GAINESVILLE — Two years ago, Herve Aklotsoe played his way on to a football field for the first time.
Three years ago, Jake Simpson weighed walking away from the girdiron altogether.
Yet on Wednesday, each found himself a recipient of a collegiate football scholarship after inking National Letters of Intent to secure their respective futures in the sport.
"This is amazing; I was just trying to do anything to get on a field when I started; now I'm going to play in college," said Aklotsoe, a native of Togo, who will play for Reinhardt University. "I just made the decision on Tuesday night. It's been a really long process, and it was intense. But the people that rooted for me helped me. And my family's been there for me... just a great day."
Welcome to National Signing Day, the first instance that high school football players may officially bond themselves to the collegiate schools and programs of their choice. For Gainesville High's Aklotsoe, Buford High's Simpson -- and all involved -- it was an emotional release.
(NOTE: Athletes from other sports were also allowed to sign on Wednesday, though the date was the first for football. For a complete list, scroll down.)
"I hate to use the word overwhelming but it kind of encompasses that. Just crazy that I came up here through GFL (Gwinnett Football League) and all the people that have put into me, and to pay off like this, and sign on the dotted line and make it official... it's special," Simpson said on the eve of signing.
Aklotsoe and five Red Elephants teammates basked in the glow of the moment, as Willie Brooks (Limestone College), Kris Montague (Limestone College), Calvin Murphy (Limestone College), KD Smith (William Penn), Tyree Robinson (East Tennessee State) and RD Timmons (William Penn) also put pen to paper to realize a lifelong goal.
"It's a dream come true," said Montague, who will join two teammates at the Gaffney, S.C., school. "It's such a relief that my mom doesn't have to pay for college. It was stressful, but I sat down, weighed all the options and picked the one that felt the most like home."
There are still northeast Georgia standouts looking for their next-level football homes, however. And just because National Signing Day came and went does not mean that the process is finished for 2017 seniors.
"Today's a great thing for the kids who are able to sign, and as a college football fan I love National Signing Day -- but the process is not finished," Winder-Barrow football coach Heath Webb said. "Today's a good day for colleges because they know now who is on their roster and who is not. And there are some kids that get put on waiting lists, for lack of a better term. And, after today when so many colleges see who has signed, that sometimes opens opportunities for other kids."
In fact -- especially for those players signing for schools that play at the Division II level, NAIA or junior college -- waiting out Signing Day is sometimes a good thing.
"Financially a lot of schools are limited in how much they can give, and if a player snubs them all of a sudden that $30,000 they offered that guy is now available for someone else," Webb said. "Smaller schools can't always just say, 'here's a scholarship for you.' They have to rank kids according to position and that position has a dollar amount. Also, test scores and grades come into it as well. A lot of schools try to give more academic (scholarship) money and save other money for use in the football program. So some kids are still waiting to see if they get higher test scores."
That does not make the waiting easy, however. And an already stressful process may be that much more difficult when watching friends, teammates or opponents get their moment on Signing Day.
"We still have kids taking visits, trying to find the right fit," Webb said. "And a lot of people get more anxious when they see all the coverage of Signing Day."
That said, plenty more northeast Georgia players will get their chance in the coming weeks, especially as the entire state is considered a fertile recruiting ground for programs around the nation.
"Schools know that Georgia players have a high football IQ," Webb said. "Smaller schools know that they may not get the guy with D-I size or speed, but they do know that they'll get a good football player. Georgia kids are well coached."
Certainly collegiate recruiters know schools like Buford, Gainesville, Mill Creek, Lanier, Commerce and Jefferson -- as the number of signees today proved. Yet Signing Day is in no way confined to a few programs, as the list of area players headed to the next level included those from no fewer than 14 area teams. And with more sure to come, it was another impressive haul of northeast Georgia talent for collegiate programs.
Nowhere was that more impressive than at Buford, where the Wolves inked 14 -- with seven of that group headed to schools listed among the top 50 academic institutions in the nation. Tanner Alexander (Sewanee-University of the South), Chee Anyanwu (Northwestern), Joshua Blackwell (Duke), Connor Mills (Princeton), Dean Powell (Army), TD Roof (Georgia Tech), Jake Simpson (Wake Forest), and Hank White (Columbia) joined teammats KJ Anderson (Western Michigan), Jack Ness (Kennesaw State), Mic Roof (UNC Charlotte), Garrett Scoggins (Gardner Webb), Tyler Thurmond (West Virginia), and Zac Waters (Catawba College) in keeping Buford's pipeline to the next level going strong -- the Wolves had 12 sign last year and 15 in 2015.
Powell, an offensive lineman, is headed the United States Military Academy (Army) where he is expected to battle for a spot as a freshman. However, it was Powell's desire to be a career military man that drew him to the upstate New York campus.
"My grandfather was in the Army and I have always wanted a career in the military. This gives me a chance to do that," he said. "It's a dream come true. But, if I was able to have a chance at the NFL I would consider that. But my plans are to be a career military man."
Linebacker TD Roof chose Georgia Tech over Virginia Tech and Indiana. There were a few obvious reasons, said the son of current Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof. TD's brother Mic, a quarterback, is headed to UNC Charlotte.
"My dad being there played a small part, but really I just wanted to stay close to home near my family and friends," Roof said. "It wasn't that tough of a choice. It's a great (academic) school, and I loved the coaches and the atmosphere. I really felt comfortable there. I'm excited about the chance. I'm hoping I can challenge for a starting spot as a freshman."
Linebacker Jack Ness, who will be going after a state title in wrestling over the next couple of weeks, is headed to Kennesaw State where he is hoping to help build the Owls into a rising power. He choose the Owls over Tennesee Tech and Gardner Webb.
"I think (Kennesaw) is a program on the rise and I think we have a good class with talent coming in," Ness said. "I love the coaches and the players already there. I'm excited. I'm hoping I can challenge for some playing time right away."
It is a goal that so many in northeast Georgia can now begin to focus on -- while others will continue the chase.
Northeast Georgia Football Players Expected To SIgn Letters Of Intent*
Players listed by high school (some players have not chosen officially and will do so on Wednesday)
Ethan Morris, Reinhardt University
Will Smith, Point University
Gunnar Wright, Reinhardt University
Tanner Alexander, Sewanee-University of the South
KJ Anderson, Western Michigan
Chee Anyanwu, Northwestern
Joshua Blackwell, Duke
Connor Mills, Princeton
Jack Ness, Kennesaw State
Dean Powell, United States Military Academy at West Point (Army)
TD Roof, Georgia Tech
Mic Roof, UNC Charlotte
Garrett Scoggins, Gardner-Webb University
Jake Simpson, Wake Forest
Tyler Thurmond, West Virginia
Zac Waters, Catawba College
Hank White, Columbia
Cole Chancey, Harding University
Cade Overstreet, Harding University
Lane Sorrow, Harding University
Nasser Clark, West Point
Luke Martin, Delta State/St. Francis/Iowa Central
Wyatt McMahon, University of Cumberlands
Deon Ellison, Carson Newman University
River Dixon, Shorter University
Jacob Reece, Carson Newman University
Andrew Pavao, Reinhardt University
Herve Aklotsoe, Reinhardt University
Willie Brooks, Limestone College
Kris Montague, Limestone College
Calvin Murphy, Limestone College
KD Smith, William Penn
Tyree Robinson, East Tennessee State
RD Timmons, William Penn
Zack Boobas, West Point
Caleb Chandler, Louisville
Dontae Wilson, Georgia State
Michael Allen, Wake Forest
Juwuan Jones, Western Kentucky
Josh Stroud, Indiana Wesleyan
Tyler Taylor, LSU
Ethan Wilson, Tennessee Tech (Preferred walk-on)
Zach Matthews, West Georgia
Ace Williams, Reinhardt University
Dylan Artman, Seton Hill University
Nick Campbell, Western Carolina University
Tyler Fannin, University of Virginia
Jack Franklin, Coastal Carolina University
Edmond Graham, Mercer University
Jamar Hall, Mercer University
Victor Heyward, Georgia State University
Brenton King, Georgia Tech
David Milon, Nichols College
Preston Norwood, University of Pennsylvania
Anthony Presto, Reinhardt University
Ayoola Ogun-Semore, Ohio University
Demetrias Rias, Nichols College
Joe Thomas, Air Force Academy
Matthew Winston, Princeton University
Noah Cannon, Citadel
AJ Howard, Army
Russell Cox, Point University
Jacob Satterfield, Wingate University
* - If you're a northeast Georgia football player that signed a Letter of Intent on Wednesday, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with a picture of the ceremony. Please list the school signed with and identify those in the picture.
NORTHEAST GEORGIA ATHLETES THAT SIGNED ON WEDNESDAY
Gabby Kennedy, soccer, University of South Carolina, Aiken
Nayeli Espinoza, soccer, Emmanuel College
If you're a northeast Georgia athlete that signed a Letter of Intent on Wednesday, please email us at email@example.com with a picture of the ceremony. Please list the school signed with and identify those in the picture.
-- Jeff Hart contributed to this report.