Monday, Jan. 16, 2012 | 2:01 a.m.
The benefits behind a high school football player graduating a semester early to enroll in college and participate in spring practice always confused me.
Why rush growing up?
By leaving behind the final 4 1/2 months of high school – everything from representing your school one last time in a spring sport to possibly missing the senior prom — an athlete forfeits valuable learning opportunities and social development they’ll never get back.
High school is just a four-year window that closes way too fast. College, on the other hand, will always be there.
Desert Pines High’s Leon Hayes, a safety who Tuesday will enroll early at UTEP, is helping change my opinion. By learning the ins and outs of the UTEP defensive schemes in spring practice and starting in the college team’s weight training program, the 18-year-old Hayes feels he’ll have a leg up in the fall when it comes to competing for playing time.
It’s the same primary argument several others have in jump-starting their college career — a decision, until talking with Hayes, I often viewed as a risk.
“It really wasn’t that hard of a decision,” Hayes said. “Yeah, it was hard leaving some of the people, but it was going to happen eventually.”
Early enrollment has become prominent the past decade with more players opting to head off prematurely to college. Some thrive and use the extra practice in the spring to make an impact as freshman. Others still wind up needing a red-shirt year to get familiar to the pace of the college game — Liberty High graduate Sam Tai, for instance, took part in UCLA’s spring drills last year and still red-shirted.
You can’t fault Hayes’ dedication and confidence he is making the right move.
When he learned of the opportunity to enroll early at UTEP, he took a three-week online U.S. Government course to fulfill his final obligation at Desert Pines to graduate. He earned a B, opening the door for his next class to be this week at UTEP.
“I really think it is a good move for him,” Desert Pines coach Paul Bennett said. “At first, I wasn’t happy with it, but it is what he wants to do. The biggest thing is he has put forth the effort to do it. It takes a special person to handle (the change) and Leon is one of those guys.
“The recruiters were tell me that as an incoming freshman he won’t be a deer in the headlights in the fall,” the coach said.
But what about all of those once-in-a-lifetime high school experiences he’ll be missing? For Hayes, it’s not that big of an ordeal.
A three-year participant on the Desert Pines track team, Hayes was a Sunrise Regional qualifier last year and would have competed in the 100 and 200 meter races, and several relay teams. “I would rather be on the football field than track. Football the sport I’ll be playing in college,” he said.
As for the senior prom, which he could still return to Las Vegas to attend. “I’d have to find a date first,” said Hayes, who will return in May to participate in graduation. “But I won homecoming king and really did all of that stuff at the beginning of the year.”
Making the early move to college requires someone with extreme maturity and discipline. After all, leaving home for the first time can be full of trials and tribulations, and often can be problematic for any teenager. Hayes seems like he can handle leaving early for college, which includes living unsupervised in the dorms and other responsibilities of being independent.
It’s an era of college football I’m still not sold on, but more than willing to accept in cheering for Hayes to represent our Las Vegas community at the next level.