High school football players have not always been known to hit their textbooks as hard as they hit their opponents. But those who do invariably discover that many of the nation's finest academic institutions are eager to reward then for their dedication to school work, in return fro four years on the gridiron, naturally.
Several Northern Virginia high school football players who had outstanding seasons in 1976 and who have consistently been excellent students have either recently accepted scholarship offers from major universities or are in the final stages of deciding which school will receive their talents.
To the student-athlete and his family, the deluge of full scholarship offers means four years of virtually cost-fee education. On the other hand, the excellent athlete who also excels in academics is a low-risk gamble for colleges. Since he is not likely to drop out, flunk out or just lose interest in his education, chances are good he'll be around to contribute to the football program for four years.
Given the time demands of atheltics and academics in high schools today, how difficult is it to excel in both areas? Not hard at all, to hear the youngsters themselves tell it.
"Being involved in athletics really helped my grades," says Frank Mello, who is ranked eighth in his senior class at Fairfax High School. "Playing sports gives you discipline and a routine. They don't allow for much free time, so you learnt to use what you have. My schedule normally includes school, practice, going home, eating dinner, doing my homework and going to bed by 10:30 or 11."
Following that basic routine, Mello has lettered in varsity football, wrestling and track every year since he was a sophomore. He was an all-region defensive tackle in the fall, won first place in the Potomac District last year, and 9-2 in the current wrestling season.
At the same time, the 6-3, 230-pound Mello has taken every upper level math and science course (including calculus, physics, functions, analytic geometry, two years of both chemistry and biology and more) Fairfax offers. Exept for one B in Latin I as a freshman, Mello's final grades have been all As.
Mello will decide soon on whether to accept a full scholarship from William and Mary or "$2,000 in assorted grants" from Brown. Noting that neither school has an outstanding football reputaion, Mello says, "I like the idea of a low-keyed football program. If football ever becomes a chore, I'll stop playing. I don't think it will at those schools. I'll be going mainly for the academics."
The demands a coach makes on his players will often affect their attitude toward academics. Frank Creneti, head football coach at Fort Hunt School in Alexandria, has successfully motivated his team, runners-up in the Northern region last fall, on and off the field.
"We (coaches) stay on our kids as much as we can," says Creneti, who teaches history at the school. "We get print outs of their grades and check them over; if they need help, we'll arrange for tutors. We encourage teachers to cooperate with us and let us know if a player is having academic problems. Sometimes I might be able to get more work out of a kid than another teacher can, since, as his coach, he might feel closer to me and be more willing to talk abotu whatever is holding him back."
At least four of Fort Hunts's top students-atheletes - Larry Quant, Steve Wirt, Tommy Gibbons and Brian Donahue - have been courted by ivy league schools since the end of the football season. Cornerback Donahue, according to Creneti will probably go ivy, as will Quant. Wirt has signed a letter of intent to VPI but will still visit the Navy Academy, Cornell and either Harvard or Yale just to be sure, Gibbons turned down all others to fulfill a childhood dream by accepting a full scholarship to Notre Dame.
Creneti called Notre Dame about the 6-1, 185 pound Gibbons and asked if they would like to see that were interested in him, they said to send the films right away," he recalls.
The Irish followed up with a scout who was inpressed with Gibbons play and his 3.8 grade point average. The signing was imminent.
"It's really not bad keeping up on the studying in high school," says Gibbons, who will major in engineering at Notre Dame. "Sure, you get tired, but you know you just have to work it in."
Wirt, a 6-3, 210-pound fullback who averaged seven yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns for Fort Hunt last season, syas an important factor in choosing VPI was that the school "sets aside study hall hours for athletes where they guarantee you they won't bother you. I'm a little apprehensive anyway about playing college football and keeping my grades up, so I feel I'll need that kind of help."
Wirt, who has a 3.45 grade point average, was impressed with VPI's shcool of engineering, which will be his major. At Fort Hunt, Wirt is taking or has completed the top level of all math and science courses and now struggles with typing on his schedule because "there was nothing left to take."
Wirt notes that recruiters, aware of his academic interest," asked me that I'd like to get my degree in" and then focused on what the school offered in that descipline, rather than on the football program - an approach Wirt found aggreable.
Falls Church high School's Bucky Methfessel also courted by schools from the Big Ten, Ivy League and all over Virginia.
A 6-3, 220-pound center, methfessel is a straight A student who told recruiters his criteria for selecting a school included "the academic standing of the departments I'm interested in (business and engineering) plus the pwople involved in the football program - how well they work together to achieve things."
Methfessel also believes his interest in football has helped him academically. "If I wasn't on the team, I'd spend the afternoon working or fooling around," he said. "But I enjoy having things towork for in academics and athletics."