SAN ANTONIO - There are high school teammates here in San Antonio for the U.S. Army All-American Game. And there are players who will be future teammates, having committed to the same school.
Then there are California natives De'Anthony Thomas and Victor Blackwell. They have a bond they say goes much deeper: They feel like brothers.
"Starting from when we were 10 years old until we were 14, during that four-year period, we pretty much just grew up together," said Blackwell, a four-star wide receiver out of Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei. "We did everything together."
The two even spent summers living together, with Thomas, a five-star athlete from Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, staying at Blackwell's house for prolonged periods of time. It helped them grow closer.
"Just being with him, I used to love going to his house and just chilling," Thomas said. "It was great being with him and his family.
"Me and Victor, we go way back, since we were like, 10. We both played on the same football team, and we both ran on the same track team. We know how to motivate each other and how to cheer each other up when one of us is down."
They know, it turns out, how to pick a sport. If it weren't for Thomas, Blackwell said he would never have gotten into football in the first place.
Thomas' rise to glory through the Snoop Youth Football League founded by the famous rap star Snoop Dogg (Calvin Broadus) has been documented many times. Blackwell also came up through that league - but he credits Thomas for his rise to fame.
"It was actually my first years of playing football," Blackwell said. "I was a basketball player, and I ran track. De'Anthony did it because De'Anthony grew up with football, so I was going, 'If he's going to do it, then why not me?' I just gave it a shot, and my first year, I couldn't catch anything. The second year, I came into my own and recognized the game, started to understand it more, and then it became a lot more fun for me."
FAR FROM DOGGING IT
Entertainment mogul Calvin Broadus (Snoop Dogg) founded The Snoop Youth Football League was formed in 2005 to give inner-city kids a chance to play football. It's been nothing but a rousing success, on and off the field.
"Snoop made football fun," four-star recruit Victor Blackwell said.
The league has succeeded because of its all-inclusiveness. Fathers, even those with criminal records, are all to volunteer, often rebuilding bonds with their sons. And unlike other football leagues, players are not classified based on their height and weight.
"It was great competition," Blackwell said. "Some people are just naturally big, and he made it age-appropriate, and he made it a lot of fun. A lot of people were able to play, and there was a lot higher competition because of the weight limit being more flexible."
The league made a huge impact on five-star recruit De'Anthony Thomas off the field, too. He now volunteers his time as a coach.
Thomas counts Snopp Dogg as one of his close friends.
"Me and Coach Snoop, we have a real great relationship," Thomas says. "He's been my coach for two years, and it's been a great experience with him, playing football not just in California, but all over."
The league's impact is growing.
An All-Star team will come to San Antonio later this month to compete against kids from a league in Texas that Deion Sanders started.
The Snoop League model will move to Chicago, where it hopes to have its inaugural season this fall.
- Ryan Gorcey
And a lot less fun for their opponents.
Blackwell is a 6-foot-1, 186-pound wideout. Thomas, much smaller at 5-9, 160 pounds, plays on both sides of the ball at Crenshaw, starring as a running back and defensive back.
On Tuesday, the two faced off against one another several times during team drills at the West practice.
Blackwell was able to grab five catches over his old friend, with two going for touchdowns in each corner of the end zone. Blackwell was catching the ball so much in the damp conditions that the brick red of the ball rubbed off on his white offense practice jersey.
And while Blackwell got the better of him on this day, the two were just glad to be together again - something they will be for the next four years.
Both players - along with other California top recruits QB Cody Kessler and WR George Farmer - are headed to Southern Cal.
"Me, Cody, George (Farmer) and D, we're going to 'SC together, so we try to make it kind of an 'SC thing,'" Blackwell said. "It's fun. I missed the second part of yesterday's practice and half of the first part (with a dislocated finger), so I knew I had to come out and grind today. I told D yesterday, in the room, 'Bro, I'm grinding tomorrow,' and he was like, 'For sure. We're on, then.' I got him a few times, and he knew it, and he got right back at it and got me a few times, too."
It would figure that the two lifelong friends would want to spend as much time as possible with one another, and when the chance came for the two to do just that at the next level, the pair of Snoop Youth Football League alums jumped at the chance.
"It's kind of like a dream come true," Blackwell said. "Growing up, this was our dream. We were growing up when (Matt) Leinart and (Reggie) Bush ran the NCAA, and we were like, 'Bro, that could be us! Imagine if we were at 'SC, imagine if this, imagine if that.' We'd go to a restaurant and see them play, and go 'What if this was us?' The thought just got bigger and bigger as we got closer and closer to it."
Growing up, Thomas' favorite Trojans were Troy Polamalu and of course, Bush. As he and Blackwell excelled, the wheels started turning to make their dream a reality.
"When I got offered by 'SC, I committed. The next day, he was like, 'I got you, bro. I'm committing, too,'" Blackwell said. "The next day, he committed, and bam, we're Trojans. Now, we're this big family. Growing up and seeing everything happen, it's just nuts."
When the pair got to San Antonio, dressing in the same jerseys for the first time since they were 14, the dream got even more real.
"At first, we thought, when we were playing Pop Warner, we thought we were going to go to the same high school, but we ended up not," Thomas said. "But, we both ended up being successful at our schools that we went to, and now we get to play in this US Army game together, so it's just great."
Sort of like family.