From the Sidelines: It’s a numbers game

Published 10:36 pm Tuesday, January 27, 2009

We are a society that is driven largely by numbers. How much money we make. How many hours we work in a week. How much memory we have on our hard drives. How much weight we’ve lost in a given period.

Face it. So much of what we do is an attempt to quantify something, to place some semblance of measurable value upon it.

And while that numeric philosophy is largely arbitrary in daily life, its impact on the world of sports is absolutely immeasurable. Numbers are used to quantify productivity by a given player in every sport. They are inescapable.

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But, there are some places in sports where numbers may have too much of an impact.

Next week is signing day. High school football players from around the country will make official their declarations of intent.

The names that have saturated, and neary every college football fan site over the last year will have their first real moment in the spotlight and grant a temporary reprieve to college football junkies who are muddling their way through the aches and pains of offseason withdrawal.

The talk of players like the consensus No. 1 prospect both and, Bryce Brown, will leap from the message board posts of fanboys to mainstream conversation.

And there again, numbers will show their impact.

Brown is a five-star recruit. He’s a 6-foot tall, 210-pound running back with true 4.4 speed. By the numbers, he is surely a can’t miss prospect.

Then there’s Rueben Randle and D.J. Fluker. Numbers again flex their influence.

Randle is a 6-foot-3-inch, 190-pound wideout from Louisiana. Fluker is a 6-foot-7-inch, 350-pound offensive lineman from Foley.

We will constantly hear heights, weights, vertical leaps, 40-yard dash times and bench press maxes as those “in the know” attempt to vouch for the talent of a given prospect.

We will hear so many numbers that the values to which they are assigned will become essentially meaningless.

Sadly, what is lost in the era of stopwatches and recruiting combines is one simple truth. If a kid can play, he can play.

There are countless players like Demopolis linebacker Greg Irvin, Sweet Water quarterback/defensive back Butch Williams and Linden linebacker/fullback Maurice Tate whose names do not pop up on prominent recruiting Web sites, leaving them out of the forefront of the consciousness of many college recruiters who have never seen them play.

The knocks on them are similar. Critics say all are just a little too short. All may be a step too slow or a hair too small.

But there are a number of desirable characteristics possessed by each to which recruiters and scouts can’t assign appropriate numerical values.

All have immeasurable heart and drive that allows them to outperform what some consider their physical limitations.

Irvin and Tate were both all-state linebackers. Williams has four state championship rings and has started somewhere on the field since he was an eighth-grader.

But we hear constantly about the D.J. Flukers and the Bryce Browns and cannot seem to find one word about guys like Tate, Irvin and Williams.

Likely, it has a fair amount to do with the fact that all are from rural Alabama where there is little media attention to hype their greatness.

But, inarguably, those pesky numbers come into play. None of them are 4.4 guys. None of them are going to be the biggest, fastest or strongest guys on any given team. But all possess the capability, drive and work ethic to become — at the very least — productive college players.

Yet, as unfortunate as it is, college football recruiting is a high-stakes game that is scrutinized almost as fully as the competition that plays itself out on the field.

So fewer and fewer schools seem willing to take fliers on kids who don’t register on the recruiting map. Consequently, more and more capable football players are missing out on college dreams.

Irvin will likely find somewhere to play next season. And Tate and Williams will almost assuredly find themselves on someone’s roster.

But the fact is that countless players like them will slip through the cracks because big-time recruiting in this decade is as much about politicking as it is about talent. And, in the end, if no one told a kid that he needed to go to camps in order to market himself or that his 40 time is more important than his in-game production, then his last high school game was likely his last game.