Super Bowl LIII will kick off Sunday in Atlanta between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams. You know it’s an important event, otherwise it would simply be Super Bowl 53.
Almost the entire country will be watching, even if it’s mostly for the commercials and Maroon 5 halftime performance.
It’s not even open to debate whether the Super Bowl will be the most watched television event of the year. The race among TV folks is to see which broadcast will garner the second-largest audience of the year (that honor over the last year goes to the Patriots-Chiefs AFC Championship Game last week).
There’s no disputing that pro football is king in America, but that doesn’t mean the sport has the same pageantry and excitement as the college game or even the purity and community pride produced by the game at the high school level.
Unfortunately, the high school game is trending more toward the mindset that getting to the top of the sport is what matters most. The most blatant example of this is the emergence of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
IMG Academy is not selling the charm of the game or the camaraderie built by being part of a team that is greater than the collection of its parts. IMG Academy is all about developing individuals so they can get the best college scholarship, which will lead to being drafted into the NFL.
The team does not play in a league, is not eligible to compete for a state championship and has no rivalry or school spirit to speak of. But the folks at IMG Academy deliver on what they promise.
During the early signing period in December, IMG Academy center Charles Turner signed with LSU. What makes that noteworthy is that 13 IMG Academy seniors were ranked higher than Turner. That list includes the No. 1 player in the country (Georgia defensive end signee Nolan Smith), the No. 6 player (Alabama running back signee Trey Sanders) and the No. 7 player (Alabama offensive tackle signee Evan Neal).
Auburn offensive line signee Justin Osborne was the 13th best prospect at IMG Academy this year, making him the 62nd-ranked player in Florida.
The IMG Academy impact has not been felt on the local high school scene. That is, until last week, when Spanish Fort receiver Christian Burkhalter committed to play the final two years of his high school career at the school.
No player from Alabama has gone to IMG Academy and had great success, although future Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough tried it for a while before returning to play in Alabama, as did future Auburn signee and state Mr. Football Asa Martin.
I won’t criticize Burkhalter or his family. If the money isn’t an issue and the family decides boarding school at a sports academy is what’s best for their situation, then they have every right to pursue that option.
But with every transfer to a football factory comes a pull at the fabric of high school sports.
As much as some people have complained about private high schools recruiting star players, you can count on one hand the players who have transferred from a local public high school to a local private school, then starred on the football field. Players transferring from one public school to another is more common but still not a problem of epidemic proportion.
On Sunday, Mark Barron will represent Mobile and The University of Alabama in the Super Bowl. Clearly, he got great training at St. Paul’s. In fact, he has a chance to become one of the few players in history to win the ultimate team championship in high school, college and the NFL.
But Barron’s high-profile career from a young age is just one way to reach the ultimate prize in the sport. Of the 106 players in Sunday’s Super Bowl, 21 are from the SEC. That’s the most of any conference. But the two colleges with the most players are Georgia (that makes sense) and Rutgers (what?).
Alabama, Auburn, South Alabama and UAB all have players in the game. Alabama and Auburn are both guaranteed to have a Super Bowl champion, while Rams receiver Gerald Everett is hoping to be the first Super Bowl champion produced by South Alabama.
A total of 72 colleges have players in the game. The number of high schools is even higher than that.
The point is, there are many ways to reach the top of the sport.
One of those ways is to begin your climb at a football factory like IMG Academy. But it’s also possible to get there without turning the sport into a professional pursuit at the age when going to prom and getting a driver’s license should also be a top priority.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe and is co-host of “Sports Drive” every weekday from 3-6 p.m. on WNSP 105.5 FM, the country’s first all-sports FM station.
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