There’s more to life than football at Diamond Ranch

Through the eyes of a teenager, football typically is viewed as the destination, not the vehicle. Football sometimes begets a free college education courtesy of the small number of lucrative scholarships, but in the case of the four captains of the Diamond Ranch High School football team, it’s quite the opposite.

Whether it’s congressmen or Ivy League school officials in the meeting room, game film never is a request, but football might be the most appealing extracurricular activity available. Jacob Ardron believes he likely wouldn’t have been admitted to Columbia without the football prowess that made him an all-CIF middle linebacker. Andrew Fischer, a track-star receiver, was on the radar of Pacific-12 Conference schools but physics programs don’t get much better than those he’ll be in at Harvard next year. Blake Benjamin and Peter Neise will head off to Navy and Army, respectively, next year after completing rigorous application processes that required more time than they devoted to football.

Each of the four Diamond Ranch captains will sign with their respective schools Wednesday, national signing day, but their all-expenses paid educations are what they are most happy to be cementing. Each of the seniors maintain grade-point averages greater than 4.5 on a four-point scale, literally off the charts for your average high school student but fairly pedestrian in the Ivy League.

“Our academics are good, but we don’t have a 5.0 GPA or a 2,400 SAT score,” Ardron said. “I think football helped get us in. We put a lot of time and effort into football and that’s obviously something that helps us get into college.
“But if we didn’t spend that time on football, we would probably make better grades because of the extra time we could put into school.”

Four years ago, Diamond Ranch coach Roddy Layton might have been in awe of such a graduating class, but in 2009 Diamond Ranch sent a player to the Ivy League, a player to the Air Force Academy and another to UCLA.

Layton has been around long enough to see former students reach the NFL, but there’s something particularly gratifying about watching a player go the route of a prestigious university.

“I’ve seen players make a lot of money playing football and then go back to having no money,” Layton said. “They’re basing their life on what they can do physically. These guys aren’t going to major in football. They’re going to be in the classroom with people who will be making worldly decisions in 15 years.

“They’re going to have great careers and nice homes and it’s a future that’s going to be so exciting to see unfold.”

While there is plenty of glamour involved in major college football, there are truths about the recruiting process that don’t exactly scream higher education. If a student is a good enough athlete, a prospective school with a premiere football program typically will find a way to gain his admittance.

Football is an apparent aid to the Diamond Ranch captains, but what makes Layton proud of his players’ routes to their higher education is the schools’ natural emphasis on things like character, academic ambition and career path.

“With the big football programs, it’s more of a meat market,” said Layton, who played receiver at USC. “If you’re over six feet tall and you have long arms and broad shoulders, you’re attractive to them. These great academic programs go into more of who you are as a person and they show interest in what you have to offer in so many other areas.”

When they’re not popping pads on the football field Benjamin, Fischer, Ardron and Neise often can be found after school playing chess, Trivial Pursuit or a game equally academically challenging. They are physically imposing football jocks on campus – Benjamin is a 6-foot-3, 245-pound offensive tackle – but their conversations don’t revolve around one-syllable words.

“We try and out-articulate each other sometimes,” Neise said. “I think we all got rid of the stereotype when we signed up for dance class.”

The class, which includes ballet on Mondays, performed a contemporary dance piece at a school rally last week but it primarily is geared toward stretching. With close to 15 football players in the class, it isn’t quite what the title would suggest.

Football and dance, however, represent just a fraction of the extra-curricular activities performed by the Diamond Ranch captains. Community service projects, clubs and study groups regularly are wedged into their schedules.

“I grew up in this area,” Layton said. “I didn’t hear about any school, public or private with guys on the field – I’m talking about players that actually contribute – that did anything like this. Our class of 2009 was special, but I haven’t seen anything anywhere else like this.”