Wednesday, May 7, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Steven Jackson, the NFL running back and one of the best football players to come out of Las Vegas, was good by local standards when he played at Eldorado High nearly 15 years ago. Wow, I’m getting old.
He was good enough to lead the Sundevils to a regional title and state runner-up finish, but even the most optimistic prediction wouldn’t have pegged him as a future NFL all-pro.
Despite rushing for 6,396 yards and 81 touchdowns in his prep career, Jackson had little interest from colleges because he was just Las Vegas good. Our brand of high school football was mediocre back then, only recruited by a handful of small-school colleges.
When DeMarco Murray left Bishop Gorman in 2006 for Oklahoma, I told anyone willing to listen he’d be a bust. He put up big numbers against second-tier local competition and Gorman was always bounced early from the playoffs when it faced a formidable foe.
Turns out I was wrong. Murray was more than the best in Las Vegas — he is now the Dallas Cowboys’ starting running back.
During this week’s NFL Draft, Gorman grad and former USC player Xavier Grimble is projected as a late-round pick. If the tight end is selected, it will be the fifth straight year a former Las Vegas player has been tabbed for one of the most sought-after jobs in the world.
That’s a sign our brand of high school football is evolving into a respectable product. Sure, we’ll never reach the level of Texas, Florida or California, but we aren’t Alaska — which starts its season in early August and rarely produces college players — either.
And, please, don’t say a player from five-time state champion Gorman doesn’t provide adequate evidence of the improvements. While Gorman sends the most players to college programs, other schools have proven to also have talent.
Two from Cheyenne and Valley highs have been picked for the NFL in the past five drafts. One of those played in the Super Bowl. Other programs with players selected include: Canyon Springs, Cimarron-Memorial, Western, Shadow Ridge and Las Vegas High.
Locals getting a chance in the NFL won’t stop anytime soon. About 15 players each February sign scholarship papers on national signing day, going to major-conference schools such as Oregon, Utah or Notre Dame. Recruiters are jumping over each other to evaluate Las Vegas players, starting at Gorman — a nationally known program — and finding their way to other high schools.
One public-school coach I talked with this week tried listing all of the colleges that sent an assistant to his campus this spring. The list was so long he couldn’t recall all the schools.
At first, after Jackson burst onto the scene as a freshman at Oregon State, coaches started making regular visits in Southern Nevada because they didn’t want to miss the next star. Now, more than a decade later, it’s a must-stop on the recruiting trail because programs are regularly filling their roster with local contributors.
There are so many quality players that the Sun’s 28-member preseason all-city team each August always excludes a few players with scholarship offers. These players are competing against each other, starting in youth leagues and then on Friday nights, to help the quality of our football improve by leaps and bounds.
Grimble — like Jackson, Murray or any player considered for the NFL — is an elite athlete with all of the physical tools. Jackson and Murray reached the league despite being from Las Vegas.
But make no doubt about it, being from Las Vegas helped some of the past local draftees get there. Players such as Billy Winn (Cleveland) of Las Vegas High or Brandon Marshall (Denver) of Cimarron-Memorial each thrived in high-caliber local programs, blossoming into college stars and making NFL teams after developing here.
Some will argue Las Vegas always produced quality players, but they weren’t noticed because the area was lucky to send one or two athletes to college football each year. That’s when highlights were mailed to recruiters on a VHS tape; now highlights are uploaded to sites such as Hudl.com and easily accessed. Players also travel the nation competing in evaluating events, giving themselves ample chances to be noticed.
Grimble will be in an NFL camp — as a draft pick or free agent — to add another notch on the belt of the local high school football scene. He won’t be the last. Las Vegas is no longer lightly recruited. It’s a place where athletes start the process of developing into professionals.