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Published: Saturday, 2/7/2004

In football, few can go from preps to pros

BY RON MUSSELMAN

Although Columbus is now in Maurice Clarett s rearview mirror and the NFL is a step closer for the troubled 20-year-old tailback, don t expect the league to entice a ton of teenagers in the future.

It s just not going to happen.

Oh, there may be an occasional youngster - perhaps a running back, receiver, defensive back or kicker - who can successfully make the jump from high school to the NFL in the next 25 years.

But don t expect the rush to be anywhere close to the NBA, where Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett, among others, have blossomed into superstars since joining the league directly out of high school.

The challenge of playing in the NFL is just too tough to tackle, especially at a young age. Players bodies at age 17, 18 or 19 are just not physically ready to withstand the rigors of a 20-game season, including exhibitions.

Less than two percent of an annual crop of college football players actually make it in the NFL, according to the NCAA, and those are players with at least three years of college experience.

So imagine how tough it would be for a high school kid, even a highly recruited star such as Rogers Fred Davis, to make it.

And, unlike the NBA and Major League Baseball, the NFL does not offer a very big safety net, since there are few guaranteed contracts.

So young players without a degree who would fail to make it wouldn t have many options, unless they wanted to earn a pocketful of change playing in NFL Europe, the Arena Football League or the Canadian Football League.

There is no Continental Basketball Association or well-paying overseas opportunities for NFL rejects, although those options do exist for players who declare early for the NBA draft and don t make it.

“The thing about football, you just can t come out of high school and play with grown men,” says Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

There are many who remain skeptical about the 6-foot, 230-pound Clarett s durability - he sat out three games as a freshman in 2002 due to arthroscopic knee surgery and a shoulder stinger - and wonder if he can withstand the rigors of an NFL season.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. rates him a second-round draft pick at best. Thom McDaniel, Clarett s former coach at Warren Harding High School, isn t sure if Clarett will be a star or a bust as a pro, assuming the federal judge s ruling allowing him to enter the draft survives the NFL s appeal.

“If this works, it may be OK for Maurice, but how many kids in the next five or 10 years are going to follow suit and maybe fail miserably?” McDaniel said yesterday. “For instance, I had five kids sign for Division I scholarships on Wednesday - and 15 felt they should have.

“There s a lack of reality among some young people and their parents about their potential.”

Nearly 50 college underclassmen have declared for the April NFL draft. A year ago the number was 45, and 35 of them were selected, including 12 in the first two rounds.

Under a new NCAA rule, a college player without an agent can declare for the draft once and still return to college, if he is not drafted and follows certain restrictions.

Only a handful of players adhere to those rules, and the situation is going to get worse for college coaches and administrators.

They will need a calculator to keep track of the number of kids who will leave college early without their degrees, fall victim to poor advice and fail in their attempt to reach the NFL.

“All you are asking for is more agents to start marketing everybody for the almighty dollar,” said Rice coach Ken Hatfield, who is president of the American Football Coaches Association. “We have a hard enough time controlling our boosters.

“We ve got no control over agents and unscrupulous agents who say, I ll take care of you and you ll get to the NFL. ”



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