The scrawny quarterback walked the halls of St. John’s College High School one Sunday afternoon in October, looking down at his smartphone every few minutes. It was his own exclusive tour, a drill DeJuan Ellis Jr. had done before. He was still in eighth grade, yet he had grown accustomed to high schools wooing him, especially after he had whittled his list down to DeMatha, O’Connell and St. John’s, one of the District’s oldest institutions.
Ellis had traveled from Southern Maryland to see the Catholic school in Northwest Washington. Flanked by his parents, DeJuan Ellis Sr. and Tonya, he listened to the tour guide in between glances at his phone, which always seemed to be buzzing. If he brought his athletic gifts to St. John’s, he was told, he would get a state-of-the-art education, with white-board technology and an iPad. He would get Under Armour athletic gear. He could get blackened catfish and sautéed collard greens for lunch every week if he wanted, in a cafeteria with plasma TV screens.
“Most of the kids watch SportsCenter,” St. John’s parent Lavon Williams said, while showing off the school’s luxurious lunch room.
The motivation for St. John’s was clear. The school would be acquiring a wunderkind athlete: a 6-foot, 150-pound gazelle who can throw the ball 50 yards on a line, a player who many area high school coaches call a “program changer.”
The motivation for Ellis was equally transparent: He would get to play for a high-profile high school team, an experience that four years down the road could lead to a lucrative college football scholarship and possibly beyond.
Ellis is the face of a new era in area high school football: the aggressive recruitment of middle school players. These 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds are pursued by high school coaches and courted by alumni in a process that is beginning to resemble the competition among top college programs for the best high school athletes.
There are scouting combines where players perform in front of prospective coaches. Several national Web sites are devoted to ranking them according to their ability, with some rating players as early as fourth grade. One site, Youth1.com, currently ranks 101 middle schoolers from 36 states.
“It’s bigger than ever,” said Bob Milloy, the longtime football coach at Good Counsel in Olney. “We’re getting highlight tapes every day from parents and coaches. It’s just the college [scene], just four years earlier.”
For many, even for those involved in the process, it has displaced the traditional middle-to-high school transition for athletically gifted youngsters.
“It’s concerning for me. I’ve had more families tell me that their son is rated in the country. I don’t know who is doing these ratings. I don’t know what it means,” said O’Connell Coach Del Smith, who has been recruiting Ellis for two years. “I really don’t put any value into that.”
Ellis has drawn countless high school coaches to his junior high games over the past three years. Some texted him. Some sent him messages on Facebook. Some invited him to games and tours of their school, like this one at St. John’s, where the annual tuition runs more than $16,000.
“They run practices like college practices. They watch film before they get dressed and come out,” Williams explained to the Ellis family at the end of the tour. “Everything is timed.”
Ellis and his parents talked with Williams about the 27-mile commute. They talked about study halls and the weight room. When Ellis Sr. asked Williams about tuition and financial aid, he responded: “You know what type of athlete you have. You know what type of kid he is. So I wouldn’t worry about that conversation.”
In a way, many of the decisions the Ellis family has made have been made with this ultimate choice in mind. When Ellis was 4 years old, his father pushed to get him into a 5- and 6-year-old flag football league in Southern Maryland. His mother began filming games and posting highlights online when he hit his first tackle football league, and weekly workout sessions were supplemented by NFL game viewing sessions on Sundays, when father and son would sit and study the professional quarterbacks.
“He would sit down and draw X’s and O’s on a sheet of paper while we’re watching SportsCenter,” Ellis said. “Just going over the defenses and asking me what I would do in that situation.”
By the time he was in sixth grade, Ellis had become such a star for the Greater Metropolitan Youth Football League’s Westlake Bulldogs that his parents believed their son was attracting too much attention in the hallways of Accokeek Academy. He had become a distraction for other students and teachers alike. So they pulled him out and home-schooled him for seventh and eighth grade, which fit Tonya’s background as a former substitute teacher in Prince George’s County.
The next year, when Ellis’s body was beginning to change, the schools started to approach. He piqued the interest of most Washington Catholic Athletic Conference coaches, as well as the coaches from Gilman School in Baltimore, because he had been blessed with ability that transcended his adolescent body.
“I love playing football,” said Ellis, now 14.
Ellis ran a 4.5 40-yard dash by the time he was in seventh grade. In one play that would become lore among his youth coaches and teammates, he reversed field on a fake punt against the country’s best young players at the Alamodome in San Antonio, producing the signature highlight of his middle school career and the key play in leading his Maryland all-star team to a national championship last January. Before he had even hit puberty, he could talk eloquently with national radio stations and Web publications, and he could handle being rated the top quarterback in his class by recruiting analysts.
“You could see right away that the kid was different . . . than other 12-year-olds that I come across,” said Alan “Pops” Popadines, director and analyst at Youth1.com who currently has Ellis rated as the top eighth-grade quarterback in the country and the third-ranked player overall. “He’s got speed that you cannot coach. It’s God-given ability. You can try to train, you can try to do speed drills, but a lot of that is just genetics and God-given talent.”
Ellis Sr. and his wife believe in their son’s stardom, and so do area high school coaches.
Elijah Brooks, the head coach at DeMatha in Hyattsville, has targeted Ellis for nearly two years. Middle school recruiting has become a job requirement for Brooks and his staff, and most other area coaches for that matter. In the WCAC, one of the East Coast’s most competitive high school football conferences, the pressure to win boils to the surface for every coach.
“He has a very good personality to deal with pressure,” said Terrance Byrd, Ellis’s youth football coach. “Kids are kids. At 13, a lot of kids, you’re almost just too young to know.”
Brooks had a solid relationship with the Westlake team, which came to prominence under Byrd in 2009. Byrd helped develop running back Lorenzo Harrison and offensive lineman Terrance Davis, both prized recruits who now attend DeMatha, and his team is expected to produce a program-record 17 WCAC incoming freshmen next season, most notably Ellis.
“His ability to throw the ball and run is definitely something that makes him a dangerous player,” Brooks said. “We definitely saw him as a kid that . . . we thought could be a great student-athlete at DeMatha, so we began to speak to him.”
Four days before DeMatha was set to play Tallahassee power Amos P. Godby High at the University of Maryland’s Byrd Stadium on Labor Day, a game televised by ESPN, Brooks visited a Westlake practice in Waldorf. Ellis was nursing an injury and stood and watched his eighth-grade teammates work out on a dusty sandlot field. Ellis gave hugs to parents and talked to a couple high school coaches visiting, and he helped break up a fight between two players — one from Baltimore, one from Southern Maryland — competing for the same starting position.
Ellis understood why there was a fight. For many, youth football equates to business these days.
When Brooks arrived at the end of practice, Byrd gathered the team around the DeMatha coach. Brooks was carrying a cardboard box under his arm, and he invited the players to come watch his team play in its nationally televised game, telling them they would be able to visit the sideline during the action.
“I’m looking for guys that want exposure,” Brooks told the kids.
With Ellis looking on, Brooks then opened the box and started handing the players white DeMatha Nike T-shirts.
To gain admission to most WCAC schools, prospective students must spend a day shadowing a student with similar interests, submit an application and take the High School Placement Test in January. Then they wait. There are no athletic scholarships; nine of the 12 schools are in the Archdiocese of Washington, where financial aid is need-based and doesn’t affect the status of applicants. Some schools work with financial aid firms, including McNamara, which contracts with FACTS Grant & Aid Assessment Service. Every financial aid package is handled on a case-by-case basis, said McNamara Director of Admissions Patricia Garber.
“We’re looking for a wide variety of interests, a wide variety of kids. . . . Every student is reviewed as a whole person in terms of what we think is a good fit for our school,” Garber said. “Do students get financial aid? Yes. But we don’t go out and give [athletic] scholarships. . . . It’s not if you can throw the ball so far, you’re going to get X number of dollars.”
Still, recruiting is an accepted practice. The schools are trying to attract the best students, musicians and artists, and it’s the same with athletes, said Milloy, the Good Counsel coach who has netted high-profile eighth-grade recruits in Stefon Diggs, Jelani Jenkins and Kendall Fuller in the past nine years.
Youth football players are likely to continue being ranked at earlier ages, said Orlando-based sports pyschologist Patrick Cohn, which will only accelerate recruiting at all levels and thus increase pressure to perform for younger and younger children. At Youth1.com, for example, the two Class of 2018 players ranked ahead of Ellis are Florida eighth-grader Tyreke “Showtime” Johnson (who was playing varsity football in seventh grade and was reportedly offered scholarships by Virginia Tech and Miami on the same day last week), and Indiana cornerback Jairus Brents, who made national headlines last summer when Kentucky offered him a scholarship at age 13.
“In terms of the some of the parents, and the athletes, and some of the people that buy into the system, obviously it’s not ludicrous [to them]. They’re doing it . . . they’re buying into the rankings system,” Cohn said. “But certainly it is much different from 10, 20 years ago, when we didn’t have the Internet, when we didn’t have these levers to rank middle school kids.”
Ellis Sr. has tried to put the decision on where to attend high school in his son’s hands. The family said that several Westlake players are waiting on Ellis’s decision, planning to follow the quarterback to whatever school he decides to attend. Initially leaning toward DeMatha, Ellis fell in love with O’Connell after his shadow day at the school last fall, and shortly after he told his father during a car ride home that was where he felt most comfortable. He loved the classes. He had fun in the lunch room. But more than anything, he could see himself building his own football legacy at a school that has been in the bottom half of the WCAC standings in recent years.
“I just wanted to go where I could make my own, and he kind of agreed with that,” Ellis said, adding he wants a school “where I could do my own thing.”
The family is certain he will choose O’Connell, should his test scores and financial aid package work out. It costs about $14,000 annually to attend O’Connell, and WCAC schools traditionally notify prospective students of admission near the end of February.
Wherever Ellis ends up, he has the option of formally announcing his decision on March 1 in Waldorf, at the new 47,000 square-foot facility called the Cultivation Development Institute, which is run by Byrd.
There will be a stage set up, Byrd said, and the top prospects will bring a school hat to announce where they will be playing high school football next season — just like the top high school athletes four grades their senior, who will preen for cameras on Wednesday’s National Signing Day as they don the hats of their future college football teams.
Ellis could show up with three hats if he so chooses, one each for St. John’s, O’Connell and DeMatha. Or he could skip the event completely and just inform the school of his choice.
“This is the first stage into becoming a man,” his father said. “I can’t wait to see what high school holds for DeJuan.”