Long before Thursday’s sunrise, a stream of buses holding 80 football players, a dozen staff, a band and cheerleaders pulled out of the Chandler Hamilton parking lot, headed for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
All week, the Huskies have been giddy about this excursion, a 1,700-mile journey to Cleveland and then Massillon, Ohio, where high school football is king.
To be invited to the Kirk Herbstreit Challenge, a national high school football showcase pitting top teams in Ohio against eight others from across America, is an honor.
“I look at this as one of the few special events in the country,” Hamilton coach Steve Belles said. “I think it’s good for high school football. It’s nothing that’s really keeping kids away from their studies, and for some kids this game is their college career because they’re not going to college, let alone play college football.”
It even sounds like college football — cross-country traveling, sponsorship, and media attention.
Both the school and Arizona Interscholastic Association endorse this concept.
Still, they’re 16- and 17-year-old teenagers missing two days of school while being flown and lodged across the country on McDonald’s dime.
Hamilton isn’t the first East Valley school to take its helmets on a plane. Phoenix Mountain Pointe, Phoenix St. Mary’s, Mesa Mountain View and Chandler Basha have ventured to places such as Hawaii, Pennsylvania and Las Vegas.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the kids and terrific exposure for the school.
But does that make it right?
EVERYBODY’S DOING IT
The culture and coverage of high school football has changed.
For nearly 25 years, USA Today has published a high school football poll every week called the “Super 25.” The Huskies are No. 11 this week.
The national newspaper has a high school editor who oversees content from three reporters and a network of contacts found within nearly every state in America. The newspaper’s Web pages are filled with features, rankings, polls, regional recruiting updates and blogs.
“By no means is it the final word,” said Jim Welch, deputy managing editor of sports. “You have to be careful you don’t overdo this. There have been enough situations where it goes over the top, and it’s truly unfortunate. We don’t want to be in the business of hounding high school athletes. That’s where we draw the line.”
Other media outlets are also coming on board.
In August, Sports Illustrated put out its first national high school football preview (the magazine published its first high school preview for basketball last fall). SI, too, cultivated its own top 25 plus the top school in each state (Phoenix Brophy was listed as Arizona’s top team).
There are occasional features in the magazine — such as the small town in Maine whose football team had five players commit suicide in the span of a three years — but the majority of content ends up on its Web site, loaded with recruiting updates and player features.
“You don’t want players to become household names like LeBron (James) did,” senior editor B.J. Schecter said. “You want exposure but not overexposure.
“We want to hit different human-interest stories in different sports with snippets and not hit (readers) over the head with this.”
TV has jumped deeper into the fray. ESPN broadcasts Friday night football games from around the country. MTV has a reality series, “Two-a-days.” NBC will air a “Friday Night Lights” series this fall.
Local TV networks provide highlight shows and recaps. Cox Ch. 7 broadcasts games. So, too, does radio. The Tribune has a weekly football section and upgraded content on its Web site.
And a bevy of national magazines centering on high school sports have been launched. How much of the increased coverage surrounding elite high school football teams is media driven is open for debate, but the need to create content can be seen as opportunity meeting necessity, with the billion-dollar NFL as the guiding light.
“I’m not saying the media is the bad boy in this because it’s ultimately up to the school, but they’re providing a way for the schools to make it very tough to turn down,” said Peter Roby, a former college player and coach who’s currently the director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. “These schools need to keep perspective. How much school is being missed vs. raising money and maintaining a little humility.
“If you’re a kid playing on national TV or ESPN, you’re going to be seen as the cat’s meow.”
SHOWCASING THE PROGRAM
To Hamilton, it’s about winning and representing Arizona against some of the nation’s powerhouses.
“I think here and a lot of other schools — Brophy, Red Mountain, Mountain View — are all striving to be the best. It’s the expectation,” said Hamilton athletic director Dick Baniszewski, who has been a part of similar excursions at Mountain Pointe and Basha. “It’s an opportunity to get outside your comfort zone and see what you are.”
It’s also an opportunity to showcase the program and school to another part of the country, which — intentional or incidental — will be perceived by some as recruiting families thinking of moving to the East Valley.
Belles, for one, has heard the catcalls before. While playing at St. Mary’s in the early 1980s he heard whispers and jokes he was there “on scholarship.”
“If that was the case I never saw a check,” he said.
The Huskies know among the reasons they were selected to play was their recent history of success. Hamilton has won two of the past three 5A state championships.
Could this be a case of the rich getting richer?
“I can’t worry about that stuff,” Belles said. “I want them to have a great experience, represent our state well and come back with a win. That’s the ideal situation. We’re playing for our state.”
Every school at the Challenge is playing on a one-time basis. One future possibility is for schools to play a homeand-away series against a team from, say, Ohio, alternating locations each year.
The idea is to give the cultural and travel experiences to high school kids on both sidelines.
“You always have to be careful to keep that perspective and not make it something bigger than an individual school or state,” AIA executive director Harold Slemmer said. “All kids should have the same benefits. If this grows into something where every year a school is scheduling out-ofstate games, I’d be philosophically opposed to that.”
THE BIG STAGE
The concept of a national championship seems farfetched, given there’s no legitimate way to determine who are the two best high school teams in the country.
Slemmer is opposed to any kind of national title game as it pertains to Arizona schools, but if it happens, you can be sure corporations and media will be a driving force.
“It’s going to go as far and as long as sponsorship is there,” Belles said. “If not for major companies fronting the money, we don’t go. We can’t raise that kind of money. If people are watching and someone is buying, it’ll continue to grow. I think people want to see teams play other teams in different states, even if it’s one game a year.”
It could make for one memorable game.
The town of Massillon has a population of approximately 35,000 people, according to the city’s Web site. The high school stadium seats 22,000, and every week it’s full.
“You want great experience and great memories, and this is a great experience.” Baniszewski said.
But if it becomes a habit?
“If it happens once a season or every couple years, it’s a fun thing to look back on fondly and say you played at a big-time level,” Roby said. “Any more than that, and you have to ask whether you’re doing it for the right reasons. Are you trying to educate your kids? Or are you trying for exposure?
“You have to be careful of the tail wagging the dog.”
HAMILTON VS. WASHINGTON (MASSILLON, OHIO)
What: One of nine games in the Kirk Herbstreit Challenge
When: Saturday, 5 p.m.
Where: Massillon, Ohio TV: Cox (Ch. 7)