While recruiting gains steam as an industry—and more talented kids are identified than ever before—now is when events like Nike's The Opening and Elite 11 are needed. They're needed now, more than ever, as a means for kids to test their skills, prove their worth and get life lessons, all on a big stage.
These are not the only kids going to play college football. They are not the only kids who have the opportunity to be big-time stars at the next level; Johnny Manziel was not a "The Opening"-type player, which proves that point.
However, these are the kids who will have the cameras shoved into their faces throughout their senior seasons. These are the kids who will have followers hanging on their every tweet. These are the kids who will have signing day hype, have they not made their decisions earlier or already enrolled. These are the kids upon whom fans place the burden of success once they arrive on campus.
So, getting a little extra, beyond the high school process, is something that they need. On and off the field.
On the field the impact is clear: the nation's best competing against one another. That is the premise behind the entire event, and it helps kids in a big way. Rural kids get to go up against kids from the city. Players invited from areas not known for elite prospects get to prove their worth against kids from talent-rich regions like the Southeast. Kids from small private and tiny public school leagues get to duke it out against players from the biggest classifications.
All on the same field, with the same scoring metrics, coaching and evaluations.
Being the best player in your town, city, state is nice, but finding out where you stand nationally is a big deal. Everyone is a big name at The Opening and the Elite 11; the next step is discovering who's king of the giants.
To go along with that competition element, there is high-level instruction and motivation. That process starts on the field, as Trent Dilfer and the Elite 11 staff of accomplished quarterbacks push kids to improve mechanics, make the necessary throws and learn from their mistakes.
As Bucky Brooks, a former UNC Tar Heel, NFL player and now analyst for the NFL Network points out, The Opening is no different in that respect. Defensive backs like Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas of the Seahawks were working with the young up-and-comers at the same positions to get their footwork and skills right.
On the offensive side, Brooks points out that the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas works with the young wide receivers to improve their route running; something most high school players have plenty of room to improve upon.
Often elite players are head and shoulders above the bulk of their competition in regular high school play. They are capable of getting by with poor technique or a limited range of skills because their athleticism and ability are miles ahead of the players they face on a weekly basis. At The Opening- and Elite 11-type events, these guys get pushed, and that is a positive.
While they are pushed on the field, off the field these guys get pulled. More specifically, they get pulled together. These elite groups help create a fraternity and build friendships. Despite where they come from in America, their football lives are far more of a shared experience than the lives of most of the individual players' high school teammates.
Most high school football players are not fielding tons of letters from colleges, receiving a plethora of phone calls and spending weekends going on official visits to schools of their liking. Most high school football players are not dealing with fans badmouthing them on social media, having their game film dissected by analysts or being highlighted on national television.
Yet all of these guys are going through just that. Talking to someone who views the process as more than the "greatest thing in the world" or "a major privilege" is a nice thing. Comparing notes about visits, things coaches say and the highs and lows of the process is important.
Add in the increased camaraderie, as players committed to the same school get to spend time together, and it is a clear win.
Fans see the shirts and cleats and gloves and think, "Oh, the swag is so nice to get." However, the real swag to come out of these events is not the Nike gear, but the experience. Kids who have never been on a plane or never traveled out of their hometowns or regions get a chance to see the Pacific Northwest. They get a chance to go on a dinner cruise.
And, most importantly, they get a chance to talk with athletes who have been where they are and can speak from experience. Not just about sports, but about real life. Desmond Howard, Bo Jackson, Demaryius Thomas and Ndamukong Suh, among others, take the time to talk to the kids about what's really important; as Bo Jackson said last night, actions speak louder than words.
A chance to get better, compete against the best, grow friendships and pick up life lessons while getting some exposure—that is what The Opening and Elite 11 are all about. Thanks to their unique position among the best in the nation, these players most certainly need all of those things.