Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 2/18/12
HOUSTON Alberto Gonzalez wears a lip ring and what appears to have been a Mohawk at some point in the recent past, and he appears a little unsure of himself as he mingles with college football coaches. He is at something called the Greater Houston Football Showcase, which is a scouting combine for high school football players who didn't sign Division I letters of intent. Division II, Division III and NAIA coaches troll the inside of the Houston Texans' practice facility. They aren't looking for diamonds in the rough, really. They're looking for shiny objects of any kind. Gonzalez hopes to be found. It would be a milestone in a long journey he is at first hesitant to reveal. "I'm not from here," he said. "I can tell you that much." Turns out Gonzalez is from Mexico. He was born there, and his parents moved to the United States 12 years ago. He goes to Sam Houston High School, where he only recently began playing football. He had been on the soccer team until the football coaches recruited him to kick. Because he has a little size, he is now learning to play on the defensive line, but it's early. He said he hasn't received any recruiting letters, which is why he attended the combine on Saturday. "I don't really know what I'm doing," he said. Because the event is free for everyone involved, players like Gonzalez have nothing to lose by attending, and hundreds showed up to pursue a dream. Some say they're hoping for scholarship offers. Other say they just love football and want to keep playing it. To attend, they have to prove they have certain grades and test scores, but that's it. Once inside, they run their 40s and do their bench presses and kick and throw and catch. Coaches watch from the sidelines. The small colleges love it because it allows them to quickly see an enormous number of players. The whole thing has the appearance of a classic recruiting meat market, but that's only if you aren't looking closely. There are no boosters walking around making 100 handshakes. The players' only "handlers" are their parents. And nobody is getting grayshirted. Some of the colleges don't even offer athletic scholarships. The event is now four years old, and by its own calculations has brokered more than 30 million in scholarship money for more than 600 athletes. It has been so successful that Terry Donahue flew in from Los Angeles to check it out. If that name sounds familiar, it's because Donahue coached UCLA from 1976-95, and was general manager of the San Francisco 49ers from 2001-05. He is now a radio analyst who does a lot of charity work. He and some associates became interested in starting something similar in Los Angeles, but he's been around college athletics long enough to have developed a layer of cynicism. He wanted to see what this was really all about before he started in on his own version of it. "I'm looking for a downside, and I can't seem to find one," he said. "I keep wondering what is wrong with this picture, because everything that you like about college football is here. These kids love to play. They're not getting big-time scholarships and all that. They're not the heavily recruited guys, so you don't have the attitude working. You've got a bunch of kids that are hungry as they can be and just want the opportunity." Donahue said he hasn't made a decision on a Los Angeles version, but he thinks he can generate enough support to put it together. He has a group of football friends he calls the "over-the-hill gang." It's a handful of old football guys who don't necessarily have a lot to do these days, but still want to help. It will be a while before he makes a decision, but he left Houston impressed. "You've got kids with good grades, kids that are good football players, high school coaches that are volunteers, doing all this work," he said. "You just have people helping the community, and at the end of the day the athletes are going to be the recipients of a lot of scholarship moneys. It's a win-win. It's a win for high school football, it's a win for college football, its' a win for the Texans, and it's a win for everybody that's associated with it because you feel good about helping people." But it's about winning, too. The coaches who show up can't all over athletic scholarships, but they're still coaches with careers and pressures and competition. It might feel good to give a scholarship to an overlooked kid with good grades, but this isn't a charity. This is football. One of those coaches was Guy Ament, a defensive line coach at Howard Payne University, a Division III school in Brownwood, Texas. Its central-Texas campus is so remote Ament said it actually informs the profile of players he'll recruit. "We're looking for a guy that kind of wants to be outdoorsy," he said. "They don't have to be an outdoors guy, but wants to get off the beaten path. I always say the old Robert Frost line, take the road less traveled." He said he ended up finding eight players at the Showcase last year and was hoping to come away with 10 this time. He appreciates the event because it eases the strain on both his travel budget and his time. There are so many players in Houston, he said, that because of traffic and other logistical issues, it would otherwise be impossible for him to see so many potential future Yellow Jackets. Howard Payne doesn't offer athletic scholarships, so he goes in looking for kids who can qualify for academic scholarships andor need-based aide. "We can't really window shop," he said. "We can't go after all our 6-foot-5, 6-foot-5 defensive tackles. We're gonna find guys that have good academics and are also good football players that slip through the cracks." Players kind of like Gonzalez. He's already been accepted to the University of Houston, but he's looking for football to help him pay for school, and UH isn't going to be offering him a football scholarship. So he was at the Showcase on Saturday morning, chasing a dream. "My dream right now," he said, "is to be the first one in college from my family."
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