Dick Harmon: Are summer sports camps worth it?

Published: Saturday, Oct. 10 2015 6:05 a.m. MDT

PROVO — Summer football camps: Why bother?

Trent Hatch drove his 13-year-old son Kaleb 12 hours from El Paso to Provo to attend a football camp at BYU this past week. He'll later take his son to a camp at Pearland, the Texas 5A high school state champion that defeated Euless Trinity for the title.

Hatch also hired a personal QB coach out of Chicago, Steve Gregory, and once drove 12 hours from El Paso to Houston for Kaleb to spend a day with Gregory.

Is all this necessary or worth it?

"Yes," said Hatch. "We've received a lot of instruction; we understand what they're talking about. If Kaleb is serious about football, he needs to mentally put in that kind of effort."

Experts say a talented kid can receive a Division I football or basketball scholarship without going to camps, but it is the exception, not the rule. If you don't go camping, you're in the ocean on a raft with no paddle.

If your son is any good at all, the best way for him to navigate the politics, media, Internet and coaching contacts at a major university is through camps — some of which you can only attend by invitation.

This has been the experience of Steve and Kelly Heaps, parents of BYU sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps. They first took him to a camp at age 11, right after the fifth grade. He quickly drew attention and increased his abilities to where he became an elite college prospect.

Recruiters at Cal-Berkeley gave the Heaps the skinny by breaking down the bare bones statistics for them: There are 1.1 million boys playing high school football. One out of 18 will receive a college scholarship. Only 0.3 percent of those college players will go on to the make an NFL roster. The average playing career of an NFL player is 3.5 years.

In other words, the hopes of gaining an academic scholarship to college, sometimes worth up to $250,000, is worth paying $400 or more a summer to attend a three to four day football camp. "It's an investment with a hope of return," said Kelly.

"It's cost me my retirement," said Hatch. "It's cost me not only financially, as an investment, but emotionally, physically and a lot of time. It is important to take what we've learned from these camps and practice them and learn from them to improve with your kid in the offseason and over a period of time."

Hatch has noticed a "significant" improvement in Kaleb, especially with the one-on-one coaching. When Kaleb attends a camp, he appears to be more advanced and knows more about the game and is familiar with techniques and drills.

The Heapses say these times demand a high commitment and summer camps are a big part of it. "We used to plan ahead six to eight months on what camps Jake would go to and save for it."

Because of their son's talent, they learned quickly the value of getting the right instruction. That led to exposure. Eventually that exposure led to exclusive invitations that led Jake to participate in the U.S. Army All-America game on ESPN and the Elite Eleven Camp, at which he earned MVP honors.

When Jake was just 11, the Heapses took him to Greg Barton, a one-on-one QB coach, and devoted time to driving him back and forth to Oregon during summers for personal instruction.

Even 20 years ago, parents followed this same pattern. Parents of Cougar quarterbacks Steve Sarkisian, John Walsh and Kevin Feterik hired a guy named Steve Clarkson to tutor their sons in California. Now director of the Air 7 camp, Clarkson received more than $30,000 to tutor former Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen, now slated to start for the Carolina Panthers.

At university camps like those at Utah, Utah State, Weber State and BYU, younger players are not normally coached by the main staff; that attention is reserved for high school aged campers who are recruitable athletes and a captured audience.

Jake Heaps' first football camp was QBR in California on the campus of Cal-Lutheran.

Worth it?

"Yes, it was worth his time," said his father, Steve. "He learned skills he'd never had before. That camp was all about repetition. At first, I wondered when they were going to get to other things, but we quickly learned the value of doing the same thing over and over again and getting it down right."

Later, the Heapses watched their son attend camps around the country. He learned how to watch and break down film. He learned to master drills, increase his footwork and balance, and organizers took note. Even at the Elite Eleven after his junior year, there were quarterbacks there who had no clue how to do some drills because they didn't have the experience.

Another benefit is exposure. Since the NCAA banned Division I coaches from attending the some 15 Nike Camps nationwide, many of those elite camps have established marketing days where they film attendees and send clips to major college recruiters, complete with biographical information that includes a report on academic qualifications.

The Heapses have seen talented players who've not invested in camps get overlooked and ignored by college recruiters. The parents have wondered why less skilled teammates receive college offers. "They do because people know them from attending camps," said Kelly Heaps. "Unless a guy really stands out, he can get lost.

"Barton can take a 'tweener' and get him to the next level," she said. "He knows enough coaches, has enough contacts."

Camps do cost a lot of money and time. When Jake attended his first BYU camp, he was scheduled to attend another at Washington State later that week. A ticket from Salt Lake City to Spokane was $900, so Jake flew to Boise and his father drove from Seattle, picked him up, drove all night, stayed four hours in a motel and made it to Wazzu the next day.

Such sacrifices can pay off, however.

A great example from Heaps' Class of 2010 is BYU teammate Manu Mulitalo, a virtual stranger to many major recruiters while at Granger High School. A 6-foot-3, 305 pound offensive lineman, Mulitalo attended USC's "Rising Stars" football camp after his junior year. He ended up earning camp MVP honors, and suddenly recruiters from across the country knew who he was.

The Heapses say parents should start early and young. Many parents don't want their kids to play tackle football until high school. By then, it is too late. The competition is too great and college recruiters know whom they want to look at when kids are sophomores.

"You have to hone your craft," said Kelly, "Its just like playing the piano or violin. It takes a lot of practice to get good and it is all about competition."

Camping early, like Kaleb Hatch, also educates parents on what their son needs to improve upon. He can also learn who his competition is. You can also learn a lot bout how hard or competitive a son is — some don't work hard and don't thrive in a competitive atmosphere. Learning these factors can help a family make decisions, including if it is ultimately worth it.

If it's a ticket to a major college you're after, it takes a plan. Talent isn't always enough. Camp attendance is a big part of the equation both physically and politically. These same principles apply for basketball, volleyball, baseball, tennis and soccer.

Kaleb Hatch has photos of himself standing alongside Jake Heaps, Max Hall and John Beck.

It's obvious the dream he's shooting for. He's hammering through what he believes will get him there.

It isn't easy, or cheap.

email: dharmon@desnews.com

Twitter: Harmonwrites

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