Kendall Fuller was still a high school sophomore, with one season of experience starting on the varsity football team, when he traveled to a scouting combine near Richmond last year. The Good Counsel wide receiver and defensive back was hoping to run a fast time in the 40-yard dash and make himself more attractive to the college recruiters who already were following him.
Fuller returned home with something he previously had never thought about, considering he still had 21 / 2 years remaining at his Olney private school: An invitation to one of the nation’s premier high school football all-star games following his senior season of football.
Competition between the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, the Under Armour All-American Game in Orlando and a handful of other less prominent games has grown increasingly fierce. With lucrative sponsorships and television deals on the line, the battle to land elite players is tougher than ever. The result is earlier invitations to some players — such as the Army’s invitation to Fuller, who quickly accepted.
“It was a big surprise,” Fuller said. Rivals.com analyst Mike Farrell, who is on the Army game’s selection committee and extended the invitation to Fuller, “told me he didn’t want to make it a big deal and make it a big competition with Under Armour so quick.”
Said Friendship Collegiate All-Met lineman Eddie Goldman, who was invited to the Army and Under Armour games before his junior season: “I thought it was supposed to be for seniors and I was at the beginning of my junior year.”
Indeed, the battle to land A-list players is heated. More than one parent compared the games’ sales pitches to the college recruiting process.
“I think it’s just as much a competition as recruiting,” said Goldman’s father, Eddie Muhammad, whose son will play in the Army game. “It’s just like being recruited by a school. I find a lot of the presentations mirror the presentation of a recruiter or a coach trying to get your kid to come to their school.”
There is plenty at stake. While game organizers declined to comment on financial details surrounding the games — which will be held in the first week of January in professional stadiums and televised live — the games have become multimillion dollar businesses. The Army game, first played in 2000, has been profitable every year, according to its founder and organizer, Rich McGuinness.
“These games are obviously sponsorship-driven on both sides,” said Drew Russell, assistant vice president of sponsorships and events for InterSport, the Chicago-based firm that operates and markets the Under Armour game, which is in its fifth year. “Neither side is involved to lose money. . . . There is an interest level from fans, there is interest from viewers, there is interest from sponsors.”
So while organizers of both games agree there are plenty of players to go around — the Army game has 90 players, Under Armour 92 — both want the players ranked highest by various scouting services. Simply inviting players to participate in a game is no longer enough. There are events throughout the week leading up to the game and promoters try to make the activities enticing for a teenage boy.
“It has escalated immensely,” said Shaon Berry, organizer of the first-year Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl, which will be played Jan. 3 in Phoenix. “There is an expectation there. [Players] want to know what they get and when they get it.”
Organizers of the Under Armour game stress that the practices leading up to their game are televised by ESPN and that there are opportunities for players and their families to visit Disney World and SeaWorld. Goldman’s mother, Sharon Davis, said the Army game tried to influence her son’s decision by offering the chance to meet and hang out with entertainers such as Diddy and Rihanna.
“We built a real bowl week that has a lot of fun and excitement,” McGuinness said. “We’ve got talent shows, skills competitions. We promote that our all-Americans will go out and do some charitable work. A big part of the attraction of the U.S. Army All-American game is the bowl-week atmosphere.”
With many top prospects, the Washington area figures prominently in the games. All-Met Defensive Player of the Year Stefon Diggs of Good Counsel was invited to the Army and Under Armour games before his junior year. He picked the Army game, which will be played Jan. 7 and televised by NBC. Briar Woods All-Met wide receiver Alex Carter also will play in the game, though he was surprised by his invitation — it came in August, just before this past season started — because he figured the rosters had already been selected.
Good Counsel All-Met offensive lineman Michael Madaras and second-team All-Met running back Wes Brown will play in the Under Armour game on Jan. 5; the game will be televised on ESPN. The Semper Fidelis game includes DeMatha All-Met defensive lineman Michael Moore and one of the coaches is Gilman’s Biff Poggi, assisted by former DeMatha coach Bill McGregor.
While those games are still two weeks away, organizers are well on the way to picking rosters for their 2013 and 2014 games. Russell said invitations for the Under Armour game go out at the end of a player’s junior year — but that might be too late for some. Fuller and classmate Dorian O’Daniel, an All-Met linebacker, already have agreed to play in the Army game next year.
“We stay a year or two ahead of ourselves,” McGuinness said. “We don’t typically invite them that young, but we’ll watch them and invite them when we think they’ve passed the all-American standards.”