Jaire Alexander is an NFL first-rounder because he listened to his high school coach
High school coaches can be an antidote to the problems plaguing college athletics
On the way to Dallas on Wednesday morning, I caught a large part of Condoleezza Rice’s news conference. Rice, the chairwoman of the Commission on College Basketball, offered matter-of-fact, common-sense recommendations for curing the ills of an intercollegiate athletics industry that often defies logic and common sense.
It is an industry populated by college coaches who, for fear of being fired and losing seven-figure salaries, often abandon the nurturing principles they learned as high school coaches.
As it looks to put the intercollegiate genie back in its bottle, the Rice commission must seriously consider bringing the high school coach back to prominence.
In a small way, the National Football League has.
For this year’s draft, the NFL allowed draft prospects to invite high school coaches who made an impact on their lives.
On Wednesday, I spoke with some of the coaches at a dinner hosted by the league. They were proud, of course, and ecstatic to see young people they had known, in many cases, since the fourth and fifth grade preparing to live a dream.
Willie Crite Jr. met Jaire Alexander when he was a 16-year-old transfer student at Rocky River High School in Mint Hill, North Carolina, just outside of Charlotte. Alexander, a cornerback, was selected in the first round by Green Bay on Thursday.
“Seeing him from that point to this point is amazing,” Crite, the school’s defensive backs coach, told me Wednesday. “To see the challenging work he put in, to see the determination to be the best, it’s amazing.”
Crite has been coaching high school for 15 years. “He was the first player I thought who legitimately a shot had to play in the NFL,” he said.
Alexander was a receiver at West Charlotte High School. When he transferred, Crite persuaded him to switch, telling Alexander that he was a good wide receiver but could be a great cornerback.
Alexander initially didn’t want to hear it. “I was like, ‘Corner? I play offense,’ ” Alexander recalled Thursday. “He said you’re going to make your money at corner, so I tried it out and, sure enough, it got me where I’m at today.”
When Crite and Alexander talked last summer, they both thought Alexander had a chance to reach the NFL. But a first-round pick?
“That’s probably the most unbelievable thing about this entire process, seeing him put the work in to get to be a first-round projected player,” Crite said.
Alexander was the 18th overall selection.
A central theme in Alexander’s career was playing with the proverbial chip on his shoulder.
He played with a chip in high school because other defensive backs in the area were receiving more attention.
“He played with a chip on his shoulder because none of the schools in North Carolina offered him a scholarship, so that kind of added fuel to the fire,” Crite said.
Alexander chose Louisville over South Carolina because, during the recruiting process, the Gamecocks’ coaching staff acted as if they were doing him a favor.
There was more fuel poured to the fire Thursday evening as Alexander watched 17 players get chosen before him — including three defensive backs. Denzel Ward from Ohio State was the first defensive back taken. Minkah Fitzpatrick from Alabama was the second, then Derwin James from Florida State was selected by the Los Angeles Chargers.
Alexander was elated at being drafted; he was not pleased with going 18th.
Add another chip.
“I felt I was the best in this class, that’s the kind of confidence I have,” he told me late Thursday evening. “To see those guys go before me, it just fueled the fire, and I’m definitely going to keep that chip on my shoulder.”
Richard Green, running backs coach at Mint Hill, wanted to make sure Alexander sidestepped the distractions and mistakes that frequently sideline so many talented young players who believe their social media hype, or who don’t put in the work.
“We all know there are plenty of people with talent to play on Sunday but they don’t have the discipline to put in the work and be the whole package that it takes,” Green said.
As a young man, Green attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. “I got caught up, messed up in the wrong stuff, and left,” he said. “I went to the Marine Corps and played football.”
Green spent 10 years in the Marines. When he got out, he dedicated his life to coaching. “I came back to work with young men, hoping that they don’t make the mistakes I made.”
Green and several other coaches told Alexander that he could be a great, provided he put in the work — on and off the field. Alexander got the message. He focused on grades and hard work.
“It wasn’t hard,” Alexander said as he waited outside an interview room. “Being here is a goal of mine that I had for a long time. I knew what I had to do to get here. I know what it took, and it got me here today.”
Go to any gym, as Alexander has, and ask a group of young people how many want to be pro players. Everyone raises their hand. But what does it take to be that one in a million who makes it? For starters, coaches — adults — clear a path and lead the way.
“Anything you want to do, you need to work hard. You need to be dedicated to that, and you need to be humble,” Alexander said.
“You need to make sure you’re treating people right and keeping a positive mindset. Positivity, work ethic and dedication. It gets you far in life.”
On Thursday, former Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold said the greatest thing he learned from his high school coach, Jaime Ortiz, was knowledge of self: know one’s self and be oneself.
“Coach Ortiz has always told me to just continue to be myself no matter what the situation I’m in,” Darnold said after being drafted third overall by the New York Jets.
“Whether I’m the backup, whether I’m the starter, whether I’m the water boy on the sideline, which I was when I was a young age, I’m just going to continue to be myself and never change for anything or anyone.”
Bring back the high school coach.
On Thursday, Charlie Shepherd, head coach at Salmon River High School in Riggins, Idaho, watched his former player Leighton Vander Esch get drafted 19th overall by the Dallas Cowboys. Shepherd met Vander Esch when he was in grade school in Riggins, where Leighton was best friends with Shepherd’s two sons.
Shepherd laughed when I asked him at dinner Wednesday how many professional football players he had coached.
Vander Esch was only his second player to play Division I college football. “The first one who even thought about going to the next level — obviously the first one in the draft,” Shepherd said.
At Salmon River, Vander Esch played linebacker and quarterback. He kicked field goals and returned kicks.
“He never left the field,” his coach said. Vander Esch was voted the Idaho Player of the Year in basketball and football, yet Boise State was the only school that recruited him.
On Thursday evening, Vander Esch said the versatility Shepherd demanded of him in high school played a large role in what unfolded in Dallas on Thursday night when the Cowboys selected him.
“He was my basketball coach,” Vander Esch said, referring to Shepherd. “He coached me ever since second grade, all the way through junior high and high school, and the second I could start playing football in sixth grade too.
“So he’s all I knew in high school. He’s done a lot for me. Props to him. Being able to play both sides of the ball, being dynamic and versatile, playing wherever he asked me to play and just being great at it.”
My trek to the NFL draft began Wednesday evening with Condoleezza Rice and her group offering right-minded recommendations to cure intercollegiate athletics. The journey ends this weekend in Dallas, where athletes used the intercollegiate athletic system to reach the NFL.
In each case, the athletes’ high school coach played a pivotal role.
Commercial interests, which Rice identified earlier this week, have marginalized the high school basketball coach and threaten to do the same in football, with the proliferation of AAU-like 7-on-7 competitions.
Rice knows the importance of the high school coach better than most. Her father, John Wesley Rice Jr., was a high school football coach in Alabama. She once recalled that she wanted to be her father’s All-American linebacker.
It’s not too late.
Listen to the testimony of these future pros. Bring back the high school coach.