Hello, my name is Eric and I am an addict.
Yes, it's true. It took me a long time to come to this realization but I can finally stand before you today comfortable in knowing the truth. My hope is to start on a journey to recovery, though I'm not sure about fully giving up that which I love.
It all started in 2002. I was just a kid then, an 18 year-old at the University of Florida looking to find his way. Friends were fleeting as I tried to find where my metaphorical piece fit in the 50,000 piece University puzzle. That was until one fateful day.
It seemed I finally found a group of my own. They were similar to me, and I felt the corners of my mouth pinch upwards in a way they hadn't in a while. I found a home, but one that leads us into my story.
You see, one of the members of this new group turned me on to my addiction. "You'll like it" he said, and boy was he right. At first it was just a hobby, something to do from time to time and it seemed harmless. Within a year though, I was skipping classes and calling out sick from work just to get more of my fix.
I knew then that problems were looming large, but I was enjoying myself and saw nothing wrong. My addiction continued for years from that point and it was something I fed every day, sometimes many times a day. Heck, a few days a year, I would do nothing but feed my addiction. It should have seemed dark, but all I could see was the enjoyment in it.
It was only recently that I realized the error of my ways. It took something drastic and something devastating, but this life-changing event has made me see the light. It is because of this event that I stood before you before and I will stand before you now and repeat that which defines me:
My name is Eric and I am an addict. A college football recruiting addict.
Okay, maybe addiction was a bit hyperbolic as a metaphor, but much of what I said in that farcical confession is in fact true. I did get hooked on it in 2002 at the University Florida. I did skip classes and call out sick from my volunteer job to watching National Signing Day in 2003. I have spent entire days watching signing day on most years and I do check recruiting websites multiple times a day on average. I also do believe a recent event has made me change my perspective on the whole thing in a very profound way.
In following recruiting, young men often become numbers and targets. Worse yet, lower-ranked kids are seen almost as subhuman to followers of top college programs, effectively leading grown men to saying things like "Screw that kid, he's only a 3-star.” I always thought this was the worst part of recruiting, but I'm beginning to see that it's just the opposite.
From 2005-2010, Urban Meyer coached my Florida Gators. In that time, the team had three 13-win seasons, two SEC championships, and, most importantly, two BCS National Championships. In that time frame, it also led college football in another category: player arrests.
Of course, any semi-educated fan already knew that. What they may not know about are the issues within a successful program that have nothing to do with jail time. I'll be the first to admit that while there were rumors and even substantial evidence to the claims we are about to discuss in this time period, I, along with most Gator fans, didn't really care at the time. Winning supersedes everything in college football so the problems didn't seem important.
During this dynastic run, it should go without saying that recruiting at the University of Florida was going well. So well, in fact, that the 2006 and 2007 recruiting classes were ranked as tops in the nation by different recruiting sites. Many of the players being brought in were high school All-Americans and 5-star prospects, the likes of which possessed athletic ability most of us could only dream of having. With that though comes the knowledge of possessing those skills which is where the problems begin.
I grew up watching Derek Jeter find great success as a ballplayer. He is perhaps one of the best shortstops to ever live but you'd never know it from the way he acts and speaks. He is a man who possesses humility and does not ever feel a sense of entitlement due to his athletic accomplishments. Unfortunately, he is the exception, not the rule.
Specifically at Florida, Urban Meyer supposedly cultivated a culture of entitlement and ego. Star players were apparently given preferential treatment while less than stellar competitors were punished and dismissed at will. Given the string of success, fans wouldn't have cared and even when the information first came out, it didn't seem like much of an issue. After all, these weren't recruiting violations so it's not like our precious national championships were being taken away. If that’s the case, why should it matter?
Perhaps it should have.
Now, before we get it twisted, let's get one thing straight. I am in no way blaming the University of Florida for anything that happens when their former and future players are not under their watch. However, there is a particular case that has cast a dark cloud over everything lately. The storm originated in Attleboro, Massachusetts, but it had been building for much longer than that.
I remember the excitement surrounding the 2007 Florida Gators' recruiting class. Players like John Brantley, Cam Newton, the Pouncey Twins, Chris Rainey, Carlos Dunlap, Major Wright, Joe Haden, and more came in as perhaps the most highly anticipated class ever. Many of them have gone on to successful NFL stints so far, but not all are without incident. Carlos Dunlap received a DUI prior to Florida's SEC title game against Alabama in 2009. Chris Rainey has been involved in domestic disputes, and Cam Newton was essentially forced out the door of the University due to a laptop stealing scandal. With all these issues from their stars, it's kind of amazing to think of what this team accomplished.
Not amongst those in trouble with the law from the 2007 class was young Aaron Hernandez. While at Florida, the extent of Hernandez's issues was his positive drug test for marijuana. It's not condoned, but he wasn't testing positive seemingly every week like Janoris Jenkins either.
The kid known as "Chico" didn't seem as troubled as many other Gators at the time, but despite a very successful run at Florida, many NFL teams were hesitant in selecting him. What we didn't know at the time was that these concerns stemmed more from his childhood in Connecticut than his "issues" at Florida. With that said, I'm not letting Urban Meyer and Florida completely off the hook.
While "Chico" wasn't causing too much trouble at UF, he was likely walking around with a sense of entitlement. This portion of my piece is pure speculation but it is at the crux of my theory so take it how you'd like.
If there was an entitlement culture at the University of Florida under Urban Meyer, and Aaron Hernandez, a kid coming from a gang-affiliated background, decided to play for Meyer and live under those guidelines, I believe it can be inferred that this situation hurt, not helped Hernandez.
I hate to say it, but a hard-ass coach like Nick Saban, if he got a hold of a player from this background, would either whip the kid into shape or let him go. It's a shame when that happens and I've seen it firsthand. Also from the University of Florida, 5-star cornerback recruit Avery Atkins was dismissed from the University after a domestic battery issue and spiraled to the point where he was found dead in his car less than two years later. There's an inherent risk in taking on any of these troubled kids, but considering their talent and ability to help a coach win and thus make them more money, almost every single one will take that chance.
What's best for the coaches, the university, and the fans is not what's best for the kids though. Many coaches will take on their players and take pride in molding them into men. Those coaches, like Bobby Knight, have rarely if ever seen a player they’ve coached find any sort of trouble. These are talented kids too, top-100 talents coming out of high school and they never had issues.
It isn't impossible, but I don't believe that Urban Meyer made enough effort to cultivate these player's lives. What's even more disappointing is that in his biography, Urban's Way by Buddy Martin, it portrays Meyer as a man heavily invested in the lives of his players. Having read that book, I actually got teary-eyed hearing a couple of the stories of salvation. I guess it stopped when he got to Florida though.
With greater expectations came more of a focus on recruiting the top talents regardless of issues. Top-100 talents mean more success, but is it worth it if these kids don't get the proper attention necessary to grow into upstanding citizens?
Perhaps Aaron Hernandez is the exception. Maybe gang life is something inescapable and his fate was sealed the second he got involved in one as a kid. Perhaps maybe, just maybe, the right college coach could have saved this kid.
Then again, coaches are addicted to winning like I am addicted to following recruiting. It's all well and good, but addiction kills if you forget to help those around you that you say you love.