Wednesday November 25th, 2015 3:22PM

Signing Day presents finish line for some, just the start for others

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
This morning thousands of athletes across this nation -- and dozens across northeast Georgia -- will realize lifelong dreams when they put pen to paper and make their collegiate choices official on National Signing Day.

For thousands more, however, the long and winding path that many have trod for months continues long after Signing Day parties and ceremonies wind down.

And those athletes -- specifically football players -- not lucky enough to earn a full scholarship offer from the limited number of Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I) programs often find themselves facing hard questions after the first day that football players may make a binding, written commitment to their program of choice.

"Whenever a guy misses out on a big scholarship offer I sit them down and ask them, 'do you still want to play college football?' If the answer is 'yes,' then we ask where they want us to re-send film," Chestatee football coach Stan Luttrell said. "If you're a good high school football player and want to play at the next level, there are opportunities out there. There are enough programs and schools for everybody."

(NOTE: Join Jacobs Media beginning at 2 p.m. today for salute to National Signing Day, as 1240 AM ESPN Radio brings you reactions from local athletes who will perform at the next level live from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' signing day ceremony at Longstreet Cafe in Gainesville. Access North Georgia will also provide updates from various signing ceremonies throughout the day.)

What there isn't a ton of, however, is money. And full economic backing begins to dwindle the further an athlete travels from the FBS, where teams are permitted 85 full scholarships.

"There were 25 full scholarships available at Carson-Newman where I played," Luttrell said. "There are plenty of ways to get financial help, but to play small college football you have to have the desire to play."

Desire was never in short supply for Bryant Shirreffs, but the Jefferson quarterback spent much of the past month wondering if he would be making some tough decisions of his own after Signing Day -- and then came a phone call from North Carolina State.

"There were rumors that they were thinking about offering me a scholarship and then they called last Thursday (Jan. 31) and extended an offer to me," Shirreffs said. "I didn't think about it for even a second. I gladly accepted it."

Shirreffs followed that up with a trip to Raleigh, N.C., this past weekend, where he met the Wolfpack coaching staff and players and toured the campus that will become his home for the next few years.

"I loved everything about it," Shirreffs said. "And just knowing that I have everything settled, it was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders."

It is a sentiment shared by many of the athletes who undergo the collegiate football recruiting process -- even though the process itself has become much more open and approachable for high school players and coaches.

Chestatee -- like many other area high schools -- makes full use of the electronic age to aid its players, posting game film and highlight packages on the website, where collegiate coaches may log on from any location and watch potential recruits. Like many other programs, the War Eagles also utilize LRS Sports, which provides even more detailed recruit information to college programs.

"They've really streamlined it for us," Luttrell said. "If a coach comes by to see me, for example a coach from Georgia State, I can send him everything he needs to know about a player before he gets back to his office and it will be there waiting for him online."

Luttrell believes the proliferation of technology has made the recruiting process better for all involved, though it still requires plenty of attention and time from coaches on both sides of the high school/collegiate divide -- and it doesn't mean that old fashioned face-to-face dialogue is a thing of the past either.

"You still have to have a coach or coaches working on putting the time in to make sure this stuff gets posted online," Luttrell said. "And relationships between high school and college coaches will always be important."

There is the added dimension of college recruiters facing information overload, but as far as Luttrell is concerned, the more chances for a player to be seen, the better his odds of finding the right fit.

"I imagine it allows the lower level schools to see more potential players without having to make a bunch of visits," Luttrell said. "The more film that's out there, the better."

There are also increasing opportunities, especially within the state, for high school players to continue their careers, as schools like Berry College in Rome inaugurate programs. And while some players may be turned off by missing the opportunity to play in Athens, Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge, Luttrell knows, from experience, that small college football offers plenty of challenges to those dedicated to the game.

"Everybody sees the Division I teams but they don't always know about small college football. It's a great experience, and they play at a high level," Luttrell said. "I had plenty of teammates at Carson-Newman who transferred to bigger schools. It's good football; it's just not as well known."

After helping lead his team on a historic run that included a Class AA championship defeat of Calhoun, Shirreffs hoped the exposure would land him a full offer to a bigger program.

"It's been a long process," Shirreffs said. "It really helped going to the state championship game, because there were a ton of coaches there. But I still hadn't gotten a big offer until last week, and I hadn't qualified for full financial aid to Yale or Dartmouth -- and they don't give you much money to come play football at Ivy League schools and I didn't want my parents to have to pay for all of that."

That won't be an issue anymore for the signal caller.

"I feel like I'm still dreaming; winning state was amazing in and of itself -- all of the seniors worked so hard to do that -- and I haven't really had a chance to even enjoy that title," Shirreffs said. "Ever since the title game I've been playing in All-Star games and taking visits or taking the SAT. I've also been sick for two weeks. I'd just like to take some time to relax and enjoy everything."

One gets the feeling Shirreffs will find some time tomorrow to do just that. But while he will be joined by fellow girdiron hopefuls around the area and nation on Signing Day, there will be many more small victories over the coming weeks, as smaller schools begin to lock down their rosters and give life to many dreams of playing the next level.
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