By Avery Wilks
Travis Jenkins knows well the challenge of covering National Signing Day. Jenkins, the editor of the semi-weekly Chester News & Reporter, remembers one a few years back in which he wrote more than a dozen stories – one for each local student-athlete who signed a National Letter of Intent to play a sport in college – over the course of a workday that lasted at least 12 hours.
This year, because Chester County schools hold signing ceremonies on different days, he has just two signings to cover. But that’s rare among sports departments in South Carolina’s newspapers.
National Signing Day, widely regarded by fans and college coaches as a national holiday, is usually on the first Wednesday in February, offering student-athletes across the country a chance to be recognized. It’s a day of celebration for the student-athletes and their families and friends.
It’s a long day, however, for the sports writers and editors who race from town to town, hoping to cover every signing and tell the story of local students taking their next big step.
“It’s extremely hectic and a very long day,” said Bret McCormick, the sports editor of The Herald, which covers York, Chester and Lancaster counties. “I kind of like doing it, though, because it’s an important day for the student-athletes and especially their parents.”
Like McCormick, a one-man sports department trying to cover a dozen schools, other sports reporters will spend Wednesday scrambling to cover all their bases.
The digital age calls for more immediate reporting on signing day, says Jim Rice, the sports editor and content coach at the Greenville News. “It’s a day when you’re going full speed from 7 in the morning to 7 at night,” he said.
Perhaps even tougher for reporters – who are pressed for time and space in newspapers, where the high price of newsprint makes every inch costly – is giving individual student-athletes the recognition they deserve.
Some writers who aren’t on strict deadlines, like Jenkins and Jed Blackwell, the co-owner and editor of the weekly Spartanburg Sports Report, say they typically write a story for each student-athlete who signs.
“I tell everybody all the time, I write for the refrigerator,” said Blackwell. “I want grandma to cut it out and put the story on the refrigerator.”
The best solution to the madness of National Signing Day, most have found, is planning. Keeping regular contact with athletics directors and coaches in the weeks leading up to Wednesday is critical for finding out – and sometimes negotiating – times for signing ceremonies and mapping out coverage plans.
Blackwell said he starts right after Christmas, sending emails to athletics directors to get a feel for which students will sign and when.
Dwayne McLemore, editor of GoGamecocks.com, starts even earlier – right after the annual South Carolina vs. Clemson football game – in trying to cover the ceremonies of players committed to play football at USC.
McLemore said he will probably wake up at 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday and get back home at 11 p.m. “I always go to bed worried I forgot somebody or didn’t get something,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of written and mental checklists. It’s kind of like Election Day for sports. It’s like the Super Bowl for us. But unlike the Super Bowl, it’s all day.”
Jenkins recalls a ceremony a few years ago in which a student with just one scholarship offer was enrolling as a first-generation college student. While thanking his family, friends and coaches for helping him reach that point, the student burst into tears, buried his face in his hands and couldn’t bring himself to finish, Jenkins said.
“That was probably the most touching one I ever attended,” Jenkins said.
For many reporters, covering National Signing Day ceremonies is a chance to see off students they’ve covered for years, as well as an opportunity to provide more personal coverage away from the playing fields.
“It’s just a nice experience because you get to see these kids with their families and their friends,” said Noah Feit, the sports editor at the Aiken Standard. “Everyone is just so happy for them. And in a lot of cases, these kids are the first members of their families to go to college.”
“It’s a big deal. It’s something we want to try to put in a proper light.”
A guide to the National Letter of Intent
- The National Letter of Intent is a voluntary program for both colleges and student athletes; no one is required to sign.
- When an athlete signs an NLI, they commit to that school with the promise that they will get an athletic scholarship for at least one year if they qualify under NCAA rules.
- Once an NLI has been signed, other colleges can no longer try to recruit the student athlete.
- If the student attends a college other than the one they signed for, they may face penalties, such as a season-long ban from playing any sports.
- Football, soccer and men’s water polo have their initial Signing Day on Feb. 4 this year, and the signing period for football ends April 1.
- Every sport has its own NLI, and a full schedule of signing periods for this year can be found at the NLI’s website.