BRADENTON, Fla. — In this balmy Gulf Coast town of 50,000, in a state known for its Friday football traditions, the only game in town was at a school with no tradition at all.
It was a cloudless mid-October evening, and the officials at IMG Academy were calling it homecoming, but there were no former football players returning to school, because this was the first year the team had ever played. The homecoming court wore Under Armour shorts and sneakers. The aluminum bleachers were about a third full, mostly with teenage tennis and golf prodigies who knew and cared little about the rules of a foreign game. Most of the adults in the stands were parents in town for the weekend.
The football team itself — the IMG "Ascenders" — was a collection of teens who came to this boarding school from Tallahassee and Tokyo, Saskatchewan and Savannah, Sweden and St. Petersburg. One of the boarders scored two touchdowns in the Ascenders' 49-3 victory and was playfully dubbed "Bo the Show" by the stadium's public address announcer.
"I never thought I'd meet anyone from Europe," Bo the Show — Bo Scarbrough — told me later that week. Scarbrough is a 19-year-old from Tuscaloosa, Ala. He's also one of the most promising running backs in the country, which is why he now goes to school here instead of Tuscaloosa's Northridge High School, which he attended through 11th grade. There's nothing wrong with Northridge — its website currently highlights 21 students who were named "Advanced Placement Scholars" for achievement on the high-level tests. But Northridge does not have a 450-acre campus or professional-caliber athletic training facilities, and it's not somewhere you will meet tennis prodigies from the Netherlands or aspiring golf stars from Far East Asia. IMG, meanwhile, has been the elite training ground for several generations of athletic stars, including former tennis champions Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, and football is its new frontier.
Scarbrough's days at IMG — the academy is owned by the New York–based sports and entertainment conglomerate — are full: pre-dawn workouts, morning classes, and afternoon football practices. They are a mix of exhausting routine and novel cross-cultural exchange. Nightfall is harder — Scarbrough's strapping 230-pound physique and heavily inked arms make it easy to forget that he's away from home for the first time. "As soon as night came, I was like, 'Man, I'm ready to go,'" Scarbrough said. "I could've went back home, but...it's going to be like this when you go to college, so why not get used to it now?"
It's a fair point, though life at IMG Academy goes far beyond the typical boarding school experience. The school audaciously bills itself as the "world leader in integrated academics, athletics and personal development for student-athletes." On its first football team, there will be no letter jackets, all-district nominations or even the chance to play in the postseason. There will be no crosstown bus rides to play a rival in a game with real stakes; IMG has no real peers in high school and, for the immediate future, won't even play anyone in its area code. But here's what IMG does have: a former Heisman Trophy winner, Chris Weinke, as head coach; an endorsement deal with Under Armour that keeps students in the latest athletic gear; and the opportunity to go through the same training regimen (with the same trainers) as the NFL stars, like Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, who regularly pass through Bradenton.
Now that one exists, it seems obvious that a football training academy would appeal to teenagers who aspire to make millions of dollars in the NFL. "They already educate and train top athletes from all around the world," MaxPreps.com national high school football writer Stephen Spiewak said. "They're almost perfectly suited to operate a high school football program." Given the national obsession with the sport, and the related industry in identifying and critiquing potential future pros as young as 15 years old, you might even ask: Why did it take so long?
The answer could be that the same cultural status that makes football so lucrative also makes it hard to change. All that most players, coaches, and fans have ever known is the traditional Pop Warner-to-high-school-to-quaint-college-campus path taken by top players. And what IMG is doing in Bradenton is a direct assault on that tradition.
In 1978, a tennis instructor named Nick Bollettieri turned 40 acres of tomato fields south of Tampa into a tennis boarding school. By 1987, talent-management and promotional giant IMG had bought the academy from Bollettieri; he remains a presence on campus. IMG added golf in 1993 and more sports followed. The "Pendleton School" opened in 1999 to provide formal academic instruction. Athletes now traverse a virtual country club, with tennis as the clear axis. Kids walk the grounds in shorts and sneakers (mostly Under Armour) with backpacks, and often a racket, either on the way to class or one of the 52 tennis courts.
The pursuit of high school football players got off the ground with the launch of the IMG Madden Football Academy in 2010. NFL Hall of Fame coach John Madden is no longer affiliated with the program, but having his name attached at the outset couldn't have hurt, given the popularity among the younger generation of the Electronic Arts' Madden-branded football video game series. Former Florida State star Chris Weinke was hired away from an Austin-based investment firm to lead the program. The initial plan was for IMG to host offseason camps, training programs, and 7-on-7 (a form of touch football) tournaments for high school players.
These offseason events might not register on the radar of casual football fans, but they are essential to the football industry — often organized and sponsored by apparel companies or scouting websites, the camps and tournaments are the first points of contact between high-potential players and football's hype and marketing apparatus. Any high school kid who doesn't participate in the offseason circuit is hurting his chances of "showcasing" himself. While integral to the world of amateur football, the events are largely unsupervised and uncontrolled by high school athletic associations or the NCAA. The NCAA last year, in fact, banned its member schools from hosting 7-on-7 competitions and said its concern stems from the "increased influence of agents, third parties and scouting services" at the tournaments.
IMG's entry into this world began modestly. "I didn't have an office, football fields... I didn't have nothing," Weinke said. But it hasn't taken long for "nothing" to turn into what MaxPreps has called "the most impressive high school football facility in the country." Three years, actually. Attendance at the offseason events was strong enough that the full-time team was added. The Ascenders, as they're known, work out in a 10,000-square-foot weight room with a four-lane track; have access to a covered 60-yard facility that comes in handy during Florida's rainy summers; and play in a 5,000-seat stadium lined with "professional-quality" Bermuda grass turf and overlooked by a video scoreboard that rivals anything seen on most NCAA Division I campuses.
All of this is only the beginning. When I meet Weinke on a recent Tuesday, he — all 6 feet 4 inches of him — is crammed behind the desk of a small corner office littered with sheets of paper from a playbook, college brochures, media guides, and other detritus. The blinds are nearly drawn shut, letting in only a few rays of light. From here, Weinke runs it all — from the facilities down to the offensive game plans. For now, Weinke, his coaching staff, and the players work out of a large portable trailer at the edge of the campus. It's one of the few reminders that this is — in practice — a high school program. But soon the trailer will be gone too, replaced in the spring by a towering 40,000-square-foot field house with locker rooms, meeting spaces, and offices. The shell of the unfinished facility looms large from the trailer where the team conducts most of its meetings and film sessions. It will almost certainly widen the gap between IMG Academy and whatever school has the nation's second-best facilities.
As you might guess, Weinke is more than just a manager; he also has some pretty useful connections. He's already received the endorsement of none other than University of Georgia head football coach Mark Richt, his former offensive coordinator at Florida State — although the endorsement came begrudgingly and after what Weinke calls a "heated conversation" over proper throwing mechanics. "I guess I won," Weinke said, smiling, "because he sent his son to me."
Indeed, young Jon Richt spent time working out with Weinke at IMG to prepare for pro workouts following the end of his career at Mars Hill College in North Carolina. (He's yet to get signed by an NFL team.) But the elder Richt had developed trust in Weinke long before their quarrel over the best point in a throwing motion to release a football. "He may be the most competitive guy that I ever coached," said Richt, not faint praise from someone who has coached at least six NFL quarterbacks. "Anything short of winning was not acceptable to him."
Weinke's immediate competitive challenge is getting kids to Bradenton full time. "For our business, studies show the only thing that holds us back is a lack of awareness," said Greg Phillips, the academy's athletic director and a former senior associate athletics director at the University of Oklahoma. "Once people get onto our campus, they usually end up coming here. We've just got to get our name out as much as possible."
The first IMG football team enrollee to generate headlines and recruiting buzz was Michael O'Connor, a 6-foot-4-inch quarterback originally from Canada, who announced on Jan. 4 that he'd be attending IMG. O'Connor brought exactly the sort of media attention that IMG was seeking and, in more practical terms, a blue-chip college recruit — O'Connor is currently planning to play for Penn State — to build its inaugural team around. O'Connor has lived up to his billing as the program's headliner, winning honors at offseason camps and tournaments and throwing for 1,804 yards and 18 touchdowns in 10 games; IMG sent out a press release when he committed to the Nittany Lions.
The move also had clear benefits for O'Connor himself; he'd been seeking a greater challenge than Canadian high school football and wanted the opportunity to work under a quarterback coach. IMG and Weinke fit the bill. "It was almost like a business decision," O'Connor told me. "Coming here, it already feels like a college program."
But it was Scarbrough's announcement in August that he was transferring to IMG Academy that heralded the arrival of a new high school powerhouse. IMG needed Scarbrough much more than he needed IMG; he already held a scholarship offer to play running back at the University of Alabama, the surest sign that you're a man-child among boys — the last three starting Crimson Tide running backs were high draft picks and currently play in the NFL. Scarbrough would come to Bradenton with nothing to prove.
At 6-foot-2-inches, Scarbrough towers over most of his teammates and bears a strong resemblance in appearance, build, and playing style to former NFL star Edgerrin James. For players of his caliber, offseason transfers to more high-profile high schools have been a relatively regular occurrence for years. Many school districts — driven by high school coaches and athletic directors who don't want their best players poached away — have passed rules to prevent such moves.
Scarbrough had come to IMG for a 7-on-7 tournament feeling like high school had already run its course. "There was nothing else for me to do in Tuscaloosa," he said. "I would basically stay at the gym all day." After the tournament, he went back home and convinced his mother to let him spend his senior year at the academy. He enrolled only a few weeks before the start of classes. It happened fast, and his departure from Tuscaloosa was greeted with skepticism and derision. Internet message board types wondered if Scarbrough went there to avoid grade troubles that would make him academically ineligible. Others suggested someone — maybe a sinister Florida or Florida State fan — lured him from town to escape the clutches of the Crimson Tide.
"They didn't want him to leave at all," his mother, Donetris Scarbrough, said. "Could you blame them?" In America, with its belief in high school sports as a community-building activity, IMG Academy departs from the high school model even more radically than 7-on-7 tournaments. It is a high-profile embrace of individual prerogative in the country's top team sport — leaving the small-town stadium behind in order to maximize future value. This summer Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany — one of the most powerful men in amateur football — suggested that athletes unhappy with the amateur structure and scholastic component of college football could attend IMG instead. "You don't have to play for the Redskins or the Bears at 17, but you could develop at IMG," he said. Delany's dismissive implication — and really, the wager that the whole NCAA is making in resisting compensation for athletes — was that few red-blooded American kids would choose take such a path. Leaving home to train at an athletic academy is, after all, something people do in Europe.
IMG officials don't like to think of their institution an alternative to going to school. "I don't agree with that — there must be an educational component," Weinke said of Delany's comment. "But as a whole, I think we need to recognize some kids have a passion for certain things. And many times you see kids who have a passion for a certain sport aren't necessarily rewarded like a kid who has passion for something else — music or academics."
Ironically, for the moment, a lot of the kids with a passion for American football who don't think they are well-served by their local schools happen to be foreigners. Bo Scarbrough might be the classic ideal of a high school football prospect, and the IMG Ascenders might be the future, but for now his teammates' backgrounds are less "unstoppable all-star team" and more "wacky sitcom." One is from Hong Kong, one is from Sweden, one is from Japan, and a handful are from Canada. 6-foot-7-inch, 288-pound offensive lineman Matt Murphy is from London. It's not that the current IMG football team isn't good — see their 46-point homecoming victory. But for now, traditional big-shot recruits like O'Connor and Scarbrough are the exception rather than the rule.
Juan Pablo Penagos is a senior Ascender from Chiapas, Mexico. He grew up playing fútbol but came to prefer the collision-oriented American version of the sport. He played for his private school in Chiapas. But "in Mexico, I was one of the biggest guys," explains the 5-foot-11-inch, 210-pound Penagos. "Football is life. It's everything to me, and I just wanted a chance to get better." One of Penagos' friends had been to IMG's golf academy and suggested he check out the football camps. At IMG, Penagos found the perfect place to indulge his lonely love. He stayed in Florida for his junior year even though IMG didn't have a team last season, one of only three players in the year-round program.
Although he once dreamed of playing football at a major-college program like the University of Texas, Penagos lacks playing experience and is on the small end for his preferred position, linebacker. He does have scholarship offers from a handful of small schools, though, and that's likely where he'll extend his career. "The whole point of this was to play in the NFL," Penagos said. "But at some point you have to be realistic. It doesn't matter as long as I keep playing."
Penagos' scenario is a familiar one throughout the academy, which in total has about 800 athletes in eight sports — football, tennis, golf, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, soccer, and track and field. Perhaps IMG's most notable — and oft-repeated — sales pitch is that 60% of its graduates over the past three years have committed to an NCAA Division I university. (Only 2% of high school athletes nationally go on to play in college.) That tantalizing kernel of information is splashed over a picture of Cam Newton — you can see nearly his entire top row of teeth — in its 2013–14 admissions guide, even though Newton went to high school in the Atlanta area.
IMG says that almost all of the rest of its grads go on to play sports in college at levels besides Division I. Only 2% turn pro, usually in tennis or golf. "Certainly there's a reward there," said Kim Berard, an IMG spokeswoman. "But there's also a lot of expectation setting that goes on with families. We have a lot of tough conversations because it's not that you're just going to come here and be the No. 1 (player) in the world."
Of course, because the academy has famously churned out a few of those No. 1s, parents eagerly pay $71,860 annually (the cost of a basic boarding plan) in hopes that their kid can become the next Agassi or Serena Williams. (Or Venus Williams or Jim Courier.) And if Bo Scarbrough or Michael O'Connor find themselves holding up the Heisman Trophy in December 2017, IMG will surely have a better case to make to the parents of your town's highly touted sophomore linebacker that $71,860 is, in relative terms, a steal.
Before the homecoming game, under a soft, golden-edged Florida sunset, about 50 people — most dressed in IMG's blue and white colors — milled around a large white tent set up outside the football stadium's front gate. It was a subdued crowd, nothing like what you would expect in the buildup to a traditional homecoming game. It felt more like a garden party. People made small talk and poked at catered trays of dumplings, egg rolls, and samosas while others stood to the side and marveled at the gleaming multimillion-dollar facility.
"We don't have anything like this in Mexico," said Bonnie Derby, who came from Monterrey for the weekend to visit her 14-year-old son in the soccer academy. She admitted that she'd never been to a football game before. "My kids wanted to come and see what it was like."
IMG Academy officials understand creating a festive Friday night atmosphere will take time; many of its students — more than half come from abroad, remember? — had never seen an American football game before arriving on campus. What's taken less time is building a football team worth coming to watch. The Ascenders' victory over Lake Minneola High School ran their record to 7-0 with an average winning margin of 25 points.
It was exactly the kind of start that local coaches and school officials predicted — and openly fretted about — when IMG announced the launch of its program. "It would be nice to be able to bring in some of the talent that they've brought in here," said Corey Brinson, head coach of Lake Minneola. (Because IMG awards scholarships — need-based — and recruits out-of-state players, however, it is unable to compete in the Florida High School Athletic Association state playoffs.)
Across the street from the academy, on the other side of 34th Street West in Bradenton, sits Bayshore High School. Compared with its ritzier and more celebrated neighbor, Bayshore High has a decidedly spartan campus of off-white stucco buildings. There are few, if any frills: Its football stadium won't be making anyone's list of top facilities in the county, let alone the country. It is a typical high school.
First-year Bayshore football coach Elijah Freeman doesn't spend much time worrying about losing athletes to IMG; other local schools have been poaching players from Bayshore's surrounding neighborhoods for years now. In high school, especially in Florida, top athletes have always seemingly gravitated to a handful of top programs. "If we're going to throw IMG under the bus for recruiting," Freeman said, "we have to start calling out all these other schools all over the state who do same thing."
On the other side of town is Manatee High School, one of those schools that benefit from the local district's lax rules against transfers. Manatee had the nation's top-ranked high school football team for much of 2012 and reloaded this fall with another undefeated and nationally ranked team. Under longtime coach Joe Kinnan, Manatee has been one of Florida's most enduring powerhouses. But Kinnan has promised to never schedule IMG Academy, and his stance has a lot of support; IMG has played only one school within a 100-mile radius of its campus this fall. Other coaches — most of whom won't comment directly on IMG — compare the school to Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and Findlay Prep in Nevada, existing prep schools that have gained notoriety over the years for annually fielding mercenary all-star basketball teams and playing a national schedule. Another, less favorable comparison has been to Eastern Christian Academy in Maryland, a startup program Sports Illustrated tabbed as a "move halfway to club football." (Eastern Christian seems to have been founded solely to field a football team; all but a handful of its students are football players, the classes take place online, and the school doesn't have a permanent campus.)
In an online forum frequented by high school coaches and fans in the area, IMG Academy was described thusly: "This place is fantasy BS and it will devalue education and high school football in time. If any of you think that there are any real academic standards at this place you are crazy... All those illiterate tennis players can't be reading Shakespeare and serving at 95 mph at the same time. Football will be worse."
Said Jayson Roberts, a coach at Tampa Bay Tech High School, which lost 6-foot-5-inch, 295-pound lineman Tyree St. Louis to IMG in the spring: "Honestly, we would not do any camps there and would strongly discourage our players from doing camps and tournaments there." Roberts works at a school on the east side of Tampa, where two-thirds of the students are considered "economically disadvantaged" by the state and the athletic facilities don't even compare to those in nearby suburban areas. IMG might as well be Notre Dame when compared with Tech and many other public schools across Florida. "Centrally funded high schools can't compete with what IMG has to offer," Roberts said.
That's something on which IMG and its detractors can certainly agree. Many top players simply can't afford to attend the academy. There's only so much need-based financial aid available for football players at a school that built its reputation through country-club sports. And many teenagers will likely be initially unwilling to move out of their family homes and give up a year at their neighborhood school.
Weinke has a few ideas for challenging those cultural norms. One of them: recruiting younger players, perhaps even as young as middle schoolers, from IMG's instructional camps. "We don't know what our football team is going to look like from year to year," Weinke said. "Our hope is some of those younger kids want to become a part of this program early on and go through the progression like they would through any other high school."
But much like Bollettieri is known for the prodigies he turned into professional successes, Weinke and IMG know their football program will ultimately be judged on college-bound players like Scarbrough and O'Connor.
Scarbrough pronounces himself much better prepared to go off to college now. He now says he's not even sure if he wants to go to Alabama anymore. "It might be best to get away from home," Scarbrough said, no longer a homesick teenager. He's also considering Notre Dame, UCLA, and Mississippi, to name a few.
His mother, only now getting used to the idea of her only child living away from home, credits IMG with showing him there was more to the world beyond Tuscaloosa.
"I'm kind of glad that he got away," she said. "He can't stay at home forever. I think he's doing better there than he would have done here."
CORRECTION: According to IMG, 38% of its alums compete in college athletics at levels besides Division I. An earlier version of this post contained inaccurate information about IMG graduates' participation in college sports. (11/24/13)