and size, there is almost no chance he's going to be overlooked by college scouts.

"There's no doubt," Simpson said. "The product has been proven by the kids that have come through here. Because hopefully when they leave here, they know how to work hard and they know that football is important.

"And the exposure that our guys have gotten has attributed to other guys getting a look as well."

The tradition feeds itself. The more Buford players that sign with colleges, the more colleges will look at Buford players.

It's to the point now where it's getting hard to keep track of all the Wolves playing at the next level.

"Years ago I started collecting mini-helmets and getting the kids to sign them when they go to college," running backs coach Tony Wolfe said. "It's getting to be pretty expensive now. But it's a good problem to have."