Early enrollment helps athletes tackle college

Freshmen: While their peers finish high school, four football players have started their careers in College Park classrooms.

April 22, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Richard Taylor could be sleeping in. He could be back home in Virginia, lying in his bed, getting ready for another stress-free day at Centreville High School in Fairfax County.

In many respects, he should be. After all, the slow march toward graduation, the lazy second semester of senior year, has become something of a rite of passage in this country. Taylor might be laughing with friends, flirting with girls, picking out a tuxedo for the prom and savoring the final days of youth. The schoolwork would be a breeze, the parties would be numerous, and the responsibilities would be few.

Instead, Taylor, 18, is one of four freshman football players this spring at the University of Maryland taking part in one of college football's fastest-growing trends: early enrollment.

It's an idea that has been around since the early 1990s, but in the past five years it has taken off. Programs are using it to get athletes on campus early, with the idea that spring is a much better time - academically and athletically - to make the transition to college life. Getting to college sooner also opens up the possibility of graduating sooner, which is an easy sell for parents.

Because of early enrollment, Taylor is half-awake at 6:45 a.m. and walking briskly across the University of Maryland campus. He has a test coming up in his government class, and trying to explain John Rawls' theory of justice and Karl Marx's use of dialectical materialism has him a little on edge. Unfortunately, catching up on sleep is not an option this morning - or any morning.

"I can't miss breakfast," Taylor said. "It starts at 7 a.m. You have to be there every day. If you miss breakfast, then you have to run the stairs at the stadium. I don't want any part of that."

In fact, Taylor's schedule is so full, it's unclear where exactly some extra running might fit in. After breakfast, he has an hour of study hall, then communications class.

When that's over, he'll spend more time in study hall, work a bit with his tutor, then trudge over to math class. After an hour of scratching his head trying to figure out the log of X and the value of Y, he'll grab a quick bite to eat before suiting up for 2 1/2 hours of football practice. Afterward, he'll study film, do more homework, watch more film, then collapse into bed sometime after midnight. After a few restless hours of sleep, he'll get up and do it all over again.

It's not a life for every would-be high school senior, nor is it a life for most freshman football players. To get here, Taylor, as well as Christian Varner (Randallstown), Dennis Marsh (Browns Summit, N.C.) and Eric Lenz (Urbana), had to cram a whole year's worth of academics into four short months. At the start of his senior year, Taylor signed up for six classes, then agreed to take three additional courses online so that Fairfax County would let him graduate by Dec. 19. Somehow, in addition to juggling his final year of football, Taylor pulled it off, earning a 3.5 grade point average in the process.

Ambition and achievement, in many respects, run in Taylor's blood. His father, Curtis Taylor, has a master's degree in music from Cornell, and he retired as a colonel after serving 26 years in the U.S. Army. Before enlisting, Curtis Taylor even played piano and toured for a couple years in the band of soul singer James Brown.

Though he didn't follow in his father's footsteps musically, Richard Taylor - the youngest of Curtis and Abigail Taylor's three sons - clearly inherited the drive to succeed.

"I was pretty skeptical when he first talked about doing it," said Curtis Taylor of his son's ambitious schedule. "I just wanted him to finish high school and enjoy himself. But he was very serious about it. ... When his buddies were out having fun, he was in his room studying."

Quick transition

Early enrollment is not a new phenomenon in college football. Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier, a former Raven, was one of the first to do it in 1991, and it helped jump-start his college career. Taylor got the idea after reading about Maurice Clarett, who did it at Ohio State two years ago. High-profile quarterbacks Casey Clausen (Tennessee, 2000-03) and Philip Rivers (North Carolina State, 2000-03) both enrolled early, and both became starters their freshman season.

"It's about being the man," said Taylor, who was recruited to play safety for the Terps. "How quick can you come in and be the man? If you start early, you can make the transition that much faster, and hopefully get on the field quicker."

Even Maryland, still a neophyte as a college football power, has plenty of experience with bringing kids in early. Domonique Foxworth, who will be a senior in the fall, graduated early from Baltimore County's Western Tech in 2000 to take part in spring drills. This year, according to a survey done by USA Today, 35 athletes from the six major conferences are participating in early enrollment. Maryland and Oklahoma State have the most with four each.

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