Building a Football Star, One Tweet at a Time
It's hard to overstate Twitter's impact on college football recruiting. No one has embraced this quite as readily as Craig Bryden, whose 13-year-old son is being called the best young quarterback in the country.
Courtesy USA Football/Robert Wefel
Standing in the bleachers of the football field at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York, Craig Bryden pointed towards the 30-yard-line, where the Buffalo Bills quarterbacks were warming up for a training camp session. "See him, No. 5?" Craig asked. "That's Tyrod Taylor. No. 5. He follows Daron on Twitter."
Daron is Craig's 13-year-old son, and he already has been billed as the best young quarterback in the country. Since attending his first football camp at the age of six, where coaches admired his beautiful spiral throws, Daron's prospects as a player have been on the rise—a product as much of social media as of his efforts on the field.
It's hard to overstate Twitter's impact on college football recruiting. Traditionally, college coaches started paying attention to players once they reached their sophomore years. Things started to change as the Internet emerged, but the full revolution came with the arrival of Twitter.
NCAA rules restrict coaches from calling or texting potential recruits before they finish the football season of their junior year of high school. Twitter offers a loophole: direct messaging. The NCAA does not yet regulate direct messaging, so players and coaches can start speaking on Twitter as early and as often as they'd like. College coaches regularly communicate with middle schoolers, sometimes even offering them scholarships. No one has embraced this quite as readily, or mastered it as impressively, as Craig Bryden, a.k.a. @QuarterbackDad7.
Craig has long been documenting Daron's budding football career online. He and his wife are both deaf, and the easiest way to share stories with their extended family and friends is through writing—though Craig can read lips and hear some words with the help of a hearing aid, phone calls are difficult. So shortly after that first camp, Craig started a blog that Daron's grandparents could read. The first post is a series of photos of Daron at camp, playing wide receiver with a bunch of other pint-sized six- and seven-year-olds, their T-shirts hanging past their knees. Daron was also working out solo, meeting a private QB coach every Sunday night. That August, Daron joined the Enfield Ramblers, his Connecticut hometown's youth team, and started as a fullback.
Daron was already dreaming about making it to the NFL—as a quarterback. He and Craig would go to the field after dinner, his younger brother in tow. On nights the Ramblers had practice, they arrived an hour early to work on quarterback mechanics. They started the private lessons again as soon as the season ended. The offseason work paid off, and by the time Daron was entering second grade, he had earned the starting quarterback job. That spring, Craig and Daron joined Twitter.
Craig quickly discovered that, with Twitter, he could connect with college coaches all over the country, and that they'd actually respond. It was also through Twitter that Craig met Joe Dickinson, a youth quarterback coach based in Oklahoma. Despite the distance, Joe tries to see Daron once or twice a year; he invited the Brydens to the Bills training camp, where he was working this summer. Daron's other current coach—another Twitter connection—also lives hundreds of miles from the Brydens. When the coaches can't see Daron in person, they evaluate highlights that Craig sends through Twitter.
Craig and Daron have also tweeted highlights to ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and NFL players. It took more than a year of tweets—and a fair amount of flak from fellow parents who thought it was extreme to refer to a third grader as the "next Tom Brady"—but eventually Daron started getting mentioned in major outlets. ESPN invited him to pass with Kordell Stewart.
While Daron's reputation grew, his body wasn't keeping pace. He barely topped five feet as he finished sixth grade, and he still weighed just 95 pounds. His doctors say he'll eventually reach between 6' and 6'4'', but he's currently only growing about two inches each year. They calculated that he'd only be about 5'4'' by age 14. That didn't seem tall enough for high school football.
And so, with Dickinson's guidance, the Brydens decided that Daron would repeat sixth grade, giving him an extra year to grow. In the football world, it's known as "reclassifying" and, according to Dickinson, about half of all Division I quarterbacks do it. "At first I didn't want to," Daron said, but he eventually changed his mind. "I figured I'd get it over with, in case [by eighth grade] high school teams are getting ready for me, they won't want to wait."
Staying back has already had its benefits, at least in recruiting terms. In February, when Rivals.com gave Daron a recruiting profile, it listed him among the class of 2021. A few 2020 prospects already had profiles, but Daron gained national attention for being one of the first from the class of 2021. One other boy was highlighted, but few media outlets wrote about him: his parents aren't all that interested in press.
This summer, Daron attended ten different camps, most of them intended for high school players. Many of the invitations had come through Twitter. All told, the father and son pair spent June and July hopscotching from Connecticut to Virginia, to D.C., to Pennsylvania, to Ohio, to Massachusetts, to New Jersey, to Ohio, to Massachusetts, to Ohio, to New Hampshire, and, finally, to Rochester. Filtered through a series of Tweets, it looks like a youth sports joyride. The reality can be grinding. To visit the Bills in Rochester, the Brydens drove more than nine hours round trip—all to spend two hours in the bleachers during a team practice, about four minutes on the field with Tyrod Taylor, and about 25 minutes on a practice field with Dickinson. Craig loved that they got a photo with Jim Kelly, but Daron didn't know anything about him.
The day started at 4 AM, and they were back on the road by 1:30 PM. When they stopped at a mall food court on the drive home, Daron reflected on all of the hours they spent in the car this summer.
"It sucks. I try to sleep, but you can't really sleep for eight hours during the day," he said, a rare moment when he sounded like the young teenager he is rather than the NFL prospect he's being groomed to be. Craig nudged him playfully and added, "It was fun. We get to hang out." Between bites of orange chicken, BBQ chicken, and white rice, he then listed several ways the hours had paid off. "When he was on Rivals, people thought he wasn't that good. But [when they saw him at camps]: 'Wow.' He made a statement. He proved it," Craig said. "That was cool, right?" he asked Daron. Daron nodded.
Earlier this summer, Sean Salisbury, who had coached at the UMass camp, told his ESPN radio show listeners that Daron "may be the best sixth grader in the United States.... He has got football sense and IQ... and he is just spectacular." When his co-host questioned how absurd it is to be ranking sixth graders, Salisbury responded that it's just the state of youth football.
"Don't let the media attention go to your head," Dickinson told Daron a few weeks later in Rochester. "I've seen it happen. I've known David Sills since he was ten."
Sills was a national story when he became the first player to verbally commit to a college, USC, as a seventh grader. By the time he finally graduated high school this May, the relationship with USC had deteriorated, and his ranking had dropped to the mid-30s for the Class of 2015. He eventually signed a scholarship offer with West Virginia, but not before being criticized by media across the country.
Sills' mother recently reached out to Craig on Facebook. "Be ready, there will be a lot of negative people. Ignore them, be strong, support your kid. Always be positive. Don't worry about the meetings [with college coaches]," Craig says she wrote.
The Brydens are starting to recognize that youth football, all-star games, rankings—everything is as much about business as it is about the young stars. As coaches continue to DM them, they know they don't have to accept every offer to see a campus or come to a game. Those offers will only increase in the next few years, as Daron hits peak recruiting years. Right now, Craig's turning his attention to NCAA recruiting rules. He wants to make sure they don't do anything to jeopardize Daron's chances—and they know the NCAA is likely to be paying attention, considering Daron already garners so much publicity. But he has no plans of slowing down on Twitter.
Dickinson just wants Daron to be cautious. He says college coaches should be giving Daron, and every prospect, more time to develop. "When you offer a kid as a freshman in high school or an eighth grader or a seventh grader, there's too many misses," he said. "Some of them keep their foot on the pedal, some of them don't."
The Brydens never worry about building up Daron too much, though, or attracting too much attention. They never doubt that Daron truly is the best young quarterback in the country, that he will continue riding this wave straight into Division I football, and then to the NFL. Daron has a dream, and like most seventh graders, no backup plan. What happens if he fails? "I try not to think about that," Daron said. Last fall, Craig left his job to fully focus on football. He knows his son will grow. He doesn't second-guess any pressure Daron may be feeling at such a young age. "God has a plan for him," Craig says. Enjoy the ride, he tells Daron. Play every day, every rep, like it's the last of your football career.
"A lot of people would say what Craig is doing is wrong," Dickinson said. "But who is to say what's right or wrong?"
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