College football's most coveted game will be played in Pasadena, Calif., on Thursday between the Longhorns of Texas and the Crimson Tide from Alabama. But a game of equal importance to its players will happen two days later in San Antonio.
That game, just like the Texas-Alabama showdown, will feature elite athletes who run fast, jump high and hit hard, but there lies one difference between the two: the kids playing in this game aren't college athletes. They aren't even high school players. They are the nation's best seventh- and eighth- graders.
The 13- and 14-year-olds will be playing in the second Youth All-American Bowl, an all-star game that showcases the nation's top middle school players to display their talents. For some, it's the first look they will get from college scouts.
Hosted by Football University, an invitation-only camp for elite youth, the Youth All-American Bowl is akin to the U.S. Army High School All-American Bowl, a game that features the nation's top 78 high school players
Consisting of three East vs. West all-star games -- one for the top 40 seventh-graders, one for the top 40-eighth graders with a weight limit, and one for the top 40 eighth-graders without a weight limit -- the game will feature several of Gwinnett County's own, including quarterback Taylor Mitchell (Hull Middle School), running back Carter Governale (Osborne), defensive lineman Tony Bradford (Buford) and linebacker Deion King (Trickum).
"I'm very excited about the opportunity," the 5-foot-9 Bradford said. "I've been working out and getting ready for the game"
King agrees: "I can't wait. I've been working out at The Factory (gym) in order to prepare."
The process for selecting which players are eligible for the game is conducted by the Football University selection committee. The board is comprised of Football University's regional directors and various scouts throughout the United States. The directors and scouts then work yea-round in to identify the players they believe are best suited to play in the game, including watching thousands of game tapes from coaches around the U.S.
Once chosen, participants converge in San Antonio for a host of bowl week activities, including skills competitions, practices, and breakout sessions with current and former NFL players. The game will be aired online at www.footballuniversity.org.
"I'm amazed sometimes at how much attention these kids get but they have earned it," said Gwinnett Football League Director Erik Richards. "Kids are training a lot earlier than they used to, working on their speed and agility and weight training in order to get a leg up on the competition. So it isn't a surprise that there is so much interest"
According to Richards, some of the kids participating are even being "soft-offered" college football scholarships.
"I get somewhat offended when (critics) say that we are pressing the kids too hard at such a young age," Richards said. "This whole process is not much different than other sports. I think any parent would allow their kid to do the same thing if they were given the opportunity."
And with players scheduled to play like eighth-grader Sony Michael, a 5-11, 187-pound running back from American Heritage High School who recorded 18 touchdowns and ran for more than 1,800 yards in his team's 9-3 season, it should come as little surprise that these kids will be treated like prime-time athletes.
"I think it's neat for the kids to receive this much attention," said Mill Creek head coach Rod Dollar, who will coach in the Youth Bowl. "There are some very talented kids that will be playing."
Dollar, who plans on using a spread offense during the game, said he hopes the kids can receive a bit more football insight than what they came with.
"My objective is to give them some coaching that they have not gotten before," he said.