MERRILLVILLE | Angelo Madrigal sat in a classroom Sunday with some Merrillville players who instantly recognized the fierce Valparaiso High School linebacker.
“What number were you?” one Pirate said.
“Thirty,” Madrigal replied.
“Thought so,” another Pirate answered.
However, Sunday’s session among other All-Area players hearing college football coaches pitch their programs and institutions wasn’t the first time Madrigal daydreamed about being instantly recognized for his football exploits.
“My goal since I was a little kid, like in Pop Warner, was to play college football,” Madrigal said. “That was my dream. So far it looks like everything’s going all right.”
The Valparaiso linebacker was among dozens upon dozens of local players circling the halls at Merrillville High School for Sunday’s Indiana Football Coaches Association Region I College Recruiting Fair, an annual tradition for three decades.
Class was in session as recruits from Lake and Porter counties, and even some schools outside of Region I, were present with parents and coaches pursuing college football. They spent brief intervals in classrooms with representatives from 30 colleges, hearing the pitch of those schools and exchanging information.
“It’s honestly amazing because schools and coaches are coming up to you and asking you about football, and you just think to yourself that you didn’t even know they had a team,” Madrigal said. “I think that’s pretty cool.”
Many colleges draw heavily from this recruiting fair annually. Schools come from throughout Indiana and Illinois and beyond, including Peru State in Nebraska and Ohio Northern. The majority are NCAA Division II, Division III or NAIA schools whose recruiting budgets don’t allow them to make myriad individual home visits like their Division I counterparts.
Toby Goetz, a 2005 Lowell grad and an assistant at Robert Morris University in Chicago, was one of the coaches talking to players about the finer points of everything from academic traditions to pregame rituals to the NAIA school’s facilities to the team’s pro-style offensive sets.
“I remember getting recruited, and once the D-I schools stopped looking at you, not a lot of other scholarship programs came into the area,” Goetz said. “I knew when I got to Robert Morris that there was a lot of talent in Northwest Indiana, so we really started hitting Northwest Indiana pretty hard.”
Goetz played running back at Saginaw Valley State in Michigan and eventually became a graduate assistant at Robert Morris, where the program just wrapped its third year of play at 7-4. He’s been a full-time assistant for two years now.
Players on Robert Morris’ roster this fall hailed from, among other places, Chesterton, Hobart, Merrillville and Michigan City. Most of those players were products of the IFCA Region I Recruiting Fair.
“This is perfect timing because if you haven’t gotten a scholarship to a D-I program now, chances are most of them have used their scholarship money up,” Goetz said. “Playing college football is not for everybody, but for the people it is for, this is a great opportunity.”
Merrillville coach Zack Wells said the robust turnout each year both by colleges and local players keeps the fair going as a popular way for schools and players to meet in person.
In an era rife with recruiting websites and venues for uploading game and films, the recruiting fair is good old-fashioned speed dating.
“Without the participation of the high schools we’d be in big trouble,” Wells said. “All these high school coaches come in here voluntarily on a Sunday morning and stay throughout Sunday afternoon, and they’re just trying to get the names of their kids out there and into the hands of the colleges. It says a lot about them. You can tell they’re about the kids.”