ARMY AA BOWL: Army All-American selection tour
Absecon (N.J.) Holy Spirit linebacker Anthony Sarao knew when he headed down to San Antonio this past January for the U.S. Army Combine that he wanted to earn an invitation to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. And while it didn't happen that quickly, Sarao finally fulfilled his dream on Thursday morning at his school when he was presented with his jersey for the game. It was a long journey but well worth it.
"I've been watching the game the last five or so years and always wanted to be a part of it," said the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder. "I knew if I worked hard and grew a bit I could play at that level. Seeing linebackers like Brian Toal and Brian Cushing representing from New Jersey, I wanted to continue that. Receiving this jersey is the next step towards that and I can't wait for January."
Sarao had to overcome a few obstacles before earning his invitation to the elite game. First, he had to become known, something he hoped to do last summer when he was at the Top Gun Camp in Paisley, Fla., the same camp where 2010 Army All-Americans such as Ronald Powell, Sharrif Floyd, Keenan Allen and Owamagbe Odighizuwa were showing their stuff.
"We were there with the juniors two days before the seniors arrived," said Sarao. "Wayne Lyons and I were both there and we were leaving the day the big-name guys were arriving and we wished we could have stayed. There were some juniors there like Malcolm Brown and Aaron Green and we would have loved to compete, but it all worked out in the end. Both Wayne and I are now representing the East and will go against Malcolm and Aaron on the West."
The second, and toughest issue for Sarao? Height.
"That was a bit tougher because I knew I had to grow," he laughed. "And that just has to happen. There was a stigma out there that I wasn't tall enough to be an elite linebacker and that all started in San Antonio this past January. Part of it is my fault."
Sarao checked in at the U.S. Army All American Combine at 5 feet 11, something that hindered his chances despite his combine record 3.97-second shuttle time.
"I actually didn't worry about my height and didn't even stand up that straight when they measured me because I wanted my vertical to be better," he said. "I didn't even think about how this could effect my recruiting and my chances. When I measured 5-foot-11, people started saying I was too short and I knew I made a mistake. I had to show I was taller than that somehow."
A month later he measured in at 6 feet at the Premier Showcase in New Jersey and finally at the Top Gun Camp in Williamsburg, Va., in July he reached 6-1. So did he grow or was his simply being mismeasured?
"A little of both," he said. "Like I said, I kind of didn't straighten up that much at the Army Combine but I learned that lesson quickly. The 6-foot-0 measurement was accurate in February and I grew an inch or so over the summer so I'm a legit 6-foot-1. So I've grown a bit but I don't think I was ever really under 6-feet."
Sarao also grew in other ways, adding muscle to his growing frame. He went from 200 pounds at the first Top Gun Camp to 220 at the second.
"I worked hard to add the weight," he said. "In the off-season I'm in the gym six days a week and do some little stuff on Sundays. Even during the season I'm in the gym Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. I love working out and trying to get bigger and stronger, it helps you on the field for sure and I want to outwork everyone."
With exposure and height out of the way, Sarao balled out at the Top Gun camp this past summer and earned the praise of coaches at the event as well as talent evaluators to earn the coveted offer before he left. He made sure he went up against Brown and Green in one-on-ones to stand out to everyone.
"I talked to Malcolm and Aaron the night before and they wanted to go against me because they knew I was one of the better guys in coverage and I wanted to go against them because I know how good they are," he said. "So each time they went up for a rep, one of the coaches would call me out. I guess I did well enough because they told me before I took off that I was selected for the game. I was excited. I didn't jump up and down and do flips because I felt I earned it, but I was happy for sure. We were all kind of bummed they didn't give out awards at the camp, but this was my award on the side and the one I really wanted."
With his selection to the game and his early commitment to Stanford, Sarao has been able to focus on his senior season where his team is off to a 4-0 start. So far this season, Sarao has 20 tackles, four sacks, forced fumble and fumble recovery.
"So far we're doing well," he said. "I'm bigger than I was last year and stronger and I can tell. I was under 200 pounds as a junior in season and now I'm around 215 with the same speed so I can feel the improvement. I love coming off the edge and getting after the quarterback, but covering receivers is one of the things that is my strength."
As for recruiting, while he's committed to Stanford the talented linebacker will take a few visits to make sure he's making the right choice and to guard against a late surprise in case he's not admitted with Stanford's rigid academic standards.
"I should know about admission by the end of the month they tell me," he said. "The Stanford admissions process is unlike any other. The application is so long and you have to write a bunch of essays and you don't really know if you made it in until late in your senior season. So I'm going to visit UCLA for sure and maybe Michigan State and Nebraska if I feel the need. Even if I get admitted, I want to at least check out UCLA and compare. But I'm solid to Stanford, I really like it out there and you can't beat the academics. I can't wait to get out there and play college football."
Between now and then, the Army Bowl looms.
"That will be a great experience," he said. "I'm honored to be a part of it because it's the big game, it's the one you dream about playing in."