Robert K. Cato

Letters, texts and phone calls. Promises of championships. Offers of big-money scholarships. Another day in the college sports recruiting wars? No, it’s what local kids as young as 10 are being deluged with—from some of Philadelphia’s most elite private high schools

PAUL THOUGHT THE HANDWRITTEN recruiting letters from the football coach were pretty cool. The coach — whose team plays in the Inter-Academic League, comprised of some of Philadelphia’s most prestigious private high schools — invited Paul to stand on the sidelines at games. He included his cell phone number, talked about building a championship program, and boasted of the school’s facilities.

Paul was in fifth grade.

A talented fullback and linebacker who attends a public middle school in Montgomery County, Paul — who asked that his real name not be used in order to avoid antagonizing the schools recruiting him — has only become more popular in the ensuing years as his talent blossomed. Now in eighth grade, he’s a target of all six Inter-Ac schools — Chestnut Hill Academy, Episcopal Academy, Germantown Academy, The Haverford School, Malvern Prep and Penn Charter — and several members of the 18-school Philadelphia Catholic League. Unlike other kids interested in such schools, Paul isn’t worried about having his application accepted. His grades are strong, but his real admission ticket is his football talent.

“I like it,” he says of the attention one frosty winter afternoon while perched upon a wing chair in the TV room of his family’s spacious, well-appointed home. “I never thought I would like having high-school coaches calling me.”

His father, Jack (also not his real name), a former college football player who runs his own business, is enjoying the process as well — even more than his son. Jack receives calls, texts and e-mails daily from an array of area coaches, all pitching their programs and schools — in that order — and he relishes the chance to relate the details. Despite the sterling academic reputations of the schools wooing Paul, their primary message is athletic. The Catholic schools speak of playing for a state championship in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA). Their Inter-Ac counterparts, which don’t compete for state titles, instead sell a unique, Ivy League-style sports experience, heavy on ancient rivalries, and emphasize their multimillion-dollar facilities.

“This,” Jack says, “is like what I went through when I was being recruited for college.”

Paul is by nature a quiet young man, which makes him a good target for sales pitches from loquacious coaches. As he tells his story — somewhat uncomfortably, perhaps because his father has made him dress up for the occasion — it’s clear he has been surprised by the attention. “I always thought I would go to [the public high school]; then all these schools started calling,” he says. “It’s nice.” But somewhat wearing. While his father talks to coaches, Paul would rather end the process, so he can “know where I’m going to high school.”

It will be a couple months before that happens. In the meantime, the onslaught continues. One Catholic League coach sent an e-mail that read, “Come here, and we’ll win a state title together.” Paul has settled on a finalist from each league. He likes the Catholic school’s recent success on the gridiron and the fact that the homework load would be lighter than at the Inter-Ac school. Jack prefers the prep school but isn’t delighted by the annual $25,000-plus price tag. Paul’s mother isn’t entirely thrilled with the Catholic school, because the family isn’t Catholic. The physical plant isn’t too modern, either. “She’s upset they don’t have central air-conditioning,” Jack says.

It figures to be an interesting decision for Paul and his family as they find themselves immersed in Philadelphia’s new high-school sports world, in which the idyllic concept of extracurricular athletic fun has been replaced with a business model built on the potential of 14-year-olds like Paul.

“I thought I was savvy,” Jack says with a laugh. “But I had no idea they were recruiting like this.”