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COVER STORY : Field of Dreams : Athletes Competing for Scholarships Play High-Stakes Game


Richard Estrada is standing on the sidelines at the St. John Bosco-St. Paul football game in Bellflower, watching intently as the players on the field run and pass and butt heads on the line. He holds a clipboard, making notations on a form after every play, but he's actually holding much more than that in his hands.

What Estrada is holding are the dreams and futures of young athletes.

Estrada is a professional high school football scout. For the last six years, Estrada has worked for an Orange County-based scouting company, attending 40 to 50 high school football games throughout Los Angeles County to assess players' abilities, attitudes and potential.

His reports, and those from other company scouts in Southern California, will be assembled and sold to colleges and universities for $1,500 to $2,000 a copy, giving them an overview of what's available in the Southern California high school football market.

For anxious high school football players who will be waiting for those college football coaches to call, a thumbs up or a thumbs down from Estrada could be a deciding factor. Each notation he makes on that clipboard can help advance--or demolish--a boy's dreams of getting a "ride"--that is, a full college scholarship.

It's big business, this quest to get a scholarship, not just in football but in other sports, for girls as well as boys. Full or partial scholarships are available in about two dozen sports. Since implementation in the 1970s of Title IX, which seeks to balance expenditures on women's sports with men's, the growth of women's athletic scholarships has been explosive. In 1991, the last year for which figures are available, the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. reported that 90,000 athletes were receiving about $468 million in full and partial scholarships--almost one-third of them to women--from more than 500 NCAA Division I and II colleges and universities.


Although the numbers are large, the size of the athletic scholarship pie actually is small, given the huge demand for a slice of it. No one knows just how many high school athletes--and their parents--entertain dreams of full scholarships. But insiders estimate that no more than 10% of high school athletes qualify for athletic scholarships, either full or partial.

Still, Long Beach and the surrounding areas have a rich tradition of producing great athletes. Dozens have become baseball stars, including Wilson High School teammates Bobby Grich and Jeff Burroughs. Grich was an all-star second baseman with the Baltimore Orioles and the California Angels. Burroughs was the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1974 with the Texas Rangers. Shane Mack, who graduated from Gahr High in Cerritos, attended UCLA, made the 1984 U.S. Olympic baseball team and played for the Minnesota Twins' 1991 World Series champions.

If it can happen to them, some parents think, maybe it can happen to my kid.

As a result, many adults go to great lengths to help their children qualify for a college athletic scholarship, which not only would ease the burden of tuition costs but just might turn out to be a ticket to the pros.

Some parents move their children into certain school districts from miles away to get them in the best, most high-profile athletic programs for their sport.

Some even take their kids across the country to "showcase tournaments," where college coaches and recruiters can see them in action.

Other parents pay hundreds of dollars to companies that circulate athletic resumes among college coaches.

Legendary El Segundo High School baseball Coach John Stevenson thinks that parents' aggressiveness has gotten out of hand.

"It has become a frenzy," said Stevenson. "There are kids playing solely because their parents are demanding that they earn a scholarship. Kids are trying to play for the wrong reasons."

Almost everyone connected with high school sports has a story about pushy parents screaming at their kids for supposedly blowing a scholarship by missing a layup or muffing a grounder. Yet, with the average cost of a private four-year college hovering around $14,000 a year, including tuition, room and board, who can blame a parent for thinking that it certainly would be nice if Junior or Sissy could get all or even a portion of that tuition picked up by the school's athletic department?

So the question becomes, how do you help the kid do it? How do you increase the chances that your young athlete will get financial aid?

Based on interviews with coaches, student athletes, scouts, recruiters and parents, here are some suggestions:

Make Sure the Kid Can Play

That may sound obvious, but the ability to play a sport well-- very well--is a factor some parents overlook when they start dreaming of an athletic scholarship. Simply put, they think their young athlete is better than he or she really is.

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