As thousands of future college football players made their destinations known on Wednesday, Episcopal School of Dallas did not have a signee. In fact, of its eight-man senior class, the only starter was a kicker. But that didn't stop head coach Clayton Sanders from holding a National Signing Day ceremony anyway.
"We were trying to find a way to create excitement," said Sanders. "I'm a big, big believer in national signing day. I love the excitement. So the staff and I came up with the idea of a mock 2014 National Signing Day."
Sanders, whose birthday also happened to fall on Wednesday, called every member of the football team's 2014 senior class into his office under the guise of wishing him a happy birthday. Instead, Sanders handed each player a piece of paper, instructing them to write down where, if it were up to them, they would play college football. They were then taken into the weight room, where a picture would be taken (and subsequently tweeted) with Sanders and each player holding the piece of paper with his school of choice.
"I want you to dream big," Sanders told his players, "and know you have a year to go out and make that happen."
Sanders wanted the reality that the group only had one year of high school football left to play, and, after seeing program participation burst from 28 upon his hiring last May to more than 70 today, to build a strong senior class. He accomplished each of those goals, and another he didn't even set out to attain, as a dozen more seniors committed to play football in 2013.
"For those 15 seconds when we were taking the picture, he felt like he was going to the University of Alabama. He felt like he was going to Texas Tech. We had Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, LSU, Notre Dame," Sanders explained. "I told them, 'You have a year to make it happen.'"
(As an aside, Sanders credited Texas Tech's hiring of Kliff Kingsbury "has got the youth movement going. He does a phenomenal job of connecting with high school recruits.")
With a team loaded with rising seniors and juniors, Sanders believes the Eagles will qualify for the Southwest Preparatory Conference playoffs next season and will have "four to five" players sign college scholarships next February. Wednesday's festivities were the kick-start to making those goals become a reality.
"They've got to get the confidence to believe they can go play at the University of Alabama, or the University of Georgia or Texas Tech," added Sanders. "For that to happen, they have to get in the weight room and they have to commit their time and they have to learn about how to balance their time between academics and athletics. You can make that happen, but you have to put the work in. That's what we were trying to teach them."
With the rising junior and sophomore classes looking on, the Episcopal coaches started what they hope will turn into the school's newest tradition. When those players mark down where they hope to play college football in the future, the Eagles' class of 2014 will be veterans of National Signing Day. And, Sanders believes, they'll have a college coach's hand to shake instead of his.
Sanders and LB/FB Nigel Naulls
Sanders and C/DL Jeff Patton
Sanders and WR Grant Matzen