IMG Academy benefits from other states canceling football
The decision wasn’t all that difficult.
In fact, it’s one Paul Hutson says he might have made anyway. So when the COVID-19 crisis canceled his junior season, the three-star defensive lineman packed his bags and transferred to a high school 855 miles away from his family’s Virginia home as though he were walking to the corner store for a slushy.
Of course IMG Academy is no regular high school. The all-athletes boarding institution located in Bradenton, Fla., boasts major college-like facilities and recruits top players from all over the country each year. There’s a national schedule, resources for more aggressive coronavirus testing and a full-service hotel for players’ families and various other visitors roughly 120 yards away from the school’s football stadium. The 45-acre campus is also currently playing host to the WNBA’s return-to-play bubble.
This isn’t a Norfolk, Va., public school -- not by a long shot.
“They have money -- a lot of money,” Hutson said of his new school. “So they can really keep you safe. Like, I had to self-isolate before I got on campus and then they take your temperature every day -- right when you get there, they test. It was weird, but it’s all good now. They make sure everyone is safe on campus. The health services department does a great job of keeping us all safe and always sanitizing everything somebody touches.”
Safety is a factor, sure. But the most important thing to Hutson and others like him, of course, is that, unlike every high school in the state of Virginia, IMG will field a football team this fall.
For better or worse, there was never a time where it seemed like it wouldn’t. It’s why several other players from the state made the move alongside Hutson and why they’re all preparing to open the season with an IMG logo on their helmets come early September.
Hutson’s journey isn’t unique. Offensive lineman Colin Henrich and linebacker Jordan Hall along with high-profile defensive backs Daylen Everette and Desmond Ricks also recently made the move from Virginia to IMG. Going from a canceled football season to a dorm in a boarding school has been a whirlwind, but according to Henrich the chaos is well worth it when you consider the alternative.
For him, thousands of dollars in scholarship money hangs in the balance. The risk in playing football this fall is real ... but it’s also calculated.
“Where I’m at with a lot of my offers, they need to see my senior year,” Henrich said. “I needed to figure something out, so I made a combine tape and that wasn’t doing the trick. They were like ‘we still need to see tape.’ So when this opportunity at IMG came, I knew it was once in a lifetime.
“I talk to the coaches at LSU and I’m in a pool with people to be offered. It’s LSU and they get the possible players, but I’m trying to be the best possible player. This is one of the reasons I need a season; for the colleges.”
A week ago, Henrich was doing daily workouts in his Virginia basement, relying on a few dumbbells and a Bowflex -- yes a Bowflex -- to keep him in shape and ready to earn major college offers. Needless to say IMG’s 10,000-square-foot weight room and on-campus nutritionist team was a welcome change of pace.
“We took it back to 2002 down there with the Bowflex,” Henrich said. “We had some push-pull action going. We got a leg machine, too. But, yeah, when I got here (to IMG) I couldn’t believe it.”
Virginia prospects obviously don’t stand alone. The uncertainty around football has helped drive talent from all over to the sports specific school on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Still, the program doesn’t toss out scholarships to just anybody. The school in the end, is a business, and the football branch is in the business of, among other things, winning games. This isn’t charity. The situation is symbiotic. IMG, in part, relies on a percentage of its alumni becoming pros and signing with IMG’s representation and management branch to turn a profit.
For now, however, Henrich and those like him are determined to make the school work for them. And nothing -- not a pandemic nor any act of nature it seems -- is stopping them from reaping those benefits.
To them, this season isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity.
It’s why driving through Tropical Storm Kyle to unpack bags at a boarding school without a single prior visit was somehow both a no-brainer and a metaphor of the last six months.
“We just kept moving forward,” Henrich said. “We hit all that rain and all that traffic and just had to keep moving forward. We never stopped until we got here.”