Nick Porada didn’t feel much pain.
He was on a Bucknell football field last summer, hundreds of miles from his Wayne home, chasing the dream of so many high school football players. He was doing a drill, as instructed by the college coaches watching him, when his leg got caught up on the turf and hyperextended.
A week later, after he struggled to practice with his team at Wayne Valley, an MRI showed that Porada had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. He would miss his entire senior-year football season.
February 2 is known as National Signing Day for high school athletes. It’s when well-dressed football prospects sit in their school’s gymnasium, or maybe the library, early in the morning—a tradition carried over from when kids would fax in their official letters of intent first thing that day—and reveal which school they will attend by grabbing a hat from a pile or yanking open a shirt like Superman. It’s an all-day, ESPN-televised event, and fodder for an entire industry of media organizations that track recruiting decisions and bestow rankings on prospects.
Porada wasn’t looking to get on television or play for a big-time program. He had modest aspirations. He had gone to camps at Rutgers, Bryant University, Towson, William and Mary, and Stony Brook before attending one at Bucknell.
These camps are run by the schools, and the drills are facilitated by their coaching staffs. It’s invitation only. What no one says but everyone knows is the possibility of a scholarship offer. This is a chance for a kid like Porada to show that he has what it takes. Have ball. Will camp.
This is how the recruiting sausage gets made. It’s a grind of travel and workouts, measurements and being timed. Players like Porada accept the pain of the process. They don’t have much choice.
“Obviously, it’s unfortunate,” Porada says of his injury. “My family has been motivating me every single day. I remember talking to one of my buddies in the locker room…about how we would win states, but it didn’t end up like that. It’s unfortunate, but it’s how it is.”
There are different levels of college athletics, ranging from Division 1 (also known as the Football Bowl Subdivision, meaning teams that make bowl games), which are the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world, down to Division 3, or your Keans and Montclair States.
Football powerhouse Ohio State doesn’t recruit the same way that Kean does, and vice versa. Big schools have money and private planes to send coaches out to meet the players at their homes or schools, while small schools have assistants renting cars to try to get a word with a player in the hallway, or better yet, a shout-out on social media.
But what has become trendy in the last decade is the creation of college camps for football, where a college like Rutgers invites a select number of prospects to its campus to work out and practice in front of their coaches. The players pay a fee, around $60–$100. The coaches get a look at the player in person, and everyone’s happy. The player is sure he impressed the coach, and the coach may have just found a player who is a perfect fit.
In addition to camps, there are private showcases, or “combines,” run by former coaches and players, which also charge a fee. They rent out a facility or field and post an invitation on social media for football players to come and perform in front of college coaches from across the United States. Some say they will livestream the workout for maximum visibility.
Tom Pajic runs Jerseygridironscout.com and was senior offensive advisor and director of player personnel at Temple University and multiple Division 2 schools. He runs a number of showcases in South Jersey, inviting kids to compete and get noticed. “I connect the dots,” says Pajic. “[The coaches] see them run around and they get to confirm or not confirm their evaluations.”
Pajic believes that the most important thing for a college coach is face-to-face contact with a prospect. He’s proud of the connections he has made, saying that kids who have attended his events have gotten into West Point and Sacred Heart, among other colleges.
It’s a harsh reality, though, that not every aspiring high school football player in New Jersey is going to find a place to play in college. Some, like Porada, will get hurt trying to show their skills.
Wayne Valley football coach Roger Kotlarz calls the showcases and college camps a necessary evil. “Coaches want to see the player live and put them through drills and get their measurables,” Kotlarz says. “It’s an evil because kids can go to an exorbitant number of camps, and it’s unending. These kids are impressionable, because all of the schools are saying you have to come to their camp. You can’t go to every camp, and it’s hard to get that to sink in.”
But from Pajic’s perspective, “Nobody can get mad at this process, because it’s up to the colleges. They can say they like what they see. They can put all the pieces of the puzzle together.”
A compounding problem: What parent doesn’t believe that the young football player in their house is going to go to Alabama or Michigan? They have the dream, too.
Another sectional championship-winning high school coach, who requested anonymity because he has worked at these showcase events, says that private showcases play into those families’ hopeful thoughts and can be misleading. He says a showcase might trumpet, for example, that it had 20 students with scholarship offers participate. But in reality, those offers had already been given before the showcase took place.
“It’s marketing for them,” he says. “All of these guys want to get guys at their camps, and they just want to make money, and nothing ever comes of it.”
Pajic believes in his product. “I can’t guarantee anything,” Pajic says. “I am just providing the platform.”
Porada is rehabbing his knee and hasn’t given up on the dream of playing college football. He’s 6-foot-2, 225 pounds and still a prospect. As of December, he was still in contact with some schools. Someone will likely give him a shot.
Kotlarz will continue to try to limit the number of college camps his best players attend, worried about the grind on a player’s body.
For Pajic, business is good. He’s just trying to help high school players realize their dreams. “There is a place for every kid to play college football, it just might not be what you think it is,” Pajic says. “You may not be able to stay in New Jersey. You might have to travel to Pennsylvania, or Delaware, or Connecticut or Rhode Island. If you want to play college football, there is a Division 3 or Division 2 school for you.”
Wayne Valley struggled on the football field without Porada, finishing 3–7 and losing in the first round of the playoffs. It was a big drop from 2019, when the Indians won the North Group 4 title and went 11–2. Porada did dress in uniform this fall when the Indians beat rival Wayne Hills. That was the highlight of his season.
He doesn’t have any regrets. This is the way the game is played, and pain is expected.
“I don’t think I did too much,” Porada says. “I was coming from a public school, and junior year, Covid ruined everything. I only got to play one full year of varsity football. I think that going to all these camps trying to get myself recruited was good for me.”
Darren Cooper has been a sports columnist in New Jersey since 2010. He was born in Louisiana and still is looking for good jambalaya in New Jersey.Click here to leave a comment