Age against the machine
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 8, Kids In Sports issue. Subscribe today!
IN TRUTH, Dylan Moses had anticipated the day would come. It was not a wish in his mind, it was an inevitability. He had dreamed about it for years, used it as mental fuel each morning at 4:30, when it was time to spring out of bed and attack his first workout: 400 pushups, 800 sit-ups, 10 minutes of jump rope and a one-mile run, all before the sun climbed above the horizon and painted the streets of his neighborhood in Baton Rouge, La.
But that Tuesday last July when everything changed -- and the moment Dylan Moses began to understand his life was suddenly full of surreal possibilities and endless complexities -- arrived years before he, or anyone in his family, imagined it would.
For Dylan, it began with the sound of screaming.His father, Edward Moses Jr., had been awake since 2 a.m., catching up on the court documents and client referrals that are the lifeblood of his small law practice. Working as his family slept allowed him to squeeze in a few extra hours of productivity. Even though he'd been swamped of late, Edward had still made time on Sunday and Monday to watch Dylan, his oldest son, compete in a series of drills at the LSU football camp just down the road, an event they'd been anticipating for months.
Edward saw his 6'1", 215-pound son run the 40 and the looks on coaches' faces when Dylan clocked a 4.46. Dylan's mom, Tomeka Murray, used her iPhone to record it but didn't know how well he had done. "To be honest, I was kind of mad," she says. "That weekend was my birthday, and I didn't really want to spend the whole day at a football camp."
Around 3:30 a.m., Edward logged in to Facebook, hoping to track down a client, when he saw several Tigers fans in his feed buzzing about recruiting news. Word had leaked out that Les Miles was going to offer a scholarship to a running back who had yet to enter eighth grade. Apparently, the 14-year-old also played linebacker and had been the talk of camp, outperforming virtually every high school kid, dazzling with his speed and agility.
An eighth-grader? Edward thought. That's amazing. I thought Dylan was the only eighth-grader invited.
When Edward realized it was Dylan, he stared at the screen, frozen in disbelief. He'd had casual conversations before with LSU recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson, who had asked Edward to stick around after Monday's session. But Edward needed to hurry home and prepare for court. He'd planned to just touch base with Wilson the next day.
That's when the screaming began.
Edward ran from room to room, laptop in hand, yanking his family out of various states of slumber, bellowing to Tomeka, then Dylan, then their two younger boys, Keylan, 6, and Emmanuel, 4. They laughed, they hugged and sobbed. Dylan, a vicious hitter with pads on but a soft-spoken, shy teenager away from the field, was able to repeat only one word: Wow.
"I wasn't really like jumping for joy, because I was still so tired," he says. "It was like 4 a.m."
Not until the grandparents were called and Dylan and his two brothers went back to sleep did the excitement subside, leaving Edward and Tomeka to lie in bed and consider the gravity of their new situation.
"I was a little conflicted, to be honest," Edward says. "I felt like, What does offering a 14-year-old kid even mean?"
Not only had the local powerhouse taken notice, but Nick Saban -- winner of three of the past four BCS titles -- had given his stamp of approval. College-football-obsessed fans from coast to coast naturally wanted to check out this phenom for themselves. His 2011 and '12 highlight videos (posted by Edward on YouTube) have more than 800,000 views over the past nine months. Dylan looks like a cross between Bo Jackson and Ray Lewis, reversing direction and breaking tackles as if he's busting through tissue paper, or dragging down prepubescent running backs the way a lion would a gazelle.
Texas, Florida, Florida State, Nebraska, UCLA and Ole Miss have followed suit since the Tigers and Tide, with more surely to come. NCAA rules forbid programs from initiating contact with recruits before their junior years, but if a prospect calls a coach or attends a camp, a verbal offer can be extended. It doesn't become binding, however, until a recruit signs a national letter of intent as a senior.
On college football message boards, Dylan, who turned 15 in May and will be a freshman at Baton Rouge's University Lab this fall, has become a popular and polarizing topic. Adults spend equal time raving about his potential and brawling over the ethics of a system that has created a football celebrity who hasn't even played a high school down. The ESPN.com story that reported the offer from Saban drew more than 4,000 comments.
Here is a spot where the NCAA should step in. This is stupid.
Good grief. Let the kid be a kid.
By some of these comments, you would think Bama offered him crack, not a scholarship.
Whether the recruitment of Dylan Moses fascinates or disgusts you, there's no denying that he solidifies the direction America's youth sports are headed. In fact, football is playing catch-up: Basketball has been identifying the nation's top sixth-graders for nearly a decade. Long before Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, baseball was handing millions of dollars to teenagers and fast-tracking them to the majors. If Michael Phelps can compete in his first Olympics at 15 and sign a contract with Speedo at 16, and no one lifts a finger in protest, should we really fret over colleges dangling a free education in front of Dylan?
John Engh, chief operating officer of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, believes so. He contends that specializing year-round in a sport turns kids into professionals before they're emotionally equipped to handle the pressure. "Unfortunately, there are way more negative endings to stories than there are positive," he says. "How many parents who model themselves after Earl Woods don't have that Tiger success story?"
Edward and Tomeka insist they never saw the avalanche of offers coming this soon, but they've been forced to consider the pitfalls that often accompany fame for young athletes. Edward didn't even want his son to play football initially, because every day when he gets home from court and spills his tired body onto the couch, he can feel the soreness of his reconstructed left shoulder. It's a reminder of his career as a linebacker at Northwestern (La.) State, which led to a brief stint overseas and two forgettable years of Arena football. "I just felt like saying, You do not need this, son," Edward says. "You don't need all this pounding."
The pull of the game, however, was too strong, especially in an SEC hotbed. At 7, Dylan spotted a local Pop Warner team practicing at a nearby park and begged his parents to let him join. His father thought it over, then made a decision: Okay, I'll let you play, but if you decide to do this, you're not going to be average. You're going to be the best.
"I guess you could call me a drill sergeant," says Edward, who pushes Dylan to train almost every weekend and has also hired private coaches. "You can say, 'You drill your son too hard, and all you want is for him to go to college and then go to the pros.' Okay, I'm guilty. Yeah, I'm hard on him. Yeah, schools want to offer him a free ride to college. It sounds like the worst thing ever, doesn't it?"
On a rainy May morning in Baton Rouge, Dylan slouches on his couch and thinks back to his introduction to football. He begins quietly talking, uncertain of his words. Although he'd always been among the biggest kids in his class, Dylan says that at 7, one of the other boys was bullying him, beating him up at school. When Dylan joined the Pop Warner team, he noticed the bully was a running back. "First practice, I was playing linebacker, and they ran a sweep at me," Dylan says, smiling. "He came around the corner, and I just lit him up. He didn't really pick on me after that." Dylan doesn't come across as if he's bragging, just a kid telling a funny story. He tells a lot of stories this way, an engaging trait that will come in handy as he transitions to varsity this fall. "Sometimes I can see that they're jealous," he says of how other kids react to his offers. "I just let them bring it up so that it won't seem like I'm cocky. I barely talk, so it's kind of hard to be cocky."
Tomeka curls up in a comfortable chair while her son dashes upstairs to grab a quick shower after a football workout. She does her best to explain what it's like to raise a boy who already has the build of a man.
"I'm the worrier in the family," she says. "Dylan is not a worrier. He doesn't think about the negatives. He doesn't read the blogs. I try not to, but the curiosity gets to me. Some of it makes me want to scream or punch the wall. Most of it just scares me."
Then Tomeka tells a story about one of Dylan's classmates: The boy asked her son why he spent Saturdays at the park doing sprints with his dad or lifting weights at the gym. The kid wondered why Dylan didn't ever want to do the kind of stuff normal teenagers do. Dylan wasn't sure how to answer and went to his mom for advice.
"The truth is, he's not a normal teenager," she says. "I'd love for him to be able to make normal teenage mistakes, but I know that's not going to happen. I have to take reality into perspective too."
Dylan's parents also know people will judge them for letting their son appear on the cover of this magazine, that critics will say they're setting Dylan up to disappoint based on the early hype. But they're also well aware that these offers are the equivalent of a promise ring, nothing more. "It's like if you have a hungry dog and you're dangling a steak in front of him," says Tomeka, who has master's degrees in psychology and business administration. "He has to jump high enough to get that steak, right?"
SO HOW DID we get here, to the point where an eighth-grader is the prized prospect for college football's biggest programs?While Dylan isn't the youngest player ever to be offered, his situation does feel different, as if we're witnessing the next step in the evolution of the sport's recruiting process. Before him, there was David Sills (Eastern Christian; Elkton, Md.), a seventh-grade quarterback who was offered by USC coach Lane Kiffin in February 2010. But that seemed more anomaly, a single coach who saw something specific in Sills' mechanics, the equivalent of a young golfer whose swing is years ahead of his frame. Sills had been honing his release under private QB guru Steve Clarkson for three years; last summer another Clarkson pupil, 14-year-old Tate Martell (Poway High; Poway, Calif.), was offered by Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. "I started with Steve [Clarkson] in the film room at age 10, learning the mental part of the game," says Sills, who along with Martell is friends with Dylan on Facebook. "You have a really slim chance to make the NFL. So you have to start early to carry out your dream."
Young quarterbacks like David and Tate draw attention with flawless mechanics and high football IQs, traits that can be assessed in drills and skull sessions at a much earlier age. Meanwhile, position players like Dylan are judged on measurables (size, strength, speed, quickness) that usually don't develop until they're old enough to play on Friday nights. Before Dylan, it was unheard of for a coach to offer a running back who has hit and been hit only by middle school kids.
Dylan may not even wind up running the ball in college. He could play anywhere from cornerback to defensive end, depending on when he quits growing. (One of his great-uncles is 6'10".) If that means he has a shot to be the next Jadeveon Clowney, Dylan says it would be "amazing." He saw Clowney in person last fall, when South Carolina played at LSU. Dylan had a sideline pass and during pregame warmups casually tried to stand a few feet from the likely 2014 No. 1 pick, just for comparison's sake. "That dude is so awesome," he says. "I was nowhere near his shoulders."
Not knowing how Dylan will develop doesn't appear to concern coaches, though. Nor did it stop USC from offering Nathan Tilford, an incoming freshman at Upland (Calif.) High, after the 6'2", 190-pound wide receiver shone at the Trojans' camp in June. There is no question that the proliferation of college camps and national skills contests have changed the way coaches evaluate and recruit. Basically, football now has its version of a summer circuit similar to AAU basketball, putting eyeballs on kids earlier than ever. "We're seeing the new normal," says Clarkson. "This just scratches the surface of what recruiting is going to be."
But the most drastic difference, of course, has been the Internet recruiting sites, which allow insatiable fans (and coaches) to watch kids of any age from anywhere. It's quite possible that Herschel Walker would've been the Dylan Moses of the 1970s had anyone been able to find a clip of him at 14, instead of having to travel to Wrightsville, Ga.
To land the modern-day Herschel -- and stay within the rules -- coaches must identify talent as early as possible, grabbing a kid's attention when he's most impressionable. Saban told Moses' parents that he is generally against offering kids before they've entered high school but that he decided to make an exception for their son. Privately, several of Saban's colleagues admit they're not exactly thrilled to be scouting middle schoolers, but those same coaches don't want to be completely out of the race by the time Dylan starts his junior season.
"Once somebody does it, you have to do what you have to do to compete," says a former BCS head coach. "But I want to know: What happens if the kid doesn't turn out to be a player? Do you take the offer back? What do you do the first time a walk-on knocks him on his ass in practice and he's in your office wanting to transfer? You have so many people blowing smoke up their butt, they never learn to persevere. The whole thing is kind of a mess."
On June 12, UCLA offered 15-year-old quarterback Lindell Stone, an incoming freshman at Southlake (Texas) Carroll High. A day later, Kentucky offered Jairus Brents, a cornerback from New Albany, Ind.
IN THE ADDICTED minds of diehard fans from Gainesville to Los Angeles, the question isn't Should Dylan Moses be getting offers? but Who's gonna get him?
Well, the good news for Tigers fanatics, four years out, is that Dylan will spend more time on LSU's campus than some tenured professors. He's been attending skills camps at LSU since age 10 and transferred from Broadmoor Middle to a public K-12 school (University Lab) on LSU's campus for eighth grade and beyond. One of Moses' classmates -- and his teammate last season -- is Les Miles' youngest son, Ben.
Speculation over whether LSU has the edge, or if Alabama is too good to pass up, will surround Dylan Moses for the foreseeable future. But Dylan is doing his best to slow down the one part of the process he can control. When asked whether he already has a favorite school, Dylan responds with an answer he rehearsed with Tomeka: "University High."
While he won't start at running back right away, he'll likely open the season at linebacker. Dylan plans to stay focused on grades, football and his obsessive pushup and sit-up routine before bed and each morning before breakfast. He also lifts, works on core strength with elastic bands and runs track.
Aside from his training, though, Dylan has had a predictable summer: playing video games, listening to music by Ciara and Alicia Keys, watching Kevin Hart stand-up on Netflix. He flirts with girls on Twitter, dreams of the NFL (his favorite player is Trent Richardson) and still asks his mom to twist his hair when he's watching TV. He's just like hundreds of thousands of normal teenagers.
Except that right now, a coach somewhere is likely scribbling all this down for a file labeled dylan moses. Anything to gain an edge in a four-year chase for a ready-made recruit.
Last season football got noticeably younger. Johnny Manziel won the Heisman as a freshman, and Clowney was the top pro prospect at 19. Does it make sense then to wonder whether a high schooler could go straight to the NFL?
"I don't think so," Dylan says. "If you got hit by a grown man, that might kill you." He pauses for a moment. "But I could maybe see skipping high school."