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Players leave California Showcase with offers, enthusiasm
IRVINE - It’s 6 a.m. in Reno, Nevada.
Brandon Hunter and three of his teammates on the Reno High football team aren’t going to school today. Instead they pile into a car, shake sleep from their eyes and take the I-80 West toward Sacramento.
After nine hours, 560 miles and a turgid grind through Los Angeles traffic, they arrive in Irvine.
The next day, Saturday, they joined 558 other high school football players at Orange County Great Park for the fourth annual National Football Foundation California Showcase.
Essentially, the showcase is a combine for players, mostly from Southern California, who have a chance to make a Division II, Division III or NAIA roster.
“I love the game of football,” Hunter said. “I’m out here to find an opportunity to move on to the next level.”
Division I schools passed on these kids for a variety of reasons. Some players didn’t have the size or quickness, some had injuries.
Others, like Marina quarterback Anthony De La Torre, had to sit out a full season due to CIF-SS transfer rules.
Players spent a couple hours at the end of the day in a college fair, where all 55 four-year universities and 14 junior colleges on hand could speak with the players one-on-one.
De La Torre held a letter close to his waist while touring the schools’ booths.
“I just actually got my first (scholarship) offer right now,” he said with a smile. “Lindenwood, an NAIA (school) in Illinois. … I really like it. I talked to the coaches. I’m probably going to try to set up a visit in the next few weeks and hopefully maybe it’ll be the school for me.”
De La Torre wasn’t the only player offered a scholarship Saturday.
Former UCLA coach Terry Donahue runs the showcase with his younger brother, Pat. Terry Donahue said about $2.5 million in scholarships would be handed out as a result of this year’s showcase.
The foundation says that showcase players have gotten more than $8 million in financial aid packages since the Donahues brought the program to California in 2013.
Houston hosted the first showcase of this kind, when Phil Camp, a high school coach in Texas, hatched the idea. The Donahues caught wind of Camp’s combine and started their own at the StubHub Center in Carson four years ago.
Every year, Terry Donahue said, the California Showcase brand gets stronger, and that’s reflected in the combine’s talent pool, which he said was the best it’s ever been this year.
“High school coaches in particular know that we’re having this event now,” he said. “So they’re anxious when their kids get passed over by a Division I school, they know that they have a way to still send a really good kid to college by sending them to this camp.”
Many of “Donahue’s kids” from UCLA, where he was head coach from 1976-1995, volunteered as staff coaches to help conduct drills and work with the athletes.
Derek Ayers played running back and wide receiver at UCLA from 1992-97. He helped the running backs on Saturday, and he has been a showcase staff coach all four years.
“This program opens doors for kids that, when they walked across the stage in 12th grade, it was over. But now, there’s another opportunity,” Ayers said.
“I know a bunch of my ex-teammates at St. John Bosco would have flourished here, they would have continued to play somewhere.”
In Ayers’ high school days, Estancia quarterback Connor Brown’s football career might have ended after graduation.
The three-year starter amassed 4,313 yards and 32 touchdowns at Estancia. He received no D-I offers. But he left the showcase’s college fair with an armful of info packets and business cards in tow.
“I’m super excited, (playing football in college) is all I’m thinking about right now,” Brown said. “I’m just thinking about football and next year. I’m just really excited about it.”