The group stood at about 20 last April. By September it was at down to six. As Chris Simms went into the final week of the high school football season, he had narrowed the number of colleges that he was considering to three:
There are lots of kids out there who will receive scholarships to play football, but with most of them, we don't tune in until there are only a couple left on the list. Chris Simms was different for two reasons. First, he was tabbed early on as the top high school quarterback in the nation last spring. Second, he is the eldest son of former
quarterback Phil Simms. Every step of the recruiting process for him became magnified. There were reporters at every practice asking about it. There were television crews at the field every time he led Ramapo High of Franklin Lakes, N.J., into a game.
On Dec. 16, Simms went on television to announce his college choice. He picked Tennessee.
Forty-two days later, he changed his mind. The school Chris Simms really wanted to go to was Texas and that's where he's going to go. Simms signed a binding National Letter of Intent with Texas on Feb. 3.
In the New York metro area and in cities all around SEC-land, television and print media carried the news of the initial decision. "I just want to go back to being a regular high school student now,'' said Simms. "I haven't gone out with my friends on a weekend night in a long time.''
Take a look inside what happens to an elite recruit and the picture isn't a pretty one.
The pressure on the 17-year-old Simms was enormous. Sure, a lot of it came from the media. Some of it came from his peers, who always were inquiring. Most of it came from the coaches who were recruiting him.
"On an average night, I got home from practice and the phone never stopped ringing,'' said Simms. "I couldn't sit down to dinner and have a bite of my mashed potatoes without having to go pick up the phone again.''
It didn't stop until after he'd announced that Tennessee was his choice.
You had to feel for Chris Simms. Yes, he probably has a million-dollar future as an NFL quarterback and he is sure to be adored by a throng of college football fans. But all of this was a little too much. Simms is an incredibly nice, good-natured kid, the type who would help a neighbor out whenever they asked. And because of his nature, Simms had a problem.
"The hardest thing in the world is telling a coach 'no,' " Simms said. "They have spent all this time with you, showering attention on you. Writing you letters and calling you. How do you tell someone who wants you to come to their school so badly that the college or the program isn't good enough? Could you do that to Joe Paterno?"
Every year high school seniors have to make choices about where they will go to college. Most aren't athletes and haven't a clue where they'd really like to go when they apply. And decision rarely is an easy one. Now imagine what it would be like to be asked about two or three or four times a day. Imagine what it would be like to have everyone in your town reading about what you are thinking each morning in the newspaper. How much harder would it be to make that decision?
And Chris Simms had another kind of pressure to deal with. He spent many hours talking with his father about what would be the best place for him. Phil Simms, as it turns out, is the one who really thought Tennessee was the best school for his son. "I think it was my enthusiasm for Tennessee that came through when he picked it," Phil Simms said. "Maybe I pushed things in that direction too much."
From a football perspective, Tennessee probably was the logical choice. The Volunteers next year will return Tee Martin, who led them to the national championship this season. But when Simms would be a sophomore, he'd be the starter. "It would mean three years that I would be the guy,'' Simms said when asked why he'd chosen Tennessee.
At Texas, redshirt freshman Major Applewhite was the starting quarterback this season. Had a darn good year, too. Were Simms to lose the contest for the starting job in September, no one knows how long he would have to be a reserve.
It wasn't until after he'd chosen Tennessee that Simms had a moment for unfettered thought. Away from the cameras and reporters and calling coaches, Simms thought about what it would be like at Tennessee and what it would be like at Texas and found that he preferred what he'd seen when visiting Austin.
Maybe his change of heart shocked a lot of people. Maybe from a football perspective, it doesn't make as much sense because of Applewhite (though I wouldn't bet against Simms starting next year). But he chose Texas because he liked the school better.
In places all across the country, there are elite athletes making college choices. Carlos Boozer is a superior basketball player in Alaska. Eli Manning is an exceptional football player in Louisiana. But many of them aren't as good as Simms and don't have the luxuries he does.
In New York, many basketball players say that college coaches tell them there is only one scholarship for someone who plays their position and two or three or four players that they are recruiting for the spot. First guy to accept the scholarship offer gets it. And these are guys who will play Big East basketball; they aren't slouches.
That's a lot to handle.
Today, more than ever before, we see kids transferring from one college to another. One reason may be that they have to make their initial decision under so much pressure.
Chris Simms was lucky. He had the poise and guts to look at his decision, change his mind and then call Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer and tell him.
A lot of athletes don't have that chance, and it isn't fair.
Roger Rubin has covered sports in the New York area for the past 10 years. He currently is a staff writer for the New York Daily News, covering high school and college sports.