Twenty-seven players were met with wild cheers as they stood at the podium in the Stephenson High School auditorium to announce which school’s college football scholarship offer they would accept.
But the loudest reaction at Stephenson’s Signing Day ceremony on Feb. 3 was saved for defensive end Mike Thornton, who was the final player to step to the microphone. The event took on a rock-concert quality when Thornton ended months of speculation and reached into a bag to pull out a University of Georgia cap and jacket.
His words, “I’m going to Georgia,” were barely audible above the screams.
Thornton capped Stephenson’s largest signing class. The Jaguars had 29 players sign letters of intent on Feb. 3, National Signing Day. A record-setting 126 players in DeKalb County (including players from Decatur, St. Pius and Marist), signed scholarships.
Head coach Ron Gartrell handed over the recruiting coordinator duties this past season to Stephenson alum Corey Johnson, who has volunteered with the program for seven years.
“We want college to be easy for our kids,” Gartrell said. “Our coaching staff told our kids to do what they had to do on and off the field. And this is the culmination of that hard work on the part of the coaches and the kids.”
The most signees the Jaguars had in one season prior to this season had been about 14. Johnson and assistant Rodrick Clark played a big part in helping Stephenson double that number.
The two coaches made sure they had records of every senior’s grades, then began a marketing process that included contacting college coaches, sending highlight videos and teaching the players the nuances of the recruiting process.
Gartrell handled the recruiting duties before Johnson took over. Johnson’s role is not only to promote his players, but to help them understand how the recruiting process works.
“We tell the kids they’ve got to be marketable. They need to focus on their grades first and go from there,” Johnson said.
The result: 29 of the Jaguars’ 31 senior football players earned scholarships. Eight players earned Division I scholarships, but the real work for the coaches was finding the right fit for the other 21.
“There are 700-plus that play football, so there’s a spot for everybody,” Johnson said. “We’ve just got to find the right match.”
That process begins as soon as a player enters the ninth grade at Stephenson.
“Most kids tend to fall off academically in the ninth grade, coming up from middle school,” Johnson said. “If we can keep that from happening then their chances of getting a scholarship improve.”
No group was more appreciative of the coaches than the Jaguar players.
“It was a big accomplishment for so many of us to get scholarships,” said tight end Ronnie Shields, who signed with Kentucky. “All the hard work finally paid off. Everything that coach Johnson and coach Clark did made it easier to focus on what we needed to do.”