Slowly moving through a crowded gym, Lamont Crittendon became caught in a cycle.
Pose for a photograph. Smile. Snap. Click.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Not that the attention bothered Crittendon. For one of the most popular football players at Austin High, this day was long awaited, and he soaked up every moment with enthusiasm.
Crittendon was one of five Austin football players who signed National Letters of Intent on Wednesday morning when the NCAA’s signing period began. Later that day, the group celebrated the moment with a gymnasium crowded with family, friends, coaches and teammates.
In Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan counties, 17 high school football players made their college plans official by signing NLIs or agreeing to play at Division III programs, which do not offer athletic scholarships.
At Austin, three players made plans to play for Division I programs. Crittendon and Greg Willard signed NLIs with Murray State, while star running back Josh Walker accepted a spot with Navy’s football program. The service academies do not award athletic scholarships because all students receive a stipend while enrolled in school.
“This is one of the happiest days of my life,” said Crittendon, a 5-foot-9 and 210-pound linebacker, who is known as an emotional and intense player.
“When we were about to fax our letters this morning, with all the emotions, I was like, ‘Man, this is real. It’s about to really happen. All my hard work paid off.’ Now it’s time to start from square one and work some more to reach my next goals.”
Crittendon wears the label of self-made player like a badge of honor. For good reason, too.
There was a time when it was unclear if his road would reach this juncture.
“Four years ago, I was an offensive lineman who looked like he could never get here,” Crittendon said. “I was never the strongest. I was never the biggest.”
He added: “I was never the fastest. I had to work harder than everyone else, and that’s what I hang my hat on.”
Wearing Murray State hats with sweater vests and ties, Crittendon and Willard spent several minutes after the celebration posing for photos with friends and family.
“This is just another day where I’m thankful for everything I’ve been blessed with,” Willard said. “Playing college football has always been a dream of mine, and I’m grateful for getting that opportunity. I plan on making the most of it, but the best part is that I’m not going up there alone. I’ll have Lamont by my side, and we’ll help push each other to make sure our dreams are fulfilled.”
All five players were key parts of an Austin team that finished 8-3 in 2012 and advanced to the first round of the Class 6A playoffs.
Crittendon was the emotional leader on Austin’s defense. As a senior, he led the Black Bears with 111 tackles. Willard, a 5-9 and 150-pound defensive back, finished with 37 tackles, nine pass breakups, one interception and three blocked punts.
Tobias Payne, a UNA signee, and Jordan Waldrep, heading to Belhaven in Mississippi, were key pieces of Austin’s defensive line. Payne, a big 6-5 and 245-pound defensive end, was one of the area’s best pass rushers, finishing the season with 30 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, 11 quarterback hurries and an interception.
Walker is one of three area players in the 2013 class who will continue his career at a Football Bowl Subdivision program.
Tanner safety Greg Maclin, a UAB signee, and Lawrence County offensive lineman Noah Armstrong are the others.
Last season, the 5-11 and 198-pound running back was one of the area’s top playmakers, rushing for 1,206 yards and 16 touchdowns while catching 44 passes for 491 yards and three touchdowns.
“Having so many guys get an opportunity to play college football is a tribute to this senior class,” said Austin coach Jeremy Perkins, who recently completed his third season with the Black Bears.
“Watching these guys experience this, and seeing the joy on their faces, it kind of makes me a little emotional. This group of seniors will always have a special place in my heart because they’re the first group I’ve had all the way through. They’ve worked hard for the program, and all of these guys, they earned this opportunity.”
“What I’ve told them is the same thing we tell our players here: Work hard and conduct yourself the right way within the program,” Perkins said. “If they approach this with a strong work ethic and commitment, they all can accomplish their goals.”
Josh Matthews got an early start on National Signing Day, as the Decatur running back signed to play with Tuskegee at 7:30 a.m.
He was accompanied by his father, Bobby Matthews, and sister, Destiny Matthews.
“I’ve been thinking about this day ever since I can remember,” said Matthews of the signing. “After today, I’ve got to get back to work and get back in shape for college.”
Matthews said he made the decision two weeks ago, after making a visit to the university. Hoping to pursue a degree in engineering, he said Tuskegee was a perfect fit.
“From day one, we were always talking about his education,” his father said.
In addition, Josh Matthews said he felt confident in the Golden Tigers’ coaching staff.
“They told me basically when I come here, I’m going to have to work hard, but we’re going to win,” he said. “They told me that if I work hard enough, I can have my spot.”
Matthews ran for almost 3,000 yards in his four seasons at Decatur, despite battling a hamstring injury as a junior in 2011.
“He’s a tough, hard-nosed running back,” Decatur coach Jere Adcock said. “He’s one of the strongest kids we’ve ever had here, and he’s one of the hardest working kids we’ve ever had here.”
Matthews also was selected by his teammates as permanent team captain, the team’s highest honor.
“This was the best option for him, so it was really kind of a no-brainer,” Adcock said.
Three Athens football players signed NLIs at a ceremony with friends and family.
Jordan Campbell, a 6-1 and 200-pound tight end, signed with Jacksonville State, while Adam Harvey, a 6-foot and 200-pound punter, signed with UNA.
Ernest Hendrix, a 6-2 and 250-pound defensive lineman signed with Harding.
“They’ve had some ups and downs in their career, all three of them have, and to be able to maintain the character and work ethic they have is a tribute to them and their families,” Athens coach Allen Creasy said. “I’m glad they’re going to be able to go on and play at the next level.”
Campbell likely will play slot receiver at Jacksonville State and hopes to pursue a degree in physical therapy.
“I chose Jacksonville State because it felt like home to me when I went on my visit,” he said. “The coaches are well informed in what they’re doing. I feel like they can get me where I need to be.”
Harvey also said he was looking forward to playing under coach Bobby Wallace, who returned to UNA in January 2012.
Hendrix will join Harding as a defensive tackle and plans to major in biology.
“I’m definitely excited to get down there and get to work, and hopefully win a national championship down there,” he said.
Sitting in front of a large group of family and friends, four Tanner football standouts officially ended their college recruitment by signing NLIs.
Maclin signed an NLI with UAB, while three other Rattlers signed with Division II programs.
Linebacker Fred Rich signed an NLI with North Alabama, fullback Kyle Shoulders signed with Miles and offensive lineman Tray Fletcher signed with West Alabama.
“For these guys, this is an important moment in their lives,” Tanner coach Laron White said while addressing the crowd. “All of these guys worked hard for this, and now they’re going to move on to the next challenge. … If they keep working hard, I know all of these guys will continue to accomplish their goals.”
All four players starred on a Tanner defense that was one of the area’s best. In 14 games, the Rattlers finished with five shutouts and did not give up a single point through the first three rounds of the Class 2A playoffs.
Tanner finished the season with the program’s first state title.
Maclin played a key role in that success. The 6-foot-3 and 170-pound senior finished with 30 tackles and six interceptions, returning two for touchdowns.
“This is an exciting day,” Maclin said. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a while, and now I can’t wait to get down to UAB for the next challenge.”
With Rich, UNA signed one of the area’s most decorated football players. Rich, a 6-3 and 195-pound linebacker, was selected in January as the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s Class 2A lineman of the year.
The senior was also selected as The Daily’s 2012 Class 1A-3A football player of the year.
Rich, who was the MVP of the Class 2A state title game, led Tanner’s defense with 66 tackles and two interceptions.
“I liked everything about my visit at UNA,” Rich said. “The coaches told me that if I’d come over and work hard, then I should have a chance to play. I think it’s going to be a good place for me.”
Shoulders and Fletcher played pivotal roles for Tanner on both sides of the ball.
As a fullback, Shoulders was the lead blocker for two 1,500-yard rushers, while Fletcher anchored one of the area’s best offensive lines.
All four players enjoyed a relaxed celebration with friends, family, coaches and former teammates.
And while participating in their first media blitz, the future college players managed to sneak in a few friendly pranks.
The first attempt was aimed at Maclin.
While answering questions from multiple local television reporters, Maclin had to block out distractions in the background as teammates shuffled behind the cameras, snickering as they snapped photos with cellphones.
After finishing his camera time, Maclin returned the favor as his three former teammates talked to reporters.
“This is a good group of kids,” White said.
“They’ve accomplished a lot, and I’m proud of every one of them.”
Armstrong signed an NLI with South Alabama.
Armstrong, a 6-7 and 301-pound offensive tackle, gave the Jaguars a commitment after attending a camp in Mobile last summer.
“It’s like family down there,” he said. “I like the fact the campus is tucked away in the corner of the city and that activities and entertainment are not far away. The facilities there I feel are second to none at any college.”
Armstrong said it was USA head coach Joey Jones who made a big impact on his signing with the Jaguars.
“Coach Jones spent about one hour straight talking with my mom and dad during a visit,” Armstrong said. “I am not sure many coaches, even Nick Saban, would devote that much time to talking one on one with a parent.”
Armstrong thanked Red Devils’ head coach Rich Dutton and agility trainer Conley Duncan for making him a more-polished player.
Armstrong, who has a 3.87 GPA and plans to study mechanical engineering at South Alabama, said he had offers from Southern Miss, Western Kentucky, Arkansas State, Virginia Military Institute, Middle Tennessee and Tennessee-Martin.
“South Alabama was the first school to offer me a scholarship, and they have stayed in contact with me the entire time,” he said. “I felt their loyalty and am ready to get started.”
Priceville’s football team filled the library to watch as Nick Bell officially agreed to play at Faulkner.
During the 2012 season, the 5-11 and 150-pound wide receiver caught 39 passes for 804 yards and scored 16 touchdowns for the Bulldogs (2-8).
Though initially recruited as a wide receiver, after Bell visited Faulkner on Friday, the coaching staff also expressed interest in using him as a kicker.
“Nick represents everything positive about our program,” Priceville coach Dirk Strunk said. “He’s going to represent this community in a very positive manner. I’m excited that he’s getting this opportunity.”
Bell said he is excited to have an opportunity to play in college.
“I’ve thought about it before, and I was hoping that I would get to. Lucky for me, it actually came true,” he said.
Bell also added 30 tackles and four interceptions during his senior year. Strunk considers him an all-around player and said he was important on all parts of the field.
“We are a program on the rise, and we are headed in the right direction,” Strunk said. “It’s great that he’s seeing success. It couldn’t go to a more deserving young man.”
Two East Lawrence players made their college plans official by agreeing to play football at Faulkner.
Twin brothers Zeke and Zach Sherrell, both 300-pound offensive guards, celebrated the announcement with friends and family during a ceremony at the school.
Sports writers Meredith Qualls and Michael Wetzel contributed to this report.
Contact Justin Graves at 256-340-2460 or by email at email@example.com.
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