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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Hillsborough's best slips through recruiting cracks
Marc Thomas, the best linebacker Hillsborough High has ever had, is like many high school players, unable to pass the eye test despite being the best at what they do.
By JOHN C. COTEY
Published January 22, 2008
TAMPA - He stood above the crowd - tall, handsome, the perfect size for stardom - and everyone knew who he was.
He was the high school football star.
He said to check back, that soon he would sift through his shoeboxes of college letters and narrow his choices, from dozens to 10. From there, he would choose his five visits. Then he'd trim his list down to two.
Keep in touch and you'll be the first to know, he promised, when the news conference is set. Unless, of course, he just up and decides to wait until signing day.
So many choices. So many frequent-flier miles. So much waiting on a teen to make up his mind.
Marc Thomas, the best linebacker Hillsborough High has ever had, thought maybe that would be him one day.
It is not.
He looks around and sees it happening everywhere, players collecting fancy college offers like a boy scout collects badges, displaying them just as proudly on blogs and recruiting Web sites and at school lunch tables.
These players are his friends, his teammates, many of his opponents this season.
He is a better football player than most of them.
But he never grew taller than 6 feet, never surging much past 200 pounds. His qualifying score isn't there just yet.
Thomas is like many high school players, unable to pass the eye test despite being the best at what they do.
"They tell you what they want - it's 6 feet 3, 225 pounds. They'll tell you he just doesn't fit what we need," Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia said. "There's a lot of great football players that are an inch or two short."
So Thomas, his cell phone not buzzing like he dreamed it might, did what he could, hitting people in the mouth on the football field, tackling everyone who came near, leading the county in players dragged to the ground.
Garcia called him the greatest linebacker his school has ever produced, high praise considering the success of Hillsborough football over the years.
Armwood coach Sean Callahan swears Thomas is a Division I-A player, whether or not he fits the formula to be classified as a Division I-A recruit.
It wasn't Moses McCray, Thomas' 6-4, 280-pound FSU-bound teammate whom Callahan worried about most when playing Hillsborough.
It was Thomas.
"To me, it's just so simple - Marc Thomas is a football player," he said.
Recruiting is a science, or an art or somewhere in between. But it remains imperfect.
Remember that when the television stations and reporters rush to your high school's front office in two weeks and the blogs continue their slow burn, that in every county, there is a player slipping through.
A Marc Thomas who is too small. A Derek Winter the doubters insist is too slow.
"Everybody likes to pick guys that can run and can look the part," Callahan said, "but a lot of times, they aren't really football players."
Without the fanfare of others, in the quiet town of Statesboro on the campus of Georgia Southern, far away from Florida Field and the Ohio State band and the bright lights of a news conference, Thomas made his college choice over the weekend.
A kid a school wanted badly, a kid not seen as too small but just perfect, playing for a program with a winning tradition and loyal following, sharing a locker room with his brother and fulfilling a lifelong dream in a place where he could be happy.
Marc Thomas, the best linebacker Hillsborough High has ever had, who thought maybe that would be him one day.