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Paul Cronin just sat there, quietly, listening, dumbfounded. Shocking news always leaves people like that. It was last fall and the football recruiter from Arizona State was talking and the more he talked, the more Cardinal Newman's head football coach thought it might be a joke. But it was no joke.

"He told me blue-chip high school kids now have agents," Cronin said.

Here's how it works: The parents of a blue-chipper hire an uncle or a friend, someone who has convinced the parents he can get their kid numerous college football scholarship offers. For every college offer the kid receives as a result of his hustle, the parents pay him, like $1,000.

"He said single moms are particularly vulnerable," Cronin said.

The hook that grabs the parents: The more attention their kid gets, the greater likelihood some college will sweeten the deal to win the bidding war. Money, cars, houses, jobs, it's all been done before. And only the most na?e of us would claim it doesn't happen now. A single mom, on her own, stressed in every way possible, very well may not spend a lot of time debating internally the ethical dilemma those freebies raise.

Sounds crazy, doesn't it? Not nearly as crazy as this: In February, Alabama offered a scholarship to Dylan Moses, an eighth-grader from Baton Rouge, La. The year before LSU offered that same kid a scholarship. Of course all those offers are — literally — hot air. They are non-binding verbal offers. But the publicity generated by them creates a fantasy world all to itself. A 13-year-old kid now feels like a star and he's not even in high school yet. His parents now see a free college education. And the leeches get $1,000 a pop to spin fantasy into delirium.

"This kind of blows my mind," Casa Grande head football coach Trent Herzog said. "Now everyone is going to want a piece of this kid. He probably feels like he is on cloud nine right now, but he's going to enter high school with a big X on his chest. What happens if he doesn't grow? Or get any better? Do you think (Alabama head coach) Nick Saban will even be there in five years?"

What Herzog has had to do, however, is grudgingly accept that the football landscape is changing.

"When Nick Sherry (now a quarterback at UNLV) received his first offer (from San Diego State) in February of his junior year," Herzog said, "I thought, 'Wow, that's early.' Then Elijah (Qualls, headed to Washington) received his first offers in November of his junior year (Arizona State, Iowa State, Oregon State). Wow, that's even earlier. Now JaJuan (Lawson, a senior quarterback next fall) was offered in April of his sophomore year (Arizona). You can see the cycle getting earlier and earlier every year.

"Now if I want my kid to be out there (to be known), I have to send out film of him during his sophomore year. I don't think it's right but I have to do it because of all the competition."

Lawson was asked what if, instead of being a sophomore, he was an eighth-grader when he received his first scholarship offer. He didn't say the exact words but it was clear he felt sorry for Dylan Moses.

"Now he is expected to be better than anyone else," Lawson said. "Now he is expected to be the leader. He is expected to win."

Moses can't fail. Can't be anything other than a superstar. Can't have family problems, girlfriend problems, coaching conflicts that could distract and derail him. Can't suffer a career-ending injury. The weight of Alabama football has or will shortly descend on his 14-year-old head.

"He looks really good right now against eighth-graders," Lawson's dad, Marcell, said sarcastically. Marcel Lawson is the assistant offensive coordinator and running back coach at Casa Grande. He has seen some videos of Moses, 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, who runs a 4.6 40.

"He doesn't look like a polished high school running back right now," Marcell Lawson said.

Marcell has spent a lot of time with JaJuan convincing his son that perspective and work ethic need to be a part of his daily life. The quarterback has offers from six schools: Arizona, Sacramento State, Texas State, Wyoming, Idaho and UNLV.

"I told him you are not special because of this," Marcell said. "This means you have a gift. You are lucky to have the talent you have. This isn't basketball where one exceptional player can control everything. Football is a team game."

Teammates don't look kindly upon prima donnas. Some will occasionally miss a block for a prima donna running back. Some will occasionally get in a fight with one. "He feels like a boss, like he's untouchable," said Dylan's father, Edward Moses Jr. "We have to bring him back to earth."

Like he's a rogue satellite.

"But kids play the game, too," Herzog said. "They commit and then de-commit, too."

The kids pick up the vibe, find themselves a pawn, reject a school before the school rejects them for a more talented running back who has emerged.

"It's a nasty business," Herzog said. "It's shame on the game."

And it's about to get nastier. On April 15 college coaches now can call a recruit on the phone. Until then they were forced to go through the high school coaches. Now the coaches call. The leeches work overtime to maximize their finder's fee. The parents take credit for their prized possession. The kid, make your appointment now to talk to him next week.

It's a dream all right, until it isn't.

"Elijah would get 10-15 calls a night," Herzog said. "So he changed his phone number."

It is a confusing experience when an athlete feels like chum in the water, after having been the shark.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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