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Are football combines 'necessary evil' for middle schoolers?

A football combine in Morganton, NC.

A few months ago, college football powerhouse USC offered a scholarship to a quarterback in Delaware. This recruitment received national attention because the quarterback is still five years from high school graduation. The player is only a 7th-grader. But it's not so unusual anymore for middle school players to try getting the attention of recruiters through events called combines. They and their parents feel increasing pressure to participate. They're afraid they'll be left behind. Meanwhile, these kids are fuel for a growing industry. WFAE's Ryan Basen attended a recent combine in Morganton and filed this report. Welcome to Robert Patton High School. A few dozen 8th and 9th-graders bench press inside the school's cramped, dimly lit weight room. Coaches want to see how many times they can bench press 135 pounds. It's one of several drills these kids compete in over four hours to show off their speed, strength, agility and overall football skills. A group cheers Carson Elmore as he lifts. Carson is a freshman at Cuthbertson High School in Union County. He's here because he wants to play college football. "These days you need to show out as much as you can to coaches so you get noticed more than one time just coming to the games. They can't always see everything there. So, I think coming to a combine is a really important thing to do," Carson says. There was a time when combines were only for college players trying to impress NFL scouts. They became mainstream for high school juniors and seniors in the early 2000s. And now, it's an industry that also caters to 8th and 9th graders who want to get on the radar of college recruiters. "You don't want to start too late," says Treshun Winn, an 8th-grader at Charlotte Christian School. He dreams of playing in the NFL. But first, he wants to play for the University of Florida - after high school, of course. So he came to the combine in Morganton with the goal of having among the top 10 times in the 40-yard dash. The 40 is a staple in measuring football speed. Coaches also timed these kids in what's called the shuttle run. They measured how high and how far they can jump. And there were passing, receiving, running, blocking and coverage drills. Coaches recorded everything and posted the results online - along with the athletes' measurements. Staff shot video and photographs for the web. A New Jersey company called National Underclassmen organized this combine. Dozens of companies conduct similar events across the country. Andy Bark is credited with running the first high school combine about 20 years ago in California. He says the industry exploded in the last few years. He attributes much of the growth to younger kids. Today, Bark estimates that football combines are at least a $100 million industry. National Underclassmen was one of the first to target 8th and 9th graders. Today, it's one of the biggest players in the combine industry. Five years ago, it held one combine for just 200 players. This year, it has 51 combines scheduled for some 17,000 football players. The company typically charges $85, and makes more money through apparel sales and sponsors that include ESPN and the scouting services Rivals and Scout.com. In fact, ESPN.com pays National Underclassmen for the right to post write-ups and videos from the combines as part of web content dedicated to recruiting. Vinnie Pocelli is in charge of this combine. Yes, it's a business, but he says combines are intended to give kids a chance to succeed. "The coaches. . . were all at that level and they want to make sure no stone is unturned and every kid has an opportunity to come out there and compete." So how much revenue do combines generate? Pocelli declined to answer, and the company president didn't respond to our requests for comment. Pocelli says the addition of middle school students to the combine circuit just reflects the current college recruiting environment. "The recruiting process starts at such a young age, that the guys that wait until their junior year, it's almost too late.It's gotten to the point where kids understand it and coaches understand it, that they need to get out and build a resume and build a profile at a younger age," Pocelli says. Building a resume. That's also how Dave Smith describes the process. His son Derek is a freshman at Marvin Ridge High School near Ballantyne. "It's a necessary evil in today's time. You've got to get on board and do this stuff," Dave Smith says. Even if it's baseball season. Derek had a game the previous night. He got home at 10:45 p.m., then woke up at 5 a.m. Saturday morning for the 90-mile drive to Morganton. Mike Stanback and his 8th-grade son drove up from Indian Trail the night before. Stanback estimates he spent about $200 when including the cost of gas and a hotel. "It really doesn't make a difference whether that bothers you or not. You have to do it. It's a must-have. You've got the budget for it and make sure you make time for it. It's no different than making sure your kid gets to practice," Stanback says. It's not unheard of for parents to fly their kids to combines across the country. Some consider the expense an investment that pays off if your kid gets a scholarship. Gary Lisa of Weddington says it's all part of the process of preparing for college, for kids who are serious about football. His son Trevor participated in two combines last year as a freshman. One was in Atlanta. "The scores that you get for the 40 and shuttle (run) and broad (jump) are almost as important as SAT scores, so you want to make sure those things continue to progress." Remember Carson Elmore? He's the first player we spoke to. Carson benched 135 pounds 23 times. His vertical jump was 26.5 inches. Broad jump: 8 feet. He ran the 40 in 5.13. Shuttle time: 4.73 seconds. These numbers might not mean much to you, but for Carson, they're huge. He was one of 32 players among 83 at this combine to be invited to a National Underclassmen regional camp this summer in Atlanta. Still, here's a number Carson must improve upon; At 5-10, he's only 157 pounds. But remember, he's just a freshman. View more pictures. The audio with this story includes an edited conversation about combines WFAE's Scott Graf had with Iowa football coack Kirk Ferentz. You can listen to that entire coversation here.