The St. Peter's Preparatory School football team is wrapping up practice on a mild afternoon in October, the boys slowly jogging back to the locker room. Behind them, the Statue of Liberty and the New York City skyline disappear into the dusk. Most of the team is done for the day, but the coach calls for one player to stay behind. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush has a final task to get through.
"Come on, let's go. Just get it over with," Coach Rich Hansen prods him. Brandon props his 6'1, 212-pound frame on a lopsided folding table near the corner of the practice field. Offensive coordinator Billy "Fitz" Fitzgerald is already sitting there. Hansen has James Franklin's number up on his phone. Franklin is the head coach at Penn State, where Brandon, who is rated the second-best pro-style quarterback in the country by Rivals.com, and the No. 2 dual threat by the 247Sports Composite, is committed to play next year.
They just need to hit send, but Brandon is stalling. On the field he looks older than his 17 years; right now, though, he's more a child wishing he could hide under the table.
"What should I say?" Brandon asks.
"I want you to hear it from me first, I am going to visit Notre Dame tomorrow, I just need to keep my mind open."
"I can't write the script for you!" Hansen mocks exasperation. The sun-leathered coach resembles former New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, both in appearance and demeanor. "Just make the call!" Eventually Hansen just hits send and hands the phone to Brandon. Brandon hangs up without a word. "It was his voicemail," he says, placing the phone in his coach's hand. "So leave him a voicemail!" Hansen says, handing the phone back.
Brandon looks at it. "I can't sit and call. I need to walk around. Can I walk around?" He walks to about the 10-yard line, his back to the coaches. Pacing, he twirls a bit of his short, curly hair between his fingers. Less than 30 seconds later, Brandon's back.
"OK, it's done," Brandon says. "What'd you say?" Fitz asks. "Do I have to tell you?" Brandon responds. Already starting to walk away, he complies.
"I want you to hear it from me first, I am going to visit Notre Dame tomorrow, I just need to keep my mind open. I still love the school, but I wanted to tell you."
* * *
Quarterback Brandon Wimbush
Brandon Wimbush has a favorite saying. "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice." He adopted the adage from one of his coaches shortly after he arrived at St. Peter's Preparatory School, an all-boys Jesuit high school in Jersey City, N.J. To hear those around him tell it, though, it's an ethos he lived by long before he donned silver and maroon.
"Brandon is a kid that doesn't like to not be liked," says Hansen. He is always dressed sharply, whether it's a tartan bowtie for an interview or suede moccasins with neon green treads for a pregame meeting — but regardless of what he's wearing, his infectious smile is what everyone first notices. His pregame playlist includes Sam Smith's "Stay with Me." He hates talking, though he loves to write. He's always posting and re-tweeting photos of designer suits and luxury apartments, and most of his Twitter feed is him sending props and well wishes to other players and friends.
He's selfless, says assistant coach Mike Katz, the first to volunteer to help with summer camps or to toss a ball around with younger kids. When Katz's 12-year-old son changed his Instagram username, he worried that Brandon wouldn't know. Katz tried to explain that a 17-year-old's top priority might not be to follow a 12-year-old on Instagram. Within a few hours, though, Brandon was following him again. For as long as his mother, Heather, can remember, Brandon has just wanted everyone around him to be happy.
Sports came naturally to the quiet, conscientious boy, and he was playing baseball before he even reached kindergarten. By third grade, shortly after she and Brandon's father divorced, Heather signed Brandon up for his second sport: football. Heather, a graduate of Penn State, supported her family on her own as a labor and delivery nurse at Hackensack Hospital. A few weeks into the football season, his teacher called. Teachers never called to report issues with Brandon — he was so well behaved that they usually told her she could skip parent-teacher conferences — so when she got the call, she knew it was serious.
"The teacher said, ‘Well, Brandon's falling asleep,'" recalls Heather. "And I said, ‘Wait a minute!' I took that football uniform and I carried it back to the coach and I said, ‘We're done. No more football.' There was no way I was letting it affect his schoolwork." Of the posters and plaques hanging in his bedroom at their apartment in Hackensack, N.J., academic awards far outnumber sports memorabilia.
Brandon agreed that it was too much, admitting that he was getting headaches from playing contact sports for the first time. He was happy to walk away from the sport.
He turned his full attention to baseball for a while, eventually pitching for a high-level traveling team. "He was always with the arm, the arm, the arm," says Heather. After his baseball coach became too demanding, Brandon wanted a break and returned to football.
His throwing arm set him apart from his peers, and other parents soon started to tell Heather that Brandon had something special. You never really know what to think when they say that, she says now, but she took them seriously enough to start looking into private high schools, where he might have a better shot of developing his talent.
Again, academics took precedent. The first school she visited was St. Peter's Prep. At the open house, she met the mother of Khalil Wilkes, a fellow Teaneck, N.J., kid then headed to Stanford. "In my mind I wanted to do anything that can maybe line this up in the stars for Brandon, too, so that really sold me on the school ...
"I said which one of these schools is [best] setting up these African-American male athletes that play such good football ... where is my best chance to get him to a good school?"
St. Peter's Prep was her choice, although Brandon was unsure whether he wanted to leave his hometown. Everyone was asking if he wanted to be the "small fish in the large pond," he says, slightly fumbling the phrase, "or the large fish in the small pond." Ultimately, they decided on Prep, a school where Brandon and 23 fellow freshmen teammates would follow completely different paths, all in hope of achieving the same goal: earning a scholarship to play college football.
* * *
Cornerback/running back Minkah Fitzpatrick
On school-day mornings, Minkah Fitzpatrick's father drives him to the ShopRite on Route 9. It's about five minutes from their house in Old Bridge, N.J. There, at 7 a.m., they meet Coach Hansen, now in his 32nd year at Prep. Hansen does this every day and has already picked up three other players by the time he pulls his pickup next to Minkah Fitzpatrick Sr.'s truck. Minkah jumps in the backseat, and they start the 45-minute drive to school. On game-day mornings, no one speaks in the car. Minkah listens to a mix of Christian rap and regular rap, getting himself in the zone.
This has been the routine since the first day of Minkah's freshman year. After practice, Minkah and the same three teammates hang out in the locker room until the coaches are done watching film and Hansen drives them home. Return trips are usually more relaxed, with Hansen ribbing them about this or that.
Minkah took a more traditional football route than Brandon, playing flag football in kindergarten, and moving on to tackle by the age of 7. His Pop Warner team won the Pee Wee Nationals when he was in sixth grade, beating a team from North Carolina, 15-12, providing him an early taste of competition outside of New Jersey. "Mink was the deal since sixth grade," says Corey Caddle, a Prep teammate who played against Minkah in their Pop Warner days.
Fast and agile, Minkah went to his first Prep football camp in the summer after sixth grade, and returned the next year. That was the first time Hansen remembers spotting him. When he came back in eighth grade, he'd grown four inches. By then, he'd decided on Prep. He had to go through the same rigorous application process as his peers — Prep does not accept students based on athletics alone — and he proved that he is as good with the books as he is with the football.
Shortly after Minkah arrived at Prep, 12 days before the first game of the season, Hurricane Irene completely destroyed his family's house. They lost everything. He, his parents, and his four siblings moved into the basement of his grandparents' house, the family of seven sleeping on air mattresses in a single room. They lived that way for nearly a year before moving back into their half-fixed house because vandals were starting to steal what little they had left. With money tight, they considered pulling Minkah out of Prep, where tuition is more than $14,150 a year. But his dad started working three jobs and his mom took on a night shift at a local warehouse, seven nights a week, all to give their son the best shot of being the first person in his family to graduate from college (if his sister doesn't beat him to it).
Minkah's older sister was accepted to Seton Hall University last year, but after not receiving financial aid did not enroll. She's at a community college now and hoping to transfer next year. She says she'll go wherever Minkah goes. Right now, that's the University of Alabama. They're close, and have never lived away from each other, so she can't imagine any other way. Minkah isn't so sure.
The family is tight-knit. Religion is a large part of their lives, and they trust that things will work out. He says he understands the sacrifices his parents have made. His goal is to one day support his family, whether that means the NFL or a successful career in another field.
Unless asked directly, Minkah never talks about what he's been through. Self-motivated, he's always looking to the next chapter. A 6'1, 190-pound senior cornerback, he runs a 4.45-second 40-yard dash and also excels as a running back who is equally adept at catching the ball. But since freshman year, he has wanted only one thing: to be the best corner in the country. He's nearly made it. Rivals.com gives him five stars, the second-best cornerback in the country; 247Sports has him as a five-star and fifth among CBs; ESPN has him fourth, with four stars.
* * *
Two-hundred and twenty-seven wins. Twenty county titles. Ten state championship appearances. Four state titles. Five NFL players, including current Baltimore Ravens safety Will Hill. Dozens of Division I players. This is what a New Jersey football powerhouse looks like. Most Prep players expect to play college football and after 27 years as head coach, Hansen knows how to make that happen.
Prep players expect to play college football and after 27 years as head coach, Hansen knows how to make that happen.Coach Hansen, far right, with Brandon and his parents.
He's been through the recruiting process so many times that personal notes from Urban Meyer, Kyle Flood, Jim Harbaugh and Brian Kelly adorn the walls of his office; Joe Paterno wrote the forward to a photo book about Prep football; Pete Carroll once played "Stairway to Heaven" on guitar in the gym with the Prep band (and "he was damn good," says Hansen). Charlie Weis came to Prep games so often that he was on a first-name basis with the hot dog vendor.
When the Class of 2015 arrived, Hansen knew he had a special group. Minkah and Brandon were among the standouts. Of the two, Brandon had the most work to do if he wanted a full-time varsity job.
"He always came off as frail to me," says Hansen. "He was always skinny and just a kid who just, he had a great arm, could throw the ball a mile, but had no idea what being a quarterback was, and had no idea about footwork and about quarterback nuances."
When college coaches come to campus to visit seniors, he makes a point of introducing them to notable underclassmen, but even if a coach shows interest, Hansen often waits to tell the player until he is mature enough to process the information. This is getting harder each year, with more media covering college football recruiting than ever before, but he does his best. He did so well with Brandon that even Heather was caught off guard when she found out schools were interested in her son. In the spring of Brandon's freshman year, Heather read an article in the Bergen Record, a local paper, that mentioned a Jersey eighth grader who received a college scholarship offer.
Baffled, she called Hansen. "I said, ‘I'm like, a little bit, what is going on with this recruitment and these eighth graders? They are no better than my son.'" Hansen's response completely shocked her. "He goes, ‘Well, Brandon has five.' I was like, ‘What???'"
"He didn't [even] have any varsity film," she continues. "I was kind of in shock. I was expecting him to say, ‘Well, Heather, he only played freshman and blah blah blah.' I'm telling you, I was clueless. Clueless in NJ."
When she mentioned it to Melissa Fitzpatrick, she realized just how much she had to learn. "She was like ‘Brandon needs to go here, and here and here,'" referring to offseason camps and showcases. Melissa had been posting Minkah's highlights on YouTube since eighth grade. Minkah loved the offseason stuff, and already had a full slate of events planned for that summer after freshman year. He and his parents already understood the process.
Melissa read stories about recruits getting in trouble for breaking NCAA rules, Minkah says, so she made sure she understood them fully.
It's easier to memorize an NFL playbook than it is to decipher NCAA recruiting rules, times they can do things and other times they can't. Coaches cannot contact players directly, unless through Twitter and Facebook messages. They are allowed to send a message asking a recruit to call them, but they can't call the recruit. They can also call the recruit's high school coach or send snail mail to the school. Players are allowed to make unofficial visits to any schools they wish, as often as they wish, on their own dime, and then meet coaches while on the college campus. The only expenses that colleges are permitted to cover during these visits are three tickets to a game. If they invite a recruit to a tailgate, they have to collect $5-$10 or so from each person who attends, so that the school cannot be accused of offering food for free.
It's easier to memorize an NFL playbook than it is to decipher NCAA recruiting rules.
Coaches are allowed to visit high school players twice during the spring of each year, from about April 15 to May 31. They can return once during the evaluation period, from about Aug. 1 to Nov. 29. They can watch the player on the field, but are not permitted to speak to him, or to talk to other players, especially underclassmen beyond a casual hello. From about Nov. 30 to Jan. 31, college coaches are allowed to visit the player at home once per week, up to six times. But within that period, they cannot visit or contact recruits from Dec. 21 through Jan. 3, Jan. 12-15, or Feb. 2-5. There are also quiet periods, in which they are allowed to contact but cannot visit recruits. The players are not permitted to visit the campuses during dead periods.
Once the season begins, seniors are permitted to make up to five official visits to schools, and the schools can pay travel expenses, but only for the recruit. This means players have to take time away from their teams, or wait until January, in the final few weeks before National Signing Day, which in 2015 is Feb. 4. They can only make one official trip to each school. It goes on and on, the regulations often changing from year to year, black and white and too much gray.
Understanding the rules, and learning how to stay within them, can be a full-time job in itself, as is determining which camps to attend. In every summer of Minkah's high school career, that's how the Fitzpatricks spent their vacations, attending camps and visiting schools, because this is what Minkah wanted to do. He was always striving to be the best high school cornerback in the nation, determined to earn a college scholarship.
They had an inkling of his potential when he was invited to the U.S. Army Combine as a freshman — an invitation typically reserved for juniors. This came in while his family was still reeling from the damage of Hurricane Irene. For Christmas that year, the Fitzpatricks drove to the combine in San Antonio. On the way back, they stopped to tour Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama. He took a photo on Alabama's Walk of Champions, the route the team takes on its way out to every home game. The picture was just for fun, he says, but could soon prove more meaningful. "I never thought I would've been walking that path one day as an Alabama football player."
While Hansen worries about the recruiting process going to some players' heads as underclassmen, he never had that fear with Minkah. If anything, he expected it to inspire him to work even harder. Mature as Minkah was, though, even he was surprised when he received his first offer, from Rutgers, shortly after freshman year.
He'd soon receive many more, especially after attending several college camps that summer.
Back at Prep for his sophomore year in 2012, Minkah earned a spot on the varsity team, one of only two in his class to start on defense. Brandon, meanwhile, still needed to work on his footwork, his fundamentals and his understanding of the mental aspects of being a quarterback. He was working with a private QB coach by then, but Hansen wasn't ready to start him. He still relied too much on his arm strength, and was 20 to 30 pounds lighter than he is now. He was a better athlete than the starter, but not a better quarterback.
Brandon now talks eloquently about that sophomore year being a chance to really learn about the game, and about how to lead a team. Although other parents kept telling Heather that Brandon should transfer to another school where he could start, Heather never considered it. She didn't choose Prep solely because of football, and so she wouldn't leave it because of football.
Besides, being the backup at a school with a reputation like Prep still meant something to college coaches, particularly in the East. But with no varsity film to show recruiters, only few offers came in. So after his sophomore year in the summer of 2013, he hit the offseason circuit for the first time. Or, as he calls it, "the grind."
One of his first events was a regional Nike event, a feeder program to the elusive Elite 11 quarterback combine that Nike hosts each year at the company's headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. Approximately 60 quarterbacks attend each one, and at the end about four are chosen to compete in a special, two-minute drill. Of the 400 or so quarterbacks to compete in the camps, Brandon was the only junior-to-be chosen for the drill. He was no longer a regional secret.
He also camped at Vanderbilt that summer, the school where one of their former teammates would play that fall. There, he met head coach James Franklin. Brandon liked him, and his coaching style, but thought that Tennessee was too far from home.
By then, Minkah, a veteran of the grind, was already nationally known, one of only five rising juniors, or juniors-to-be, invited to the Elite 11's accompanying event, The Opening, a showcase for position players. It allowed him to work out with NFL players, to meet other top prospects, and to compete against a level of talent that he might not see during his high school season. The experience also gave Minkah an edge in learning the nuances of the recruiting process, to gain a solid understanding of it before his all-important junior year, when the already overwhelming process escalates to a speed even the recruits can hardly follow.
* * *
Coach Hansen, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Brandon Wimbush
The whole year is a blur, a whirlwind, a frenzy, a time when everything seems to happen at once and everything runs together.
The whole year is a blur, a whirlwind, a frenzy, a time when everything seems to happen at once and everything runs together: LSU offers Minkah on Aug. 1, the 15th school to come calling. Miami, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Rutgers, Syracuse, Ohio State, Penn State, Florida State, South Carolina, Stanford, Georgia Tech, Boston College — every coach wants him, every coach sees him working the edge, shutting down a wideout. His stock rises even higher when Rivals.com names him one of only 10 five-star players of his class. Ten days later Brandon visits Rutgers; a week after that Ohio State offers him a scholarship. That's six offers for the quarterback. Sept. 1, Bill O'Brien from Penn State starts calling Brandon as often as possible, and news of the Ohio State offer percolates through the digital universe. He's peppered with more and more questions from bloggers and recruiting sites and reporters, everybody. All of this while Hansen tries to get them to concentrate on training camp.
On Sept. 7, training is over. Brandon finally makes his first varsity start, winning 56-21. He goes 8 for 18 with 81 yards, one touchdown and one interception. So-so, not great. Minkah scores on a 17-yard interception return and rushes for 116 yards on six carries. Five days later Pittsburgh offers the star cornerback. Coaches are calling, tweeting, Facebook messaging. Prep wins again on Sept. 13, 35-32, over Eastern Christian Academy in Maryland. Piles of mail arrive daily. Invitations to games. Weird photoshopped mock magazine covers. Anything to get either boy to imagine themselves in the scarlet and gray or the maize and blue or the mauve and chartreuse. Most of it's never opened. Sept. 21, Prep wins again, 63-7. More messages, more mail. Brandon's talking to Vanderbilt often. On Mondays he calls Urban Meyer after practice. That weekend, Prep wins 76-0. Yes, 76-0. They call coaches. Bloggers call them. The next week it's Prep over Bergen Catholic, 25-18. A week later Notre Dame offers Minkah and Vanderbilt offers Brandon on the same day that Prep beats Union City, 48-12. They're scheduled to attend the Penn State game that weekend but never make it to Happy Valley. Six days later they suffer their only loss of the regular season, falling to St. Joseph of Montvale, the best team in New Jersey, 28-56. Two days later Penn State offers Brandon, Vanderbilt will be next. That weekend Prep wins, 42-zip. Brandon and Minkah head straight to Ohio State, standing on the sideline as the Buckeyes demolish Penn State, 63-14. Back to the books Monday morning — school doesn't pause for recruiting trips. That week an Ohio State commit from New Jersey sends Minkah a note. He wants him to consider the Buckeyes. They've never met. If Minkah had a top-five (he doesn't), Ohio State would be "up there." Brandon's trying to schedule a visit with Maryland, but when, when is there time? On to November.
Nov. 2, Prep closes the regular season with a 62-7 win. Two days later Urban Meyer stands on the sidelines during Prep's practice. A week later Mississippi State's on the line, offering Minkah a scholarship. More Twitter, more Facebook, more texts. It's playoff time. Prep breezes through the first round. More coaches visit, one standing one day where another stands the next. Minkah celebrates his 17th birthday. Nov. 22, Prep advances to the state final with a 34-0 win. Pop the turkey in the oven, it's time for Thanksgiving. Don't forget to call the coach and wish him a happy holiday. On Dec. 3, Boston College offers Brandon a scholarship.
That Friday night, Prep faces Paramus Catholic in the state championship. They're 10 miles from Jersey City, playing at the home of the NFL's Jets and Giants. The Marauders jump out to a 6-0 lead as Brandon throws for 60 yards and covers another 34 on the ground in the first quarter. But then Brandon takes a rough hit in the pocket. He seems out of it. He attempts four more passes — three fall incomplete, the other intercepted — before Hansen pulls him from the game. While the rest of the team gathers in the locker room for halftime, Brandon heads to the hospital and is later diagnosed with a concussion. Paramus Catholic goes on to win, 13-6. It's unfortunate, but also underscores his value as a player. Despite losing the game, Minkah earns defensive MVP honors. Brandon finishes his first varsity season with 2,050 yards, 1,472 of them in the air. He threw for 15 touchdowns with only 4 interceptions.
There's little time to mourn the loss — the end of the season means additional time, and college coaches are visiting Prep on Monday morning. By Friday, Nebraska offers both Minkah and Brandon. Wouldn't it be fun to go to the same school? Reporters think they think so. They think so too, but they're not trying to recruit each other. Minkah picks up an offer from Vanderbilt; Brandon from Syracuse. Ohio State coaches visit again. The next day, Georgia offers Minkah. Tweeting and texting, calling and chatting, thinking and talking.
Coaches can't visit or call for a few weeks. Those are the rules. The Wimbushs and the Fitzpatricks are allowed to celebrate Christmas. Alone.
By the beginning of 2014, Brandon's rated three or four stars by various sites. In overall rankings, Rivals.com has Minkah as the No. 9 recruit in the Class of 2015. The recruiting site 247Sports has him at No. 30.
The next four months make the previous fall seem calm. Brandon has 12 offers by now. He's starting to narrow them down, but also waiting to see what else comes in. Virginia Tech, South Carolina and Tennessee are the first of the new year. Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Michigan State, Tennessee and Virginia Tech go for Minkah. Don't call them back if you're not interested, Hansen tells them. It's impossible to call them all. School starts Jan. 6. Coaches are there every day. Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State and South Carolina are the first to arrive. Some of them come back a second time within the month. As January comes to a close, Minkah finishes winter exams, jumps in the car with his family and heads straight to Alabama, visiting for the fourth time. His parents are making sure he's thorough, that he's weighing everything. They know it's stressful, but the stress of the flipside — having no offers — would be much worse. However tired he is, they remind him to call coaches back, to answer the phone — he should talk to at least two a night. But then the coaches, they switch their stories, too.
Brandon's hot on BC by the time he hits Boston for Junior Day. He might make a decision by the end of the month. Michigan State and LSU are gunning for him, too, but then he's at Penn State for another Junior Day. MaxPreps names Minkah Junior All-American First-Team Defense and Auburn extends an offer. Brandon visits his grandparents in Florida, stopping to check out Miami while he's there with his grandfather and his uncle. Listening to the coach's pitch, Brandon's uncle can see him just wanting to say yes. It's convincing, being on the campus. Miami comes up with a booklet showing how much money Heather will save if Brandon goes to a school where there is family nearby. But that night another quarterback recruit comes in, and he gets the same treatment. What's up with that? Suddenly Ohio State's recruiting the other kid, too. Not Franklin though, he lets Brandon know he's the only QB Penn State wants. Penn State sends a magazine cover featuring Brandon's photo — with Nittany Lions burned into his pupils. It's creepy. Minkah's with Brandon at Miami, then visits Florida State, Florida and Georgia. He also wants to get to Alabama, Florida State, Rutgers, Ohio State and South Carolina for spring games. Heather and Melissa are calling each other every day now, just trying to wrap their heads around the process. Their families are paying for these trips — official, paid-for visits don't start until the fall of senior year. With so many new offers coming in, hot and getting hotter, Brandon pushes off his decision. Schools that were not interested before suddenly are. He contacts a friend at Stanford, who puts him in touch with the coach there.
Minkah rules out one school when the coach brags about the party scene. He doesn't want to hear a coach talking about parties — and in front of his dad? Come on. Louisville sends in the last offer of the month. Minkah's tally reaches 29. Or maybe it's 34. They've lost track. The talking, the texting, it's more intense every day. Brandon tells Heather he wakes up thinking about a different school every day. He's on the phone with a recruiter one night, pacing the hall outside of his bedroom. It's like this every night, half an hour or more with each coach. As soon as he's done with the coaches, the reporters call. He can't get to his homework. Minkah likes talking to the coaches, but the media? It'd be great if there were restrictions on them. That would help a lot.
Coaches from 107 schools have visited Prep at this point.Minkah with Alabama coach Nick Saban. (Courtesy Minkah Fitzpatrick)
By March, sites are reporting that Brandon's very serious about Miami. New Penn State head coach James Franklin — the one that used to be at Vanderbilt — is in his ear all the time. He's not pressuring him, oh no, and just wants Brandon to know that he is Penn State's top priority. Two weeks later Brandon's in Las Vegas for a seven-on-seven; he's back in class Monday morning. South Carolina really, really wants Brandon and Minkah. Brandon goes back to Penn State. The next week he's at Virginia Tech, and making plans to visit Ohio State and LSU in April. And finishing his math homework. At this point, he's No. 203 in the Rivals250.
In April Brandon wins QB MVP in the New Jersey Pylon 7-on-7. Minkah now says Georgia, Alabama and Florida State are among his top eight. Coaches from 107 schools have visited Prep at this point. Some drove, most flew in. That's easily a combined $200,000 spent on travel, likely a lot more. Just to visit the talent at one high school.
On April 19, Minkah joins fellow recruits at Alabama's annual A-Day game. It's his fifth visit to the school. He's ready to commit. His parents and his coach want him to wait until he's back in New Jersey; they want his decision to be more measured, not an emotional one made rashly. But teenagers have their own agendas.
Then, the beginning of the end.
That Sunday Alabama hosted a barbecue for the recruits. Nick Saban walked over to say hi to the Fitzpatricks. As he approached, Minkah shook his hand. "And I just said, ‘Coach, I'm ready to commit to the school.' I said, ‘Thank you for the opportunity for a scholarship,' and he gave me a big hug and the smile on his face was really big," recalls Minkah. He didn't look at his mom as he spoke to Saban. He laughs as he tells the story now.
For all of the research, the college camps and showcases and visits that they'd scheduled and attended, the calls to college coaches and drives to Alabama, the decision was Minkah's to make. Saban has sent five cornerbacks to the NFL draft since taking over the program in 2007. According to the annual rankings produced by New America, a Washington D.C. think-tank, Alabama's academic program for football players ranks third among the top-25 football programs as determined by a composite of college football polls. Minkah decided that an opportunity to work with the best cornerbacks coach in college football, at a school where academics are also a priority, is one that he must take.
Brandon, meanwhile, kept weighing his options. One day he'd say he wanted to decide in April, the next he'd say June. Heather and Hansen decided they'd all sit down and talk about it over dinner at the end of May. Most 17-year-olds aren't making monumental decisions they know might determine the entire course of their lives. He was definitely feeling the weight of his decision.
"You're talking to 15 schools a day, trying to have conversations, do homework, spend time with the important people," he says. "You're trying to cut down the amount of schools, but you know they will come on harder." Tennessee was starting to show interest. Stanford and Michigan coaches came to see him throw on a Thursday in late April, and told Hansen they were close to making an offer, but that Sunday Brandon woke up and said I'm done. If he'd been enjoying it at first, it had turned into havoc. Brandon shut it down.
He narrowed his list to Miami, BC, VT, Penn State and Ohio State.
As soon as he did, Alabama made an offer. Excited, he immediately told Minkah. All along they've been saying it would be fun to go to school together. Neither wanted to sway the other — but if the process worked out that way, cool. Their moms agreed. But Brandon stuck with his top five.
"There's this moment where it just, it became too much," says Heather. "All the coaches were just hammering away, hammering away ... and I think he just got overwhelmed. And Brandon, being that he's not a talker, to be asked, he wouldn't want to be rude to any of these coaches, but he got sick, literally sick of talking to people. He'd say, ‘Mom, I just don't want to talk anymore to anybody, to any coach.' It doesn't even sound good when you say it, but I really think he got to that point." The coaches are all saying the same things, the conversations become so similar. But Stanford is close to offering, Heather reminded him. Just be patient. But Brandon's patience was spent.
That week, he climbed into Hansen's truck and they drove around for nearly an hour, talking about his options. On May 5, he spoke with another Penn State recruit, 6'8, 300-pound offensive lineman Sterling Jenkins. They'd met on an unofficial visit to Happy Valley. "I knew he was big, and as a quarterback, that would help me out," Brandon says. Jenkins told him he was going to commit to Penn State, and Brandon decided he'd do the same. But to have to call Urban Meyer and tell him thank you but no thank you? He was mortified. How do you say that to Urban Meyer?
Hosting, Brandon made the announcement live on BleacherReport.com at a commitment ceremony at Vitale's restaurant in his hometown of Teaneck on May 6. At that point, Brandon was toward the bottom of the Rivals250. By the end of his senior season, however, he'd be No. 38, a four-star recruit and one of the most sought after high school quarterbacks in the country.
Heather framed his scholarship offer alongside a photo of the Penn State campus, proudly hanging it above his bed.
All that, and Brandon and Minkah had not yet started their senior year of high school.
Highlights from Brandon and Minkah's junior year at Prep.
* * *
I first learned about Brandon and Minkah on a scorching hot day last July, as I walked along the sidelines of a field at Nike's headquarters. To my left, the top high school players in the country were running through drills at The Opening. To my right, parents were cheering the boys on and getting to know each other. This year, Brandon and Minkah were both invited.
I had never heard of the event — I was on the Nike campus for a tour of the Nike Sport Research Lab and shortly before the trip learned The Opening would be taking place. I read the player biographies on the flight to Portland, more out of curiosity than anything else. Of the 163 players I noticed the pair were teammates, that Minkah was one of only five of the 163 players making his second appearance at The Opening, and that the boys attended a school less than a mile from where I lived. I then decided I'd try to meet them.
Most of the parents watching sported T-shirts from the schools where their sons were committed to play the next year. Alabama's crimson and white outnumbered the rest. One mom was sitting by herself in the shade. I expected Heather Wimbush to be wearing Penn State gear. Instead, she wore a leopard-print maxi dress and sandals.
She told me about Bleacher Report setting Brandon up to toss a ball around with Phil Simms one day that spring, and about the massive amount of media attention Brandon had been dealing with. She proudly added that Brandon scored the highest SPARQ Rating in the Elite 11 competition. In the power-ball toss, a test of muscular strength and power, he placed second among all 163 participants. He also topped all other quarterbacks in the 20-yard shuttle and kneeling power-ball toss, and had the second-fastest 40-yard dash for a QB, at 4.62 seconds.
They tested his strength with a standing pass drill. He launched the ball 73 yards.
About three weeks earlier, she said, Brandon had attended a skills camp at Stanford University. They tested his strength with a standing pass drill. He launched the ball 73 yards — enough to break Andrew Luck's record, according to the coaches. They were impressed, and offered him a scholarship on the spot. He had to make his own college choices, but if she could sway him towards Stanford, she would. It's Stanford, after all.
Stanford was barely in the picture when he'd committed to Penn State, she added. It would be foolish not to consider the new offers that were rolling in. She also wanted him to check out Duke, because she'd recently read online that the coaches there were interested in him.
But in his mind, Brandon had already ruled out Stanford. Later, he would tell me that the distance was a problem. His mom hadn't made the trip. If she couldn't make that first one — the most important one — how many would she be able to make in the future?
* * *
Only one quarterback in New Jersey scored a perfect NFL passer rating this season. Not Eli Manning. Not Geno Smith, nor Michael Vick, or any of the New York Jets' other backups. The only guy to earn that perfect rating was Brandon. He did it on national TV on Sept. 11, throwing for 344 yards and five touchdowns as he went 19 for 24 and led Prep to a 49-20 win over Bergen Catholic. He also showed off his speed, rushing for a sixth score.
Mike Quick, a writer with the MSG Varsity, tweeted, "wimbush just played quite possibly the best 12 minutes of fb I have ever seen... Just puttin the hammer on Bergen catholic 21-0." Early in the third quarter, Brandon looked like he was going down for a loss, but somehow managed to get a pass off to Corey Caddle. The play showed just how much his footwork and situational awareness has improved since his sophomore season.
Watching from South Bend, Ind., Notre Dame QB coach Matt LaFleur decided he had to make a run for Brandon. Brandon had briefly been on LaFleur's radar after the Elite 11, but Notre Dame didn't pursue him because he was committed to Penn State. Plus, LaFleur originally expected to be coaching quarterback Blake Barnett next year, according to many recruiting services the only pro-style quarterback ranked higher than Brandon. But after verbally committing to Notre Dame, Barnett had flipped to Alabama. After losing him, the Fighting Irish first decided not to go after a QB in the Class of 2015, according to what LaFleur later told Prep offensive coordinator Fitz. Then the Sept. 11 game happened, and LaFleur and ND coach Brian Kelly decided they absolutely had to get Brandon, according to Hansen and other Prep coaches.
Sitting at his desk a few days after the Sept. 11 game, Hansen glances at the table where Brandon and Minkah are sitting with their friends. This is my first day at Prep — after speaking with Hansen and Heather several times, I'm finally here to meet Brandon and Minkah.
I don't think Penn State is the right school for him, Hansen is saying. Speaking in a hushed tone, he repeats it three times to make sure he is understood. "Kelly, at Notre Dame, he loves him," the coach adds. "It would be a great fit for him," referring as much to the academic regimen as the football opportunities. After all, less than 2 percent of college football players move on to the next level. Even five-star recruits have less than a 50-50 shot of being drafted — of the 262 players whom Rivals.com rated five stars from 2002-10, 116 have been drafted to the NFL.
Even five-star recruits have less than a 50-50 shot of being drafted.
He stops speaking as he sees Minkah start to leave the room. Hansen calls him over and nods toward me. Minkah shakes my hand, introduces himself, and then looks back to the coach. He has perfect posture; holds his shoulders back and walks with the gait of an Olympic sprinter. Without explaining why I'm there, Hansen asks, "Have you scheduled any official visits yet? Are you going on any this fall?" Minkah laughs, looks to the floor, then back at coach. His thumbs in the strap of his backpack, he slightly shakes his head. "I don't know yet," he says, still smiling. Girls are going to swoon over Minkah wherever he ends up. He turns back to his coach, who nods. He's dismissed. The look in his eyes told me all I needed to know. Minkah Fitzpatrick, at that point the No. 27 recruit in the country and current Alabama commit, is definitely going on more official visits. The only question was, how many?
A few minutes later we stand to walk out, leaving in unison with Brandon. Coach is a step ahead of me, and Brandon starts talking to him as I'm still packing up. "Did you see that interview? He screwed it up. It was so bad," Brandon is saying, referring to a nationally televised interview with a Penn State commit.
"See, that's what happens at that school I don't want you to go to," coach laughs.
If there's one thing Hansen wants his players to learn during this process, he tells me, it's that they need to be selfish, completely selfish, the only time in the process they have leverage. Verbal commitments are exactly that — verbal. Nothing is final until you sign the letter on National Signing Day.
Brandon leads Prep against Bergen Catholic on national television.
* * *
The third time I went to Prep was on Sept. 29, the Monday leading into Prep's bye week. I was curious if Brandon or Minkah would visit any schools with this lone week off. Hanging his hands off the gate that blocks the driveway to the practice field, Brandon told me, "I don't know. I'm not planning on it. I have to talk to my mom, but I don't think I am."
Three days later I'm back at the school, sitting at the table in the coach's office with Brandon and a pile of letters that continue to arrive, all addressed to boys who committed months ago. Brandon and Minkah both have a few thousand more letters at home. Calculating the cost of the letters, most sent to kids who never even open them, is astounding.
From everything Brandon says, he's set on Penn State. We sit and talk for about 45 minutes. His cellphone sits in his lap — he's texting his girlfriend now and then; his laptop is on the table in front of him, a class assignment on the screen. Everyone I've spoken to tells me that even if Brandon should change his mind, even if he should go to a school that has recently come into the picture, he likely will not. His mom calls him "the loyalist."
If it is so hard for him to go back on his word, why did he commit in the first place, I ask.
He looks up from his phone, leaving it teetering on his leg as he stretches his arms out, placing his hands behind his head and leaning back to balance on the hind legs of the chair. "You don't know what's going to happen," he says. "What if you wait too long and the offers are rescinded? Then you're left with nothing, or scrambling." Looking at the stack of mail he's received, anyone can tell he would not end up with nothing. But the fear is understandable.
He leans forward again now, righting his chair on all four legs and answering a text before continuing. "It helps you see how you handle adversity with the school, with the coaches," he says. By adversity, he means how they react if you start to sway, or if you visit other schools.
Franklin doesn't like when Penn State commits visit other schools, but like most coaches, doesn't hold himself to the same standard. The recruits who Franklin lured to Vanderbilt likely didn't take it well when Franklin announced that he was going to Penn State, either. It's hard to see how this is all that different.
"If you can go through all of this," Brandon says, referring to the recruiting process, "and then you still want to go to that school, it tells you something." It's a revealing statement. The 17-year-old boy is the one testing the strength of his relationship with a group of men who have been coaching college football for decades.
Finally, he adds, "I didn't want to be in a bind ... and have my mind all over the place for the season." He wanted to be able to concentrate on winning a state championship, on finishing his job at Prep. Coach Hansen then walks over to the table.
"All right, put your pen down," he says, looking at me. He pulls up a text to show Brandon, then says, "They have a flight on hold for you, 10 AM out of Newark, into Chicago. They want your mom to come, too. They'll have a car service waiting for you at the airport." At this, Brandon smiles. "A car? I'm famous?" he jokes, leaning back on his chair, grinning.
"You're nothing yet," Coach says, making a "phssa" noise as he does.
"Chicago?" I ask. "So, Notre Dame?"
Hansen just tells me to put my pen down. But I'm right. Despite everything Brandon just said, he is going to visit South Bend.
He tells Brandon to text Heather and see if she can make the trip with him; she'd recently missed a week of work to travel to Prep's game against IMG Academy in Florida and then a wedding in Georgia, and Brandon's not sure if she can take more time off from the hospital.
As they're texting the Notre Dame coaches back and forth, Brandon remembers that he and Minkah have the Under Armour All-America game jersey presentation the next day. "And Coach, I'd have to miss practice? It's an offensive day," he says. The coach texts back and says they'll try to see if they can fly out at night or on Saturday morning. Notre Dame is happy to accommodate him.
"Should I text Blake [Barnett] and see why he decommitted?" Brandon asks. He's friends with Barnett, the quarterback who chose Alabama after committing to ND, through the summer showcase circuit. "I heard [the coach] hung up on him when he called." Even as they're arranging the visit, Brandon asks why he can't just sign with Penn State early and graduate from Prep in December, as so many high school football players do. Prep doesn't let students graduate early, Hansen reminds him. He keeps saying to just go out to Notre Dame and enjoy it, see what the school has to offer.
Ten minutes later, a reporter arrives to talk to Brandon about the Under Armour selection. "Is Stanford still in the mix?" the reporter asks as he's wrapping up the interview. "It's da done da done done done done," Brandon answers. Somehow the reporter never picks up on the fact that they're in the middle — legitimately, at that very moment — of booking Brandon's trip to Notre Dame.
After Brandon heads back to class, Hansen calls Heather to finalize the details and book the flights. Next he calls Melissa, asking if Minkah can go with Brandon to visit ND. She'd like him to, but Minkah is already scheduled to visit Florida State that weekend. We can do it another time, the coach tells her. The Fitzpatricks handle most of Minkah's scheduling, instead of Hansen. Finally, Hansen calls Notre Dame. When they ask if Brandon's father will be coming too, Hansen says no. His dad comes around for games and he's involved in Brandon's life, but Heather handles the big decisions, Hansen explains. "And she knows what she's doing."
"All this," he says to me, shaking his head, as he hangs up the phone, "for two kids who are supposed to be committed. I'm supposed to be done with them." He'll say it another four or five times before the day is through.
After practice that day, Brandon called and left the voicemail telling Coach Franklin he would be visiting Notre Dame. It was the hardest thing he had to do during the entire recruiting process, he says. He'd later ask Heather to call Franklin, too, but she didn't. She seems to be trying to let him do this on his own, but he doesn't seem to want to leave the cocoon just yet.
That night, Brandon tweeted simply, "Headache. Goodnight."
The news stayed off of anyone's radar until the following Friday, when a N.J. Star Ledger reporter made his weekly call to Hansen, just to ask if any visits were scheduled for that weekend. The story broke at 10:37 a.m. on the Star Ledger. News12 N.J. called at 10:39 a.m., Blue & Gold called at 12:13 p.m., Scout.com at 12:29 p.m., Rivals.com at 12:50 p.m. Those calls were all coming to Hansen. At least 15 reporters also texted Brandon directly. And then there were the other coaches — as soon as the news broke, other schools took it as a sign that Brandon was re-opening his recruiting process. Ohio State, Boston College, Stanford — everyone called.
Standing in Hansen's office before the Under Armour ceremony, Brandon tells me it's "all just swirling in my head, especially now. It's happening so quick."
* * *
Minkah still speaks to Saban once a week, the other Alabama coaches daily. He speaks to Florida State coaches just as often.
After the short ceremony, I walked the three blocks from the school to the practice field with Minkah and a few other boys. Minkah still speaks to Saban once a week, the other Alabama coaches daily. He speaks to Florida State coaches just as often. "But what do you talk about?" I ask for the thousandth time. He tells me they talk about life, whatever is going on, football.
"Brandon mentioned that Penn State has all the recruits in a group chat," I said. He jumps right in, telling me that Alabama coaches put him in touch with fellow commits through GroupMe, a group messaging app with password-protected groups that only administrators can adjust. He has been chatting in the group daily since committing in April.
"I heard if you decommit, they kick you out of the group immediately," Minkah says, somewhat incredulously. It's comments like this that remind me that I'm talking to high school kids. The groups make sense, a way to create bonds, but they clearly serve a dual purpose. Once a guy is friends with his future teammates, it makes it that much harder to decommit.
As we reached the field, we saw Minkah's family shifting suitcases around in the back of the minivan, packing for the 16-hour drive to Tallahassee. A Disney princess suitcase sits at the top of the pile; his little sisters are running around the car. Minkah went off to have his knee taped, and I stood talking with Melissa and her husband, Minkah Sr. They are keen on Alabama, mainly because it's a quiet campus, Melissa tells me. "Which, unless he completely changes, is what I think he'll like," she says. But just as quickly as she says that they prefer Alabama, she tempers the choice with "as of right now." They still have other schools to visit.
This will be their second trip to Florida State — they visited in February, and Minkah liked it. She'd also like him to look at Notre Dame and is also still thinking about Boston College.
Back on the field, Heather is watching as Brandon finishes practice. They'll go straight to the airport for their flight to Chicago. She says that she wants Brandon to visit BC, too. But if he comes back from Notre Dame and wants to visit BC, he'll have to decommit from Penn State first. "We can't keep doing this." He really loves the Penn State guys, she adds. But he has to be selfish, as hard as it is for him. This once, he has to think only of his future, and not just in terms of football.
The weekend flew by for both recruits. Reporters wrote all about how Brandon was guaranteed to flip, that it was a done deal. Coaches from others schools kept hitting him up. Brandon, meanwhile, went into it with an open mind, convinced of nothing.
By Sunday night, though, he texted Hansen to say the second call to Penn State would be harder than the first one. This time, when he came back, there was no need for a chat in the truck. He wouldn't need his coach to tell him what to say. At practice that Monday he wore a Notre Dame towel hanging from his waist. Brandon had made up his mind, deciding that while attending Penn State would be a four-year opportunity; a Notre Dame degree is a 40-year opportunity. Heather changed his phone number, so that the other coaches couldn't keep calling. There would be no trip to Boston, or anywhere else. He was done with it.
On Tuesday, sitting on the dilapidated couch in the field house office, Brandon called Coach Franklin again. Franklin said he'd put him in a bind, as there weren't many quarterbacks left. Brandon understood, but he'd made up his mind. Next, he called Coach Kelly at Notre Dame. "I just had a great time on my visit and I want to give you my commitment," he said. Next, he tweeted the news.
"I just had a great time on my visit and I want to give you my commitment."Brandon with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and Coach Hansen.
After that, his phone rang and rang. But he was off to practice, back to thinking about the task at hand instead of the career ahead. One of his teammates hummed the Notre Dame fight song throughout practice, from the moment they started stretching. Brandon thanked his teammates for their support, told them he never would've had the opportunity to play at Notre Dame if not for all of them. But now, he said, let's focus on a state championship.
From then on, the Notre Dame towel was ever-present. Brandon was completely committed. For the next week, the naive boy was also gone. A businessman emerged. When we sat on the bleachers talking about his decision, he talked about business, business, business. Notre Dame is all business. He'd been attracted to the normality on campus, he said, and the fact that football players there live with "regular" kids. The academic opportunities, the connections you make as a Notre Dame student, are immeasurable. He'd major in accounting, hoping to go into finance if he doesn't go into the NFL. He even broke up with his girlfriend, saying they are just at completely different places in their lives.
This time he didn't hold a commitment announcement ceremony. By now it seemed childish. He had previously told me he chose Penn State because he'd be able to compete for a spot as a freshman. Now he was telling me he hoped to redshirt for a year, to have extra time to prepare. Reflecting on the overall experience, he calls recruiting "a blessing and havoc. It was annoying and tedious at times." He says his mom "probably knew more about it than me. It was annoying 'cause she knew so much about it." Just as quickly, he says he's lucky she did.
Still, Notre Dame didn't take any chances. LaFleur came to visit the week after Brandon flipped; Coach Kelly would be there the week after the season ended, and Brandon would fly back to South Bend, this time with his high school offensive coordinator, Fitz, a week later. The coaches returned at least twice in January "to make sure no one tries to poach him," Fitz told me in a text. If Prep would've allowed it, Brandon would've graduated from high school in December and enrolled early at Notre Dame. He felt ready to move on to the next chapter.
As year-end accolades started to pour in, from Gatorade state player of the year to Metro area player of the year and NJ.com offensive player of the year, he still seemed floored, somewhat in awe of all the attention. At dinner with Brandon and Heather one night, I mentioned that LaFleur had told Fitz that he thought Brandon has Heisman potential. "He said that?" Brandon asked me. Heather just sort of shook her head. "That's you, B," she said.
We were at Vitale's, the spot where Brandon had held his original commitment announcement ceremony on May 6. The waitress took our order with a pen that played the Notre Dame fight song. Heather ordered first, a Caesar salad with grilled chicken. As Brandon said he'd have the same thing, the owner came over and ribbed him, asking "Wait, wait, are you going to change your mind?" — a joke that Brandon didn't even understand at first.
The Notre Dame game was on the TVs over the bar. Heather was watching every play; Brandon, though, ducked out early to meet his girlfriend at the movies. (They'd gotten back together within a week). He'd be paying attention to Notre Dame football — nee, leading it — for part of the next four years. For now, he just wants to hang out with his friends, with the people who matter to him, maybe get a job for the offseason, and go back to his normal life. But already, he was a celebrity in his hometown, at his old favorite restaurant. A few weeks later a complete stranger would recognize him on a flight. Life as Brandon knew it might be over.
It was all happening quickly, a sprint at the end of a high school marathon. The day before the state championship game, though, Hansen reminded him that he had one job left in New Jersey.
"You will win this, you will win that. You might be the best quarterback in state history," the coach said. "But guess what. None of it matters if you don't have that ring."
They bantered back and forth about the upcoming game. As they exited the car, Brandon reminded his coach, "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice." Hansen said the second half of it with him, rolling his eyes. Brandon laughed.
* * *
Notre Dame may be wasting time and energy in constantly returning to visit Brandon. He's not going to be poached. Alabama and Florida State, though? Those schools are wise to visit Minkah as often as the rules allow.
When Minkah came back from his early-October visit to Florida State, he told me he'd had a great time. He said he still wanted to check out Notre Dame, and get back to Alabama, and that he'd make his final decision by his birthday, Nov. 17. But that came and went, with no announcement. He never made it to Notre Dame. Alabama's offensive line coach, Mario Cristobal, visited Prep in November. As he left, he gave him a bro hug and asked if Minkah was a "solid commit." Later, Minkah just shook his head and said, "I hate when they ask that."
Three days later, the defensive coordinator from Florida State, Charles Kelly, stood on the sidelines as Prep demolished North Bergen High School, 69-0. He would be back for official home visits as soon as NCAA rules permitted.
One of the things Minkah likes most about Florida State is that he would have a better shot of playing as a freshman. At Alabama, there would be more than 20 defensive backs on the roster next year. At Florida State, he'd be among only a dozen or so. Minkah is not interested in redshirting.
The visit, meeting the guys, answered one of Minkah's biggest questions about the school. "A lot of people say that the players there are a whole lot different in terms of attitude-wise, how they act," he explains. In recent years, like many other schools, Florida State has had a series of players get in serious trouble, most notably 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, who was accused of rape. I ask if he means they have bad attitudes, and he nods. "Yeah. But you always have those couple knuckleheads on the team, that's anywhere. I feel like I fit in with the players a lot, especially the DBs. It just made me feel more comfortable with a lot of the players."
His parents, though, weren't convinced. "It was a little bit, it's a little bit more of a party school, you see a little bit more of the club scene there than at Alabama, I think that's one of the things that deterred my mom from the school," he says. He mentions that that they were concerned about something else, but he can't tell me what. He promises to tell me the day after National Signing Day.
All season, Minkah kept posting photos in Alabama gear on Twitter and Instagram. He tells me his recent visit to Alabama, for the Iron Bowl, was one of the best ones he went on. A few of the commits rode "off-roading golf carts" around Saban's property and just had a good time hanging out. He was committed for a reason, not just to have his name attached to the program, he added. But as we sat on the bleachers in mid December, side by side with our backs against the concrete wall during his free period, he was anything but certain that he would Roll Tide for the next three or four years.
"When in your mind was Florida State ruled out?" I ask. He laughs, stares straight ahead. "Or is it?" I say, also laughing now. After a few beats, he grins as he says, "No, I don't think it is yet. It's not.
"I know kinda where I want to be at, but it's like, each side has its own positives and negatives and you don't know which positive is better than the other and which negative is worse than the other," he adds.
"Are you and your parents agreeing on which school you want to go to?" I ask.
He doesn't answer, other than to laugh again, and then take a deep inhale. Finally he says, "And that's probably the main thing, that's probably the main thing."
"Then I'm guessing you're leaning Florida State?" He just smiles.
I know that Florida State's Kelly was at Minkah's house until 11:58 p.m. the previous Sunday. The dead period — in which coaches aren't allowed to visit — started at midnight. Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban are scheduled to visit Minkah at home in January.
"It's just something you have to go with your gut, pray about it, work wherever you're at, stay focused." He just wants to be 110-percent sure, even though, he also knows, that's impossible.
"The next goal is just going to be one of the best defensive backs in the NFL and to use my talents to help people out."
He goes on to say he'd be happy at either school, because, at the end of the day, he'd be playing Division I football. I can tell he's growing weary of my questions, though he assures me otherwise. But his answers are taking on the tailored tone professional athletes are known to give. Plus, I know he needs to get to class in the next few minutes.
I close with a final question. Will all of this have been worth it if he doesn't end up in the NFL?
"The first goal was to go to college for free, so I can get an education and use the education to provide for my family," he says.
If he does make it to the Promised Land, "The next goal is just going to be, to be one of the best defensive backs in the NFL and to use my talents to help people out." In true Minkah fashion, he's looking forward.
* * *
As I watched Prep play in New Jersey during the 2014 season, I never saw a moment's struggle. They won by 38, 57, 49, 55, 69. Brandon threw short lasers, long, arcing bombs, and when he needed to, spun out of tackles and raced downfield. Minkah made 27 tackles and two interceptions. He also rushed for 503 yards and crossed the goal line 19 times. The lone blemish on their schedule came when they visited IMG Academy in Florida, where they lost 36-20.
It was all of this perfection that made the state semifinal game even more nerve wracking. (Five minutes before kickoff, Heather nearly jinxed them, telling me, "I kind of hope they just lose, so I can start sleeping again.") They'd already played that night's opponent, Bergen Catholic, once this year, beating them in the Sept. 11 game that Notre Dame's LaFleur watched on TV. But somehow, at halftime of the state semifinal, Prep was trailing 14-10.
The wind was whipping viciously that night, making it feel even colder than the 28 degrees showing on the thermometer. Yet when Prep went into the heated tent at halftime, I stayed outside. It was already tight enough in there with 75 or so players. As soon as the boys headed back to the sideline for the second half, though, I ducked into the tent, hoping to get the feeling back in my toes. By the time I did, the second half was already underway.
As I walked back out, the boys along the sideline blocked my view of the field. A collective gasp from the stands told me to look up. There, I saw the ball sailing through the air, a perfect spiral seeming to hang forever. Suddenly Minkah was sprinting down the field, visible in the last 10 yards of the sideline. I stopped right where I was, just steps in front of the tent, a full baseball diamond between me and the football field. I watched the ball land in Minkah's hands as he crossed the 5-yard line. He caught it midstride, avoiding a diving defender and continuing straight to the end zone. He didn't miss a step as he shook a photographer's hand at the back of the end zone. "That's Notre Dame to Alabama," the announcer called.
The ball had traveled more than 65 yards downfield through the air, even a bit longer when taking into account that the pass was angled toward the sideline. Experts in the local press and from MaxPreps would later argue over whether it was the longest pass in high school football history. There was Brandon, showcasing the incredible arm strength that first got everyone's attention years earlier. Only now, he was showcasing incredible strength paired with confidence and control. There was Minkah, making the game look easy and adding a touch of flair at the end. That pass, one of the final times Brandon and Minkah would connect on the high school field, was spectacular.
In that moment, no one was thinking about recruiting, about the official visit that Minkah would take to Alabama the next week, missing three days of practice in the week leading up to the state championship game; that Jimbo Fisher would resolve his parents' reservations about Florida State and they would give him their blessing to choose either school. No one was thinking about teammates Corey Caddle and Chris "Goose" Geisler both going to Fordham or Dave Tolentino to Navy; about Jordan Fox taking the SATs five times in hopes of playing at Stanford; about Cheyenne Robertson and Dennis James still trying to figure out if they'd play college football. No one was thinking about Brandon finishing his high school career — a truncated two years on varsity — with 6,077 yards and 70 touchdowns, or that the Penn State scholarship offer was still hanging in a frame above his bed, even though he'd be playing at Notre Dame next year.
Already, Hansen is introducing his underclassmen to recruiters. K.J. Grey, Kolton Huber, and Miles Strickland will be the biggest names out of Prep next year. A freshman received an offer from Rutgers last week. Hansen will remain entrenched in the process, long after the Class of 2015's 24 seniors move on.
But in that moment, recruiting meant nothing. They were high school kids, chasing a high school dream. They were writing the final pages of the first chapter of their high school football careers.
Two weeks later, on the eve of state championship game day, Minkah would tell me he was ready to just "play, win, and move on to the next chapter."
That's exactly what they did, ending their high school careers with their greatest ride of all. The Marauders defeated nemesis Paramus Catholic 34-18 through pouring rain at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. Maybe one of them will be back here someday, wearing a different jersey, surrounded by a different group of guys, making millions. Maybe even both of them.
First, though, they'll write another chapter in South Bend, Indiana, and in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Or, perhaps, just maybe, it'll be written in Tallahassee, Florida.
After all, there's still nearly a week left to decide.
Danielle Elliot is a freelance writer and documentarian. A regular contributor to Yahoo Sports, NationalGeographic.com, and TheAtlantic.com, she has also written features for Grantland, Vice Sports, Nautilus Magazine and others. Prior to earning an M.A. in Science journalism from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, Danielle produced sports features for Fox Sports, ESPN, and NBC Sports. Follow her on Twitter at @daniellelliot.