In picking football over lacrosse, these college prospects prioritize fun over injury risks
In a huddle during Ricky Miezan’s first football game, Episcopal High School’s quarterback called a play that required Miezan, then a junior, to line up at tight end, juke past the opposing defensive end and look for a pass.
So that’s what Miezan did - hauling in the ball, running upfield and barreling over a defender on his way into the end zone.
It was Miezan’s first touchdown, his first experience of a crowd chanting his name, the first time the lacrosse prospect ranked No. 1 in his class by one recruiting service became enamored with the idea of playing college football instead.
“They were going, ‘Ricky! Ricky! Ricky!” Miezan said. “I was like, ‘All right, I like this.’ “
Miezan’s path to join Stanford on scholarship this fall is unique, because the 6-foot-3, 238-pound three-star linebacker didn’t start playing football until late during his time at Episcopal, a private school in Alexandria, Virginia. But his decision highlights a path being taken by a few of the top lacrosse prospects in the Washington area.
Three of the region’s best players, who also rank among the best high school lacrosse players nationally, made commitments within their first year-and-a-half of high school to a major college lacrosse program before eventually deciding to instead choose a Division I football scholarship.
Miezan gave a verbal commitment to North Carolina, first for only lacrosse, then in January for football, too, until a late offer came from Stanford to play football there. Bullis junior midfielder Bryson Shaw had pledged to Maryland lacrosse before deciding to switch to Ohio State football as a safety. And South Lakes senior longpole midfielder Spencer Alston chose Ohio State lacrosse before flipping to Yale football in February as running back-wide receiver.
At a time of constant questions about the football’s safety and long-term health effects, the players’ gravitation toward it begs another: What if football is just more exciting?
“College football wasn’t in the back of my mind when I started playing, but I was like, maybe it could be a possibility,” Miezan said. “You see college football on TV, and it’s just this huge thing. It’s wild. It looked fun, obviously.”
For all three players, success in lacrosse started early. Each played for year-round travel clubs, earned national showcase invites and received recruiting attention. Miezan was the country’s No. 1 player in his class as a junior and No. 3 as a senior, while Shaw is No. 8 in the 2019 class, according to the website Recruiting Rundown.
When colleges started recruiting them for lacrosse as early as middle school, they felt pressure to accept an early offer before a coach might retract it. Lacrosse, having risen significantly in popularity in the Mid-Atlantic region and also at the collegiate level, had emerged as a viable and attractive alternative for many student-athletes who might previously have only considered football.
“I can’t think of many other kids that have chosen college football over lacrosse that had legitimate lax interest from top colleges,” said Ty Xanders, founder of Recruiting Rundown and a high school recruiting analyst for Inside Lacrosse. The three players committed to programs that participated in the last two NCAA tournament championships: North Carolina beat Maryland in the 2016 final, and Maryland beat Ohio State for last year’s title.
Miezan hadn’t played football as a child because he exceeded the size limit for his age group and would’ve had to play against older, stronger competition. His father, William, a former Olympic sprinter for Ivory Coast, had an affinity for soccer and worried about his son getting injured playing football.
But after Miezan finished his second year of soccer at Episcopal, his hulking frame often prompted others to ask: Why don’t you play football? His desire grew when he participated in a skills combine at school after his sophomore lacrosse season and a football scout from Virginia Tech told him to keep in touch.
To convince his parents for permission, Miezan emailed his dad a letter from Episcopal, where he is a boarding student.
He felt too big for soccer, Miezan wrote. He would regret not having the chance to try football. He could also get hurt playing lacrosse.
But his parents had read about studies about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease stemming from repeated hits to the head. One found CTE in 110 of 111 examined brains of former NFL players. They’d heard the growing discussion about football’s impact on players’ future health and well-being.
“That’s why I didn’t want him to play. I said, ‘Well, if you get injured, if you get a concussion . . . ‘ “ William said, taking a deep breath. “I don’t know . . . “
“We kept going back and forth,” he continued. “He knew what he wanted. I said, OK. . . . I can’t have him living his life afraid of getting injured.”
The players, however, said they don’t dwell on the risk.
“I’ve only been playing two years,” Miezan said. “Hopefully I’ll have longevity.”
“We’re a pretty tough family,” Shaw said. “We don’t talk about that stuff that much.”
“Obviously, my mom’s concerned about the repercussions,” Alston said. “But she still supports me no matter what.”
Instead, the players are more pleased that the custom to rush recruitment in lacrosse didn’t deny their chances in football. The NCAA changed its policy last year to keep college lacrosse coaches from contacting prospective student-athletes before Sept. 1 of their junior years.
Shaw, who grew up admiring Santonio Holmes for catching a game-winner against his beloved Baltimore Ravens, had to decide on Maryland years before scoring five touchdowns - via run, catch, fumble recovery, and punt and kickoff return - in his first four games as a junior.
Alston, who had been trying out for tackle football since he was 6, had to pledge to Ohio State before earning first-team All-Met honors as a senior with 33 total touchdowns.
And Miezan chose North Carolina before he could become a late-arriving gridiron star.
“You think lacrosse is the only thing for you,” Alston said of the NCAA’s parameters that make the football recruiting cycle later. “I was like: ‘So where are all the football schools? Why aren’t they talking to me?’ “
The players’ main perks for choosing football include performing in front of thousands more fans, appearing more on national TV and having a bigger platform with the media. They’re excited to attend programs with proven records for grooming professionals and, for Miezan and Shaw, to earn full-ride scholarships.
“Playing in front of 50-plus thousands in a stadium compared to maybe 10,000,” said Shaw, “it’s a pretty big difference.”
NCAA Division I lacrosse programs typically divide their allotted 12.6 scholarships among many players, while Football Bowl Subdivision teams have 85 full spots to fund. Ivy League schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, but Alston received a need-based partial scholarship similar to ones Yale typically awards athletes. The opportunity to get an Ivy League education at a discount, when combined with the chance to play football, he said, was too good to pass up.
Miezan was offered a spot by Stanford, Pacific-12 champion in three of the past six years, two days after National Signing Day, when a few of the school’s expected football commits went elsewhere. After a spring break trip to campus a few weeks later, Miezan couldn’t forgo the opportunity.
Neither could his parents, who have slowly accepted the physicality - and sometimes brutal nature - of their son’s new favorite sport.
Standing in a light rain one early April afternoon, after Miezan scored twice in a game midway through what few expected would be his last season of lacrosse, William explained his adjustment.
At Miezan’s first football game, the one with that thunderous touchdown and chanting fans, his dad thought: “‘That’s not bad. OK.’ “
After Miezan completed his first season, the family’s agreed upon trial period with the sport, William allowed another year: “I said, ‘OK, yeah, I want to see more of that.’ “
And by his senior year, as he became a major contributor and a bona fide Division I prospect, Miezan had his father’s full approval.
“I said, ‘Yes, go ahead,’ “ William recalled. “‘Have fun with it.’ “