HOUSTON -- You can take your cynicism and your bitterness and your disgust at collegiate recruiting and the NCAA and wrap it in some foil and and put it in the freezer for later. It'll keep.
This is a different kind of recruiting story.
Five months ago, David Wilganowski's heart stopped beating in the middle of a football game he was playing for Rudder High School in Bryan, Texas. He collapsed and his parents and medical personnel rushed to a nightmare.
"He had taken his last breath," said his mom, Susan.
Paramedics revived him, but doctors diagnosed Wilganowski with something called Long QT Syndrome, a genetic mutation that can result in sudden death. Although it did not end Wilganowski's life, it did end his football career. Or so everyone thought.
"I got to thinking maybe I lost my scholarship," he said. "I'm gonna have to work on my grades some more."
Susan said she thought there was "no chance" her son would be on an athletic scholarship this fall.
David has a cardiac defibrillator implanted in his chest now, but the deal is that he has to keep his heart rate under 180 beats per minute, which allows him to basically run and train like anybody else. The other day, for example, he ran a mile in nine minutes, which he considered an easy pace.
But football is out, for good, and he knows it.
This did not stop Rice University coach David Bailiff from giving Wilganowski a football scholarship, however. Wilganowski, who had committed to the Owls in June, signed a national letter of intent Wednesday.
"We ask those young men to commit to us, and we tell them we're gonna be there through thick and thin," Bailiff said. "That's how that works. Your word has to be good."
To understand this story, you have to understand that David Bailiff is not a man with so much rope he can be throwing out lifelines to players he can't use. His record is 15-22 in four seasons at Rice, having just completed a 4-8 2011 season. You can only give out 25 scholarships per year, and football coaches are not in the habit of tossing them around like parade candy.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, for example, has been often criticized for accepting letters of intent in February, but not giving the scholarship until the next January, a strategy known as "gray shirting" which allows a coach to delay by one season the moment that scholarship begins counting toward the total. He and other coaches also have been criticized for signing more players than they have scholarships for, forcing them to cut players already in the program in order to keep their total scholarships under the NCAA's limit of 85.
The SEC in 2011 introduced a rule forbidding teams from offering more than 25 scholarships in any year, a rule Saban opposed.
"There's a cynical attitude a lot of people have toward whether coaches are really doing what's in the best interest of the young people that we coach, which I sort of resent, to be honest with you," Saban said Wednesday. "We actually took some opportunities away from guys who wanted to go to Alabama that we couldn't sign and they come here because we couldn't offer that option to them."
Saban is hardly the only coach that did this. Until the new rule took effect with this class, over-signing was a common practice in the SEC. A scholarship, technically, is only a one-year commitment and in an environment as competitive as major-college football, the guys with the most to lose try to maximize every one of them, every year.
In this environment, Bailiff's decision was unconventional.
"We all teared up that a man would offer such a thing," Susan said. "Scholarships are hard to come by. They're precious commodities."
The timing of the incident complicated the matter for Bailiff. Wilganowski was in the hospital during a no-contact period, designed by the NCAA to give prospective athletes a break from the pitches of pushy recruiters. Contacting Wilganowski would have been an NCAA recruiting violation.
So Bailiff sought special permission.
"It's a kinder NCAA that said absolutely go over there and visit that young man," he said.
But Bailiff wasn't just visiting with well-wishes. He was there to let the Wilganowskis know he wasn't pulling David's scholarship offer.
"I wanted to take that off their plate immediately so they wouldn't have these worries as a family," he said.
Wilganowski will never play a down at Rice. That is certain. He would be risking his life to do so. But he will be on scholarship and on the team. He'll strap on the shoulder pads and go out to practice every day, a walking reminder that sports aren't always about wins and losses.
"It's really amazing," David said. "It really shows what kind of man he is and what kind of organization he's running."