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Armwood's Peoples must make his own chance

Written by Ernest Hooper, St. Petersburg Times

The story of Nathan Peoples isn't that uncommon, but he is.

Peoples, 6-foot-2, 218 pounds, is a heralded linebacker for Armwood who had every reason to believe his future was with a Division I school. For as long as he can remember, the advice has been the same: practice hard, play well, make good grades, do well on the college entrance exam and a scholarship will be yours.

He heeded those words as gospel, scoring 19 on the American College Test and maintaining a 2.6 grade-point average in his core classes. Peoples, a team captain, recorded 100 tackles for Armwood - 72 solos, 28 assists - and he knows those numbers are correct because he took each game film home and reviewed his performance. He not only recorded tackles but looked for ways to improve.

Yet nearly three weeks after the first day high school players could sign letters of intent with universities, Peoples has little to show.

Peoples isn't the first high school player to fall between the recruiting cracks, and he won't be the last, but there's an extra edge to Nathan that makes those who know him empathize with his plight.

"Nathan is the type of kid who is very focused," said Tyrone Keys, a former Bucs defensive lineman who runs a recruiting service for area high school players. "He's so focused, so committed. That's why I stated this business, to help some of the marginal kids who have done everything on and off the field.

"Nathan has taken care of business on the field, in the classroom and he's pretty active in the community. And here he is, without a place to play."

So focused is Peoples, that when he first spoke to Key he recognized his voice even though he had never met him.

"I told him I saw you guys play against Jefferson when you were a sophomore," Keys said. "He said, 'You were up in the press box. I heard your voice on the film because I turned up the sound to hear what the coaches and scouts were saying.'

"When someone can remember hearing you talk two years ago, that shows you how focused he is."

Armwood coach Sean Callahan calls Peoples the best "package" of citizen, student and player he's coached in 12 years. Callahan said Peoples' size and speed (4.7 in the 40 yard dash) might have made him questionable to Division I schools, but he knows Peoples can serve the need of some schools.

"I was shocked when the Division I-AA schools were not interested," Callahan said." He's done everything a high school athlete should do and deserves a chance."

Peoples' brother, George, played for Auburn and spent several years in the NFL, including two with the Bucs. Nathan has desire to play in the Southeastern Conference because of George's success, and that desire turns into frustration when he tries to figure out why he's on the outside looking in.

"Not to single Florida out, but just as an example, they signed two linebackers who were academically ineligible," Peoples said. "And here I am with good grades and a good test score."

It's easy to understand how the recruiting system overlooked Peoples. His skills are above-average, but he's no the super blue-chipper that would overwhelm Florida or Florida State.

Attaining a scholarship is like an unfair romance. Colleges routinely wine and dine more athletes than they need because some players might back out of their oral commitments. The shakedown the colleges go through in the final weeks to form a recruiting class doesn't always pan out for players like Nathan.

Keys said coaches outside the state might see several linebackers like Nathan on film, and figure it's easier - and cheaper - to lure an in-state product with similiar skills to campus.

The film tells only half story.

"The coaches haven't been able to sit down and talk to him," Keys said. "That's what sets Nathan apart from other kids."

When you sit down and talk to Nathan, you realize the unfounded promise of the lectures and the counseling and the sermons haven't turned him into a bitter young teenager. Instead, they have added fuel to his fire. Nathan works out five days a week at the World Gym on Fowler, squatting 405 pounds twice and bench pressing 300 pounds while waiting for an opportunity.

The chance might come for Nathan as a walk-on, possibly at Mississippi State or Nicholls State. Callahan said the team that makes a place Nathan won't be making a mistake.

"If he walks on, he'll be a player in three or four years," Callahan said. "He's the kind of kid who will do whatever he needs to do to get better. He's a class kid."

Keys, who has called several coaches, said several schools would have offered Nathan a scholarship... if they had any left.

"He doesn't want to settle for second-best, and he shouldn't have to," Keys said. "I don't think all the work he's done has been in vain. I think his chances of walking on will be pretty good."

Maybe Peoples could have gone to a Division II school. Maybe he could have trashed his SEC dreams, or maybe traveling the rough road will work out.

"I think it'll make me stronger," Peolpes said. "When you walk on you control your own destiny. You have to go out, work hard and do that extra bit to stay alive and compete.

"I've seen my brother play at Auburn. I've seen how the SEC works, and I wouldn't feel right if I didn't give it a try."