Okinawa resident Jarrett Mitchell dreams of playing D1 football, but the Pacific Ocean and a lack of recruiting exposure keeps him from reaching that goal.
The game of football has given high school senior Jarrett Mitchell much to celebrate in the past year. Last month, his favorite college football team, Florida State, won its first national championship in 14 years. A year ago, he watched on TV as his favorite NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens, was victorious in Super Bowl XLVII. And in his own senior football season this past fall, he broke school and area rushing records and led his team to the championship of its division.
Jarrett had long hoped that February 5, 2014 would be an occasion for one more football-related celebration: one that would follow him accepting a scholarship offer and signing a letter of intent with a Division I football program. But National Signing Day 2014 came and went without him signing with a college football program in Division I, or any other level.
It's not for lack of talent that he has not received any scholarship offers. As a running back with a well-built 5'9" and 188-pound frame, he is around the same size that his favorite NFL running back, Ray Rice, was at the same age, and because his father is 6'4" there's a chance he'll be an inch or two taller when he's fully grown. With a top 40-yard dash time of 4.43 seconds, Jarrett possesses the quickness to change direction suddenly and the speed to outrun defenders to the end zone when he gets around the edge. In three seasons as a varsity starter, he averaged over 11 yards per carry.
He has shown good hands and the potential to be a receiving weapon in camp settings, but his team's offense was run-heavy and he was rarely used as a receiver during games. In fact, because of his standout play as a safety on defense, he caught more passes in his high school career from opposing quarterbacks than from his own, recording nine interceptions during his junior season alone.
He has also been solid in the classroom, and boasts a grade point average of 3.7. Because his school's academic year runs into mid-June, Jarrett worked ahead and finished his school work two weeks early in both his sophomore and junior years so that he could travel and participate in early summer football camps. By all accounts, he is a young man of high character and a hard worker both on and off the field.
There were surely many players less accomplished than Jarrett - both athletically and academically - who signed Division I letters of intent two weeks ago. But despite all his 200-yard rushing performances last fall (six), all his impressive highlight videos on YouTube, and all the A's and B's on his report cards, Jarrett's chances of receiving a Division I athletic scholarship are and have been handicapped greatly by another number: 96373. That's his high school's zip code, and it's one you won't find by searching on Google Maps. That's because Jarrett Mitchell attends Kubasaki High School on Okinawa Island, the Japanese island that sits some 400 miles southwest of the main Japanese islands, and roughly the same distance east (and slightly north) of Taiwan.
Kubasaki High is a Department of Defense Dependents School (DoDDS) located at Camp Foster, a U.S. Marine Corps base. It is one of two such high schools on Okinawa, and one of thirteen in the Far East. The U.S. has maintained a presence on the island since the World War II Battle of Okinawa in 1945, which ended less than two months before Japan's surrender finally ended the war itself. 68 years after the end of World War II, there are still over 30 American military bases on Okinawa, though control of the island was officially returned to Japan in 1972. Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and former Major League Baseball outfielder Dave Roberts were both born on Okinawa, albeit 18 years apart. (In pop culture, Okinawa Island was the home of The Karate Kid's Mr. Miyagi and Kill Bill's master swordsmith Hattori Hanzo, and it was the setting for the 1974 film Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.)
Jarrett Mitchell was born in South Carolina, but moved with his family to Okinawa when he was three months old after his father, who served in the U.S. Air Force, was stationed at Kadena Air Base. His parents split up a few years later, but he and his younger brother remained on Okinawa with their mother, who had been a school teacher in South Carolina and resumed her teaching career at schools on the island's various American bases. Jarrett has made many trips to the U.S. during summer and winter breaks for vacations, football camps, and to visit relatives, but Okinawa has been his home for essentially his entire life.
Unusual though Jarrett's situation is, should he receive that coveted Division I scholarship offer some time this spring and begin his college career in the fall, he would be far from the first athlete whose path to the Division I football ranks included a turn into the Eastern Hemisphere.
Former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, who was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame on February 1, was the son of a U.S. Army major and spent most of his teen years living on an army base in Germany before moving to Houston for his senior year of high school. Kevin Greene, who played for four teams in 15 NFL seasons and was a finalist for the 2014 Hall of Fame class, was also an army brat and lived in Mannheim, Germany during his early teens. On National Signing Day, four days after Strahan's election to the Hall of Fame was announced, Sidney Malauulu, a defensive tackle from Buena High School in Sierra Vista, Arizona, signed a letter of intent with the University of Wyoming. 2013 was Malauulu's only season to play football at Buena, as he had spent his earlier high school years at Seoul American High School in South Korea.
Between Kevin Greene's time at Auburn and Sidney Malauulu's signing with Wyoming, there have been other Division I-A football notables of similar backgrounds. Running back Dominique Whaley, who had a surprisingly productive (though injury-plagued) career at Oklahoma (2011-2012) after arriving as a walk-on transfer from Division III Langston University, was a star at Ansbach High in Germany during his first two years of high school.
Linebacker Archie Barnes, who played in 50 games (starting 22) for Vanderbilt from 2009 to 2012, attended Patch American High School in Stuttgart, Germany through his sophomore year, and was a standout in both football and soccer.
Kicker Lones Seiber, who played at Kentucky from 2006 to 2009 and is the program's career scoring leader, attended Wiesbaden High in Germany through his junior year.
David Page, who played two seasons at SMU and started eight games at quarterback for the Mustangs in 2001, was a three-sport star at Seoul American and was named Stars and Stripes' Pacific High School Male Athlete of the Year in 1996 at the end of his sophomore year.
Former Georgia All-American quarterback Eric Zeier, whose father was an Army Colonel, starred in three sports at Heidelberg American High School in Germany, before moving to Marietta, Georgia before his junior year. (Zeier ranked third all-time on the NCAA Division I-A career passing yardage list at the end of the 1994 season. In the 19 years since he played his last game as a Georgia Bulldog, he has dropped to 43rd on that list.)
Defensive linemen Daryl Gardener (Baylor) and Michael Haynes (Penn State), who were first round NFL Draft picks in 1996 (Miami Dolphins) and 2003 (Chicago Bears), respectively, both played football at Balboa High School in the Panama Canal Zone.
And (switching briefly to basketball) before Shaquille O'Neal made 15 NBA All-Star teams, earned All-American honors at LSU, or led San Antonio Cole High School to a combined 68-1 record in his junior and senior years, he lived and went to school on an army base in Wildflecken, West Germany from the age of 12 until his sophomore year of high school.
One thing all of those athletes had in common is that they spent at least their senior year of high school at a stateside school, and thus got more exposure to college recruiters than they ever could have expected to receive had they remained at their former high schools for all four years. That is an advantage Jarrett Mitchell does not enjoy.
Geography ranks high among the numerous factors that can keep talented high school athletes from receiving exposure to college coaches, but whatever its hindering effect on the recruitment of the athletic wide receiver from the Texas panhandle or the burly lineman from rural Idaho, it is exponentially more deleterious to the potential recruitment of athletes who spend all of their high school years overseas.
Another bit of history for context. In 1946, the year after World War II ended, the U.S. Department of Defense began operating a system of schools designed to serve the children of American servicemen and DoD civilian employees stationed overseas. What began as a system with just a few schools in Austria, Germany, and Japan, is today comprised of 190 schools located in twelve foreign countries, seven American states, and the U.S. territories of Guam and Puerto Rico. The system is managed by the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). The overseas schools (currently numbering 125 between the Europe and Pacific areas) are designated as Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS), while the schools located in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba are Department of Defense Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools (DDESS).
Altogether, there are just under 80,800 students enrolled in DoDEA schools, as of February 14, 2014. By enrollment, the system is roughly the size of the Fort Worth Independent School District, and it would rank in the top forty on American School & University's 2012 list of the 100 largest American school districts.
For many children of American military personnel, having to frequently pack up and move from one base, country, or continent to another, is a fact of life. They get to know all too well what it's like to be the "new kid" in school, to form new friendships and then to have to either pack up and move again, or stay long enough to see their new friends move away first. While moving from base to base and country to country, some of these kids may spend few, if any, of their school years on U.S. soil. So the DoDEA system attempts to give these American children living in far flung areas of the world a normal American educational experience. At the high school level (and sometimes junior high as well), that includes fielding teams in various sports and organizing leagues in which the schools compete for championships.
The student-athletes from the American high schools in the Far East compete in one of the most unique environments for high school sports, and in living some 6,000 miles from the American west coast, they do so in almost complete anonymity compared with their stateside brethren.
"There are many outstanding athletes and some really fine coaches in the overseas schools," says Kubasaki High School's athletic director and head football coach Fred Bales, who has spent over three decades teaching and coaching overseas. "It isn't big time stateside ball, and it certainly isn't Texas high school football, but it is an exciting brand of high school football that presents a different but equally valuable set of opportunities for our student athletes."
The European and Pacific schools have both competed in basketball since the late 1940s, and in football for almost as long. The Pacific schools compete for Far East championships in those two sports plus cross country, tennis, volleyball, wrestling, baseball, softball, soccer, and track and field. Additionally, the Okinawan schools compete for a local championship in golf, and the South Korean schools do so for swimming.
Kubasaki High, where Jarrett Mitchell has starred in football, basketball, and track and field, is among the oldest schools in the DoDEA system. By enrollment it is the second-largest of the thirteen Pacific high schools, with 641 students. The largest is Kubasaki's island-mate (and archrival) Kadena High School, with 805 students. The other eleven DoDEA Pacific high school campuses are in Guam, South Korea, and other parts of Japan.
DoDEA Pacific high schools
The Far East region is also home to a number of (non-DoDEA) private American-run schools, and teams from these institutions will dot the DoDDS Pacific sports schedules throughout the school year. The American School in Japan is arguably the most prominent example in that category. (Founded in 1902 and located in Tokyo, ASIJ's list of former students includes the late actress Joan Fontaine, author Lois Lowry, and Texas Senator John Cornyn.)
DoDDS teams will also sometimes play matches against squads from local high schools, though less often in football than in other sports. American football is relatively popular in Japan, and a number of Japanese high schools and universities field their own teams. "The Japan District and Korea District [DoDEA] schools usually play a pre-season game or two versus local high schools," says Fred Bales. "There is only one non-DoDEA team on Okinawa and that is a local university team that plays in the Kyushu League [a regional Japanese college football league] up north. They will give us a preseason game some years if their schedule allows."
(Fun fact: the nickname of Kyushu University's American football team is... the Palookas. If you had been in southern Japan on September 8, 2013, you could have taken in a Kyushu League matchup between the Kyushu Palookas and the Kurume University Mean Fighters. Not making that up.)
The logistics of organizing, scheduling, and playing an athletic season in the Pacific are not quite so routine and painless as getting on a school bus and driving from Abilene to Odessa, or from Texarkana to Mount Pleasant. A road game for the Kubasaki Dragons might be as simple as driving a few miles from Camp Foster to Kadena Air Base to take on the Kadena High Panthers, or it might require a flight to other parts of Japan, Guam, South Korea, or Singapore.
In his August 28, 2012 Tuesday Morning Quarterback column for ESPN, Gregg Easterbrook criticized some high school football powerhouses that had scheduled inter-state matchups early that season which called for one team to travel several hundred - if not two thousand or more - miles to play at the host's stadium. It's probably just as well that Easterbrook (presumably) was unaware of the 2012 DoDDS Pacific football schedule, which had both Kadena and Kubasaki (three weeks apart) making the 2,300-mile flight to Singapore for a non-league game against the Singapore All-Stars. (2,300 miles is roughly the flying distance from Los Angeles to Baltimore.) Before their visit to Singapore that season, Kubasaki hosted a game against Guam High, whose flight to Okinawa covered 1,400 miles.
With so few schools playing a DoDDS football schedule, those campuses being in multiple countries and spread over a very wide area, and budgets always playing a significant role in how many games get played, DoDDS seasons are short by American high school standards. In Fred Bales's ten seasons as Kubasaki's head coach, the Dragons have played as many as ten games and as few as six. Games have been cancelled and seasons shortened by earthquakes and typhoons. When traveling between countries for a game, coaches have to make sure all players have the required travel documents with them, and for budgetary reasons there are rules limiting teams to taking two coaches and twenty players for away games that involve air travel. Parents and other fans who wish to travel and watch such road games have to pay for their own plane ticket.
(The travel situation is a bit different for teams from the European schools, since there are more of them - 26 DoDEA Europe campuses serve the high school grades, though not all have the numbers to field an 11-man football team - and most are on the continent. Marcus George, longtime head football coach as Ansbach High in Germany, says teams there normally travel to away games by bus, but depending on the opponent, these bus trips can take up to 17-20 hours.)
Experienced high school coaches in the U.S. are used to the effects of roster turnover brought about by graduation, transfers, injuries, etc. But for the athletics rosters at DoDEA schools - like their student bodies as a whole - turnover from year to year is more frequent and less predictable. All football coaches, to some extent, have to adjust their schemes and lineups to fit the talent that's available to them in a given year, but the constant transfers and roster-shuffling on DoDDS football rosters can lead to, um, interesting position switches. Jarrett Mitchell's former Kubasaki classmate Tyler Smith played left guard in football as a freshman, started at center as a sophomore, then went from center to under center and became the team's starting quarterback as a junior. (Smith moved to the U.S. in the spring of 2013, and in the fall he started at QB for Southwest Onslow High School in Jacksonville, North Carolina, which reached North Carolina's 2A state title game.)
The length of duty rotations vary from one branch to another, so turnover hits some schools harder than others. Some 60 percent of Kubasaki's students are Marine dependents, and they transfer in and out more frequently than do those at Kadena High (where 35 percent of the students are Air Force dependents and 27 percent civilian), or at Ansbach High in Germany (where 80 percent of the students are Army dependents).
"We [Kubasaki] typically have 50 to 60 players in our program, and it is about 1/3 turnover each season," says Fred Bales. The 2013 Kubasaki football team included four seniors who had attended the school for all four years of high school. In other recent years, there have been as few as two. "We retain a higher percentage [than Kubasaki]," says Ansbach head coach Marcus George. "Maybe 40 percent will stay all four years."
Talent aside, Jarrett Mitchell is a DoDDS football coach's favorite type of player: one who enters a program as a freshman and is pretty much assured to still be there for his senior year. Because his mother is a teacher, he is a civilian rather than a military dependent. "If you have a teacher's kid, you know you probably have him for four [years]," says Bales. "Otherwise, no."
Basketball was Jarrett's first love, as far as sports go, and according to him it is still his family's favorite sport. Growing up he watched college and pro basketball and football games broadcast from the U.S. on TV, though watching them live was and is difficult with the 14-hour time difference between Japan Standard Time and U.S. Eastern Standard Time. (By Okinawa time, the kickoff for Super Bowl XLVII in 2013, which pitted the San Francisco 49ers against Jarrett's favorite NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens, occurred on Monday morning at about 8:30 AM. Jarrett admits that he missed school that day.)
Though long an avid football fan, he took up the sport fairly late, playing it competitively for the first time as a high school freshman on Kubasaki's junior varsity team. He saw a bit of varsity action on special teams that year, but got more extensive varsity playing time as a sophomore in 2011, and his resulting breakout season set him on the path toward becoming a legitimate (if little-known) college prospect.
In the second game of Jarrett's sophomore season (a narrow overtime loss to Kadena), he took one of his seven carries for a 70-yard touchdown run, prompting a longtime observer of the Far East football scene to opine, "Jarrett Mitchell...is going to be a beast." A week later, Jarrett rushed for 193 yards on nine carries and returned a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown in a lopsided win over Seoul American. Of the 2011 season, he says, "As the games went by I started to get comfortable and run the ball harder."
In a later game he rushed for 142 yards in helping Kubasaki break a 15-game losing streak to Kadena. Against Zama American High School, he rushed for 174 yards and two touchdowns on only 11 carries. His performances on the ground and in the return game helped lead Kubasaki to the 2011 Far East Division I championship game, which they lost to Yokota 34-6. In Kubasaki's eight-game 2011 campaign, Jarrett finished with 758 rushing yards on 69 carries, while missing most of two games with an ankle sprain.
During the 2011-2012 basketball season, he was Kubasaki's designated defensive stopper and played a key role in helping the team win the Far East Division I championship. Then as a sprinter in track season, he ran a top 100 meter time of 10.93 seconds at the Okinawa Activities Council district meet, and later finished fourth in both the 100 meters and 200 meters at the Far East Track and Field meet. For all those exploits he was named by Stars and Stripes as the Pacific high school Male Athlete of the Year for 2011-12, becoming only the second male sophomore (the aforementioned David Page was the first) since 1987 to win that honor. (Stripes, as Stars and Stripes is commonly known for short, is a long-running news publication that provides "independent news and information to the U.S. military community." It is published by the Department of Defense but officially maintains editorial independence from the DoD. Its staff includes reporters assigned to cover the high school and military sports beat in both Europe and the Pacific.)
Eager to both improve his football skills and see how he stacked up against his stateside peers, Jarrett spent the summer of 2012 in the U.S. and participated in football camps and combines in Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma, attending six in all. He received good reviews from coaches and scouts who saw him work out, and he became more and more confident that he had the talent to play Division I football. At the National Underclassmen Combine U100 Southeast camp in Atlanta, he was named Running Back MVP after impressing in drills, running a 4.45-second 40-yard dash, a 4.13-second shuttle, and recording a 35-inch vertical jump and a 9-foot 8-inch broad jump. The camp evaluators praised Jarrett's "excellent change of direction and acceleration", while also essentially stating that exposure would be his biggest obstacle to overcome before he could be a college football player.
They were right on about that. By the end of the summer of 2012, Jarrett had received mail from Cincinnati, Oregon, and Rutgers, among other schools, and his attendance at Florida State's camp had put him on that school's radar, but the interest he received from college programs was only preliminary, and coaches said they wanted to see his junior year film before recruiting him.
Having received quality instruction at his summer camp stops and improved both his skills and confidence on the field, Jarrett started off his junior season with a bang, taking his very first carry 43 yards to the end zone, and finishing Kubasaki's first game with 232 rushing yards on only 13 carries. He spent more time on defense than he had as a sophomore, becoming a play-maker at safety in addition to being the Pacific's best running back.
In Kubasaki's second game, he was held to 93 rushing yards by Seoul American, but he made his presence felt on defense by recovering a fumble and intercepting two passes, one of which he returned 74 yards for a touchdown and what turned out to be the deciding points in a narrow 12-6 win. Two weeks later, he had 230 rushing yards and another pick-six in a 28-12 loss to Guam High. In a 14-7 win over Kadena, he had two of the game's biggest plays: a 64-yard touchdown run and a goal line interception to end a Kadena scoring threat. In Kubasaki's sixth game, he ran for 207 yards and three touchdowns, and surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
Kubasaki's 6-3 regular season record earned the team a second consecutive berth in the Far East Division I championship game, but once again they fell in lopsided fashion to Yokota, 55-8. Jarrett Mitchell's 2012 stat line, in 10 games played: 139 carries, a Far East-leading 1,392 rushing yards (which set a new Okinawa record), 15 rushing touchdowns, 36 tackles, 9 interceptions, 3 fumble recoveries, and 3 forced fumbles.
Afterwards, he skipped basketball season in order to train for the 2013 Junior Rank Proving Ground Combine in Los Angeles, which was held in early January of that year. In track, he ran a career-best 22.25 in the 200 meters at an April meet, and a month later he finished 2nd in both the 100 meters and 200 meters at the Far East Track and Field Championship meet, helping Kubasaki clinch the Division I men's team title.
With two varsity football seasons under his belt and only one more summer to impress coaches and scouts (who he knew were extremely unlikely to fly all the way to Okinawa to watch him in person), Jarrett embarked on one last jaunt through the football camp circuit. He won Running Back MVP for the second straight year at the National Underclassmen Combine Ultimate 100 Southeast camp. He impressed coaches at the Football University (FBU) Top Gun camp in Ohio. He competed at one-day camps on the campuses of Florida State, South Carolina, Alabama, and Cincinnati.
At Cincinnati's camp, Jarrett was recognized by the Bearcats' then-new offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, who had served as Florida State's running backs coach the previous season and remembered working with Jarrett at FSU's camp in 2012. Jarrett says he got good reviews from the coaches who worked him out at the camps in which he participated, and that being able to compete on the same fields with some of the best athletes in the country only reinforced his belief that he had the talent to play Division I football. "From going to camps in Alabama and Georgia, I know if I can play with the southeast region guys I can play with anyone," he said late last summer.
Kubasaki head coach Fred Bales was also in the states during the summer, and while Jarrett put his abilities on display at various camps, Bales did what he could to help Jarrett's recruitment by talking him up with some college coaches he knew. He knows well the struggles that overseas student-athletes have in getting noticed by recruiters because he has coached in that world for parts of five decades.
Bales, a Tennessee native, moved with his family to Panama at age 12 when his parents both got jobs working in the Panama Canal Zone. Years later he returned to the states to attend the University of Tennessee, and after receiving his bachelor's degree and spending a year in England for graduate school, he returned to Panama in the summer of 1976 for what was initially planned as a break before he would continue his graduate studies the following spring. But shortly before the new school year began in August, he was offered a job as a substitute teacher for the American schools in the Canal Zone. He accepted the job, planning only to stay for the fall semester, but he ended up staying for the entire 1976-77 school year, and afterward was offered a full-time job at Panama's Balboa High School as a physical education teacher and assistant football coach. He accepted that job, planning only to stay for two years before resuming his grad studies. Instead, he ended up teaching and coaching at Balboa High for 22 years. "Somewhere along the way I fell in love with it," Bales says. "And 36 years have slipped joyfully by."
During his tenure at Balboa High, Bales coached several players who went on to play college football at various levels, including a few who played as high as the Division I level. His most notable pupils were the aforementioned Daryl Gardener and Michael Haynes, who went on to play for Baylor and Penn State, respectively, and were both 1st round NFL Draft picks.
In 1999, control of the Panama Canal was fully turned over to the Panamanian government, and Balboa High School and the rest of the DoDDS campuses in the Panama District were closed that year. After Balboa's closing, Bales moved to Okinawa and became an assistant coach at Kubasaki High, then was promoted to head football coach five years later. Bales's resume: 36 years coaching and teaching, 26 of them as a head coach, and all of them spent in the DoDDS world.
He is proud of the work the DoDDS teachers and coaches do in working mostly (though certainly not exclusively) with kids who are military dependents, and it's a responsibility he takes very seriously. "We are serious about our athletics, and strive to provide the best possible programs and outcomes for our deserving student-athletes while they are overseas with their parents defending our nation and way of life. Their [parents'] mission is to serve our nation, our mission is to serve them."
In most summers, Bales travels to the U.S. to "continue my education as a football coach" by attending camps and coaching clinics. Through these trips over the years he has made many contacts with college coaches. While in the states in the summer of 2013, he talked with coaches about his star senior-to-be running back when he got the chance. On one occasion, Bales says he spent some 30 minutes watching Jarrett's film with the running backs coach at a FCS (formerly Division I-AA) program whose staff he had a longstanding relationship with. The coach told Bales, "I like him," but said he doubted that Jarrett would fall to the FCS level. Since then, neither that program nor the FCS program that coach has since moved on to have shown any interest in Jarrett.
For all his hard work at the summer camps, and the assistance of his head coach, Jarrett Mitchell was still without a single scholarship offer when he returned to Okinawa in August of 2013. His main goals for his senior season were to run for over 2,000 yards and break the Pacific single-season rushing record, and to lead the Kubasaki Dragons to the Far East championship that had eluded them the previous two seasons.
A shortened 2013 schedule made attainment of his first goal difficult, as Kubasaki had only eight regular season games. Jarrett ultimately fell short of the 2,000-yard mark, but it wasn't for lack of effort. He had a pedestrian rushing yardage total (67) in a season-opening win over Kadena, but followed it up with games of 255 yards and four touchdowns, 293 yards (while only playing most of three quarters), 238 yards and three TDs (in a revenge victory over Yokota), an Okinawa-record 379 yards and four TDs, and 248 yards (including a career-best 96-yard TD run) in a blowout win over Nile C. Kinnick High School.
For the third straight year, Kubasaki advanced to the DoDDS Far East Division I championship game, this time to face their cross-island rival Kadena, who they had already played three times in the 2013 season. Kadena had won two of those three tilts while twice holding Jarrett under 100 rushing yards (in the regular season, he averaged 148 yards in three games vs. Kadena, and 265 yards against Kubasaki's other five opponents). The championship game went to overtime before Kubasaki pulled out a 34-31 win. Jarrett rushed for 128 yards and two touchdowns on 8 carries, was the receiver on both of Kubasaki's completed passes, intercepted a pass while on defense, and might have piled up more stats had a helmet-to-helmet hit not forced him to sit out late in the game. He finished his nine-game senior season with 149 carries for - a new Okinawa record -1,896 yards (12.7 yards/carry) and 21 touchdowns, and finished his high school career with 357 carries for 3,990 yards (11.2 yards/carry).
Jarrett moved on to basketball after the conclusion of football season, and he and his Kubasaki teammates had another great season, advancing to the championship game of the Far East Division I basketball tournament this week, but in the final they were defeated by a hot-shooting team from Faith Academy, an international Christian school in the Philippines. Next for him will be track season, and if he runs as well or better than he has the past two years he'll have a very good shot at winning Pacific High School Male Athlete of the Year for the second time in three years (which would make him only the second male to win the award twice).
Things have been relatively quiet for Jarrett on the recruiting front in recent weeks. He hasn't heard from his childhood favorite Florida State (which signed 29 athletes in its 2014 recruiting class, including two highly-rated running backs) or from South Carolina (the flagship school in the state of his birth). He's heard little from Cincinnati or its offensive coordinator who recognized him at their summer camp and showed interest at the time. He says he has had recent communications with Louisville, but there has been no hint of him getting an offer from the Cardinals.
Were he to play football at Louisville in 2014, he wouldn't be the only DoDDS alum on the roster. Aaron and Gabe Ahner, brothers who graduated from Kadena High and, like Jarrett, were lifelong residents of Okinawa, are currently walk-ons at U of L and members of the scout team. Both play defensive tackle and they appeared in one game in 2013, recording one tackle each. Whether either or both Ahners earns a scholarship in their respective careers remains to be seen (Aaron will be a redshirt junior this fall, and Gabe a redshirt sophomore), but if Jarrett or either of the Ahner brothers earns a scholarship, he will be the first DoDDS Pacific athlete in a generation to do so.after spending his senior season overseas.
Wesly Mallard is believed to be the last one. Mallard actually graduated from Hardaway High School in Columbus, Georgia, but he played his junior and senior football seasons at Seoul American High in the late 1990s. He walked on at the University of Oregon, later earned a scholarship, became a starter at linebacker toward the end of his career, earned All-Pac 10 honors as a senior, and was selected by the New York Giants in the sixth round of the 2002 NFL draft. He ended up playing for three teams over parts of five seasons.
A decade before Mallard there was Kevin Maxwell, who played football, basketball, baseball, and track and field at Zama American High School in Japan, winning Pacific High School Athlete of the Year as a senior in 1987. He walked on in football at the University of Georgia before earning a scholarship, and he graduated as a four-year letterman (1988-1991). During his senior year, Maxwell got to catch passes from a fellow former DoDDS athlete: the aforementioned Eric Zeier, who was UGA's leading passer as a true freshman in 1991.
Not since before the Reagan administration, though, has a Pacific senior athlete earned a D1 football scholarship right out of high school; meaning Jarrett Mitchell would be a very rare bird indeed if he were to be offered one by the end of the spring. And there are fewer than a handful from the European schools who have accomplished that feat.
Malcolm Lane, a 2006 graduate of Hanau American High School in Germany, got an offer from Hawaii late in his senior year, and signed two months after national signing day. Lane saw the field as a true freshman and played three seasons at wide receiver for Hawaii, catching 52 passes in his career, but he was suspended from the team before what would have been his senior season.
Ron George, who was born and raised on an army base in Heidelberg, Germany, became a football star in high school and was recruited by the Air Force Academy after its coaches were notified about him by a General who happened to see him play in Europe. After his freshman year at the Academy (1988), George transferred to Stanford, where he became one of the Pac-10's best linebackers and earned All-American honors as a senior in 1992. He was a fifth round draft selection of the Atlanta Falcons in 1993, and he had an NFL career that spanned eight seasons with three teams.
Leo Barker grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, played football in high school, and was an opponent of some of Fred Bales's Balboa High teams. He was offered a scholarship to New Mexico State (reportedly without ever having visited the school, or even the U.S. itself), where he became a star linebacker. He was drafted in the seventh round of the 1984 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals and played there for all eight seasons of his career, and in so doing he became the first man born in Panama to play in the NFL.
In the year 2014, the recruiting prospects of a kid like Jarrett Mitchell probably don't hinge on him being seen in action by a football fan wearing a military uniform with stars on his shoulder. And sharing game film and highlights with college coaches is much easier now than it was even a mere 8 years ago.
YouTube was just a year old in the spring of 2006, when Malcolm Lane was still mailing out DVDs of his game film and highlights to college coaches. Just a few months earlier, the Saturday Night Live short "Lazy Sunday" had aired and gone viral, which helped put YouTube on the online map, but it wasn't yet the go-to video-sharing site that it would become. Hudl, the hugely popular online service used for uploading and sharing game film, was founded in 2006, but was not marketed to high school football programs until 2008. Last August, Hudl claimed that about 75% of U.S. high schools used its services, and a number of DoDDS football teams now do as well (Kubasaki is not yet one of them). Jarrett has a YouTube channel that includes full-season, single-game, and summer camp highlight videos, and even a video of him watching and analyzing his own game film. He has also made good use of NCSA, a site that allows high school athletes to build their own profile and include their videos and personal info for interested coaches.
In the effort to get his name and highlight videos out to college coaches, Jarrett has received a lot of help from one Fletcher Beaman. Beaman is a U.S. Navy vet and an Okinawa resident of five years, and for Jarrett he has served as a guardian, mentor, and close friend in the past few years. Last summer he accompanied Jarrett on his numerous football camp stops throughout the southeast. Over the past few months, Beaman has made heavy use of Twitter to spread the word about Jarrett, sending thousands of tweets with Jarrett's highlights to college coaches, recruiting analysts, sports journalists, current and former pro athletes, celebrities, and anyone else he thought might possibly have interest in Jarrett and his story and be in a position to bring him more exposure.
But getting film to coaches and actually getting them to watch it (let alone convince them to recruit you) are two different things. Most of Beaman's tweets have gone unanswered, un-retweeted, un-favorited, and seemingly unnoticed or ignored, but he says there have been a few positive responses. He credits Twitter for Jarrett recent communications with Louisville, the interest he has received from Cincinnati, and for getting the attention of the organizers of the Offense-Defense Diamonds In The Rough game. Jarrett was selected to participate in that game, which was played at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida on January 3 of this year, and which included several players who ended up signing with NCAA Division I or Division II programs. The roster for the Diamonds In The Rough game wasn't full of blue-chip recruits, but it did have solid athletes with accomplished high school careers, and it presented a legitimate level of competition by any standard.
Facing a better group of athletes than he had ever played against in the Pacific, Jarrett was still the best player on the field. He rushed for 156 yards and two touchdowns on just nine carries, and caught 3 passes for 47 yards and another score. He led his team in receiving and was the game's leading individual rusher by over 100 yards, and he was named the Player of the Game.
"I was surprised that he did not get offered during the week in Orlando, and certainly after the game," says Fred Bales, no doubt wondering what more Jarrett could have done before and during the game to prove himself worthy of a scholarship. Despite his frustration with how the recruiting process has gone for Jarrett up to now, Bales admits, "I understand the reticence to recruit outside the box."
Jarrett's MVP performance in the Diamonds In The Rough game might not have swayed any coaches into offering him, but he did make some new fans, not the least of whom was the guy handing the ball off to him during the game: Ben Arbuckle. Arbuckle was an all-state quarterback from Canadian High School, a small (Class 2A) school in the Texas panhandle, and in his recruitment he likely faced his own share of skepticism about the level of competition he played against, not to mention his own challenges with geography. (On Signing Day, Arbuckle signed with Division I program Texas-San Antonio as a preferred walk-on.) Arbuckle and Jarrett Mitchell were teammates during the Diamonds In The Rough game and practiced together in the week leading up to it. Arbuckle later said Jarrett was "no doubt" a D1 athlete. "He's not the biggest guy in the world, but he works really hard, and he is very elusive and has great vision. He is the real deal."
Back in the summer of 2012 when he first emerged on the camp circuit as a legitimate D1 prospect, the prevailing thought with evaluators was that Jarrett would need exposure more than anything else in order to make it to that level. He has certainly been handicapped by limited exposure, but even some D1 programs that actually were aware of him and had genuine interest at one time or another questioned the level of competition he played against. The concerns about competition level are certainly valid. (Ron George, the former Heidelberg American star who later played eight seasons in the NFL, was once quoted as saying, "Being All-Europe [in football] is like being all-state in Vermont." And numbers alone suggest the talent is deeper in the European leagues than the Pacific ones.) But one does not by accident gain 203 yards from scrimmage and score three touchdowns against a defense full of future D1 and D2 players, as Jarrett did in the Diamonds In The Rough game. And according to Fletcher Beaman, he put up those numbers while only playing the second half of the game.
Of course, Jarrett could have simultaneously improved both his level of competition and odds of getting D1 exposure by transferring to a stateside school for his senior year. That's what Wyoming signee Sidney Malauulu did, and many aspiring D1 gridiron warriors before him. And there will be more in the future who take that path. Dre Paylor, a sophomore running back at Nile C. Kinnick High School who rushed for a Japan-record 2,002 yards (in eleven games) in the 2013 DoDDS season, reportedly plans to transfer to a school in Houston or Omaha between now and next fall.
Last summer, Jarrett gave strong consideration to transferring and spending his senior year in Georgia or South Carolina, both of which are home to relatives of his. In what he calls "one of the most difficult decisions I've had to make", Jarrett ultimately decided to remain at Kubasaki. "I knew that being in the states would be much easier [for my recruitment], but I didn't want to leave my mom or my little brother."
He also hoped that if he were recruited to the D1 level, it would shine a light on the Far East schools and help the other talented athletes in the region get noticed by recruiters, and perhaps convince more of them to stay at their schools rather than transfer to the U.S. "Everyone knows that if you live in the states and you're good at football, you're going to get looked at," Jarrett said in late July. "I want to show the kids in the Pacific that they can make it to college [without transferring]."
To say things haven't happened as he hoped would be an understatement. With no D1 offers in hand (not even offers to sign as a preferred walk-on or grayshirt) and none seemingly on the horizon, Jarrett says he has begun to research junior college and prep school options. A year or two at a Juco may prove to be his best option for reaching the D1 level, but he'll have to find one that has room for him this late in the recruiting cycle, as most junior college football programs are limited in the number of out-of-state and transfer players they're allowed to sign in a given year. He's certainly talented enough to stand out at lower levels, and he has had some communication with the University of Dubuque, a small Iowa private school that competes athletically at the NCAA Division III level and has had several student-athletes in the past who were DoDDS alums.
But Division I has always been Jarrett's goal, and though the odds of him receiving a scholarship to that level this late in the process appear slim, all it would take to change that is for one coach to see his film and be impressed enough to push for an offer. Malcolm Lane had to wait until April of his senior year before getting to sign with Hawaii, and Jarrett has a couple of months left until the game is that far along.
For now, all Jarrett can do is go to school, continue making all A's and B's in his classes, take aim at a Pacific track and field record or two, keep emailing his highlights and info out to any coaches willing to look at them, and wait hopefully for that phone call from a coach somewhere offering him a shot at being a D1 student-athlete. If and when that call comes, it will be several months later than it should have, but Jarrett, his mother, his brother, Fletcher Beaman, Fred Bales, and the rest of his family, friends, and fans (this writer included) will be no less excited and relieved.