Richard Abney planned to go to Michigan State and play football in packed stadiums. Instead, on a Wednesday morning in the middle of last month, he boarded a bus for a trip to a central Virginia prep school nearly 700 miles away -- and even farther from the spotlight -- from where he wanted to be.
With the start of the high school football practice only a few days away, Abney and several other athletes among the best in the Washington area -- who had lined up college athletic scholarships worth thousands and thousands of dollars -- have scrambled to make last-second plans after failing to meet the NCAA's minimum academic standards to be eligible for athletic competition as freshmen. Some are preparing for a year at a prep school they've never seen; others still lack a high school diploma.
Abney, who graduated from Forestville in June, now plans to attend Fork Union Military Academy, about 30 miles southeast of Charlottesville.
"You've got to be impressed with a young man who will get on a bus and go down to Fork Union and see what they've got," Fork Union postgraduate football coach John Shuman said. "Most kids say, 'Come get me' or 'I can't get a ride.' Richard definitely impressed us when he jumped on the bus."
And Abney, a second-team All-Met last fall, came back from his visit with a clear picture of what to expect. "Fork Union is in the middle of nowhere," he said. "It's so deep in the middle of the woods you lose service on your phone. . . . You're riding down this long road. You'll see probably one house every three miles. I was like, 'Man, what am I getting myself into?' "
Abney is not alone. Three All-Met football players failed to qualify academically, missing out on scholarships to Boston College, Florida and Virginia. In boys' basketball, four of 10 All-Mets did not qualify academically. Several other top athletes also were forced to consider other options.
"We would all love for our kid to do what he was supposed to do, get the books, get everything from all facets and go on to a Division I school," said Friendly boys' basketball coach Gerald Moore, who is sending four seniors from last season's top-ranked team to prep school without high school diplomas. "Guess what? It doesn't always work like that. But that doesn't mean it's over. You can go another route."
That route usually means players wind up trusting others and putting blind faith into places they have never visited and coaches they have never met, often knowing them only as a voice on the other end of the phone line.
Although Abney actually visited Fork Union, many players bound for prep schools will see their new campus for the first time when they report for practice and classes this month. Hargrave Military Academy, in south central Virginia, and Fork Union are the most popular choices for Washington area players.
Jared Gaither, an offensive lineman who graduated from Eleanor Roosevelt and had accepted a scholarship to play for Maryland, plans to go to Hargrave, where he will join All-Met defensive end Olu Hall from Robinson High in Fairfax. Hargrave football coach Robert Prunty said he also expects DeMatha All-Met Derrick McPhearson, who had accepted a scholarship from Florida but needed to attend summer school to graduate from DeMatha, to play for the Chatham, Va., school. Basketball All-Met Sam Young of Friendly High also plans to attend Hargrave, and teammate Chris Howard plans to attend Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass.
"I'm disappointed, but that's not going to stop my drive," Gaither said. "It's just a steppingstone. I'll get over it."
But some will head farther, including All-Met defensive back Andre Jones, Abney's Forestville teammate who is heading for Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Conn.
"It's kind of scary when you think about it," said Jones, who is part of a trend of high school athletes who intentionally do not graduate from high school in order to benefit from NCAA rules that make it harder for graduates to meet academic eligibility standards. "I'm going to be there by myself. All I can do is trust. I hope I made the right decision. I don't have doubts about it."
Most of the players did not solidify their plans until last month. Jones was told he had been accepted to Avon Old Farms but did not receive written confirmation until July 16 -- after his mother left two weeks' worth of anxious phone messages for Coach Kevin Driscoll.
"It's the middle of July, and I haven't received the information yet for him to say that he should sign and this is when he starts," Shannon Jones said just before finally receiving the acceptance letter. "I trust that these people know what they're talking about because this is what they do for a living. I trust them. They haven't steered me wrong yet, so I have to believe in them."
The players believe they are getting a second chance to get their academic resumes in order so that they can take advantage of college scholarship offers.
"It's all how you want to take it," Howard said. "Some kids get a wake-up call. I don't have any more chances. I've got to get it done here. I think prep school is good to give kids who messed up another chance to show themselves."