This Recruit Is Unreal

Accompanied by Coach Mark Hodges, Fernley High football player Kevin Hart reaches for a Cal ballcap, signifying his choice of colleges.
Accompanied by Coach Mark Hodges, Fernley High football player Kevin Hart reaches for a Cal ballcap, signifying his choice of colleges. (By Tim Dunn -- Reno Gazette-journal)
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By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

It was quite a scene in the Fernley (Nev.) High gym on Friday. A 6-foot-5, 290-pound football player, seated at a table with his coach beside him, was making his college selection before a cheering crowd. On the table before him were a pair of baseball caps -- one from the University of California and one from the University of Oregon.

The player reached for the blue Cal hat, bent the visor, and placed it on his head, signifying that he was accepting a scholarship to play at the school and would officially sign his letter-of-intent today, the first day senior high school football players can do so. Television crews and a newspaper reporter were present for what was believed to be the first Division I college athlete from the town of Fernley (pop. 19,700).

Hours later, the feel-good story began to fall apart.

Neither California, Oregon -- nor any of the handful of other college football programs mentioned by Kevin Hart -- had offered him a scholarship. In fact, some of the schools he mentioned had never put his name into their databases to send players recruiting literature.

The cause of the confusion remained unclear yesterday. But the incident called attention to the growing fanfare surrounding the national signing period in which highly sought-after high school athletes are appearing at staged events on television or before large crowds in gymnasiums to announce the school of their choice.

The financial stakes are huge -- a four-year scholarship for an out-of-state athlete to Cal, for instance, is worth approximately $100,000 -- and the demands on teenage athletes are expanding in an arena in which recruiting sites are among the most visited sports sites on the Web and cable networks vie for the right to televise announcements of top prospects. Today, several universities will charge admission to events during which their coaches will talk about their latest haul of players.

Yet what happened last week in Fernley, about 30 miles east of Reno down Interstate 80, appears to be unprecedented.

"Strangest thing I've ever heard," said Dave Williford, an Oregon athletic spokesman.

"When you're a high school kid, you so badly want to be recruited and sign so you can go play, and if you're a parent you feel the same way," said Fernley Mayor Todd Cutler, who played tight end at New Mexico State University and previously was a high school football coach and assistant principal. "To have this high school, which has never had a Division I athlete and now it's not real? It's too bad. It's disappointing."

Hart, his family, Fernley Coach Mark Hodges and Fernley school officials have refused to comment this week as media attention surrounding the case has grown. Recruiting Web sites first raised questions about Hart's commitment hours after Friday's signing ceremony.

George Hart, Kevin's grandfather, yesterday said only that the family is "in a sequestered-type position" as it awaits the outcome of the multiple investigations.

In addition to Cal and Oregon, athletic representatives from Oklahoma State and Illinois -- teams that Hart told the Reno Gazette-Journal he also considered -- said their coaches had no knowledge of Hart.

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