Next to choosing a wife, it often has been suggested that the next most important decision in life is selecting a college, especially when the decision-maker is a football or basketball player.
In today's world, the recruiting process is a grinder, no matter if you are an elite athlete who is being wooed by Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame or you skills are more suited for Division II or III.
It all depends on your qualifications and priorities.
Are you a Division I recruit? Do you have the talent to play in the Big 10 or SEC or Pac-12? If not, what level are you capable of playing in? Are you prepared to settle for something less? Or is education your No. 1 priority? Do you want to play football in the Ivy League?
If you are an elite player, one of the top 100 or even one of the top 250 high school seniors in the nation, you probably don't have to worry. Many colleges are calling and knocking at your door. You have to carefully weigh your options, determine which program the best fit for you and make the right decision.
The Fordon cousins, Jack and Brian, aren't in that category. They were good but not great football players at Providence in New Lenox. They want to play in college but they also want to get good educations to provide for a good life after football because the NFL likely isn't an option.
Jack, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker, chose to go through the recruiting process step by sometimes agonizing step. In the end, only two days before the national signing day on Wednesday, he accepted an offer to attend Nebraska as a preferred walk-on.
"It was a no-brainer, an opportunity to play in a great program with a lot of tradition and with a great strength and conditioning program," he said. "They only offered 13 preferred walk-on spots and I'm honored to be one of them.
"I has been my dream to play Division I football ever since fifth grade. Dayton offered but I wanted to play at a higher level. I always knew I would try to go Division I somewhere. It all worked out for the best. Maybe it wasn't the way I planned it, maybe not as good as I hoped. But I'm really excited about the way it turned out."
Jack's Division I hopes suffered a setback when he broke a hand during Providence's first double session last August. One doctor said he would miss the entire season. He got another opinion. After missing three games, he played the rest of the season with one useable hand.
"I told him to keep his head high, that recruiting was a long process with ups and down, keep plugging away, that things would work out," said his father John, a Mount Carmel graduate of 1983 who played on the Caravan's first state championship team as a sophomore and was an All-State linebacker as a senior.
When he advised his son about the recruiting process, he only had to recall his own experience. He was set to walk on at Illinois when Chicago Bears linebacker and former Louisville player Doug Buffone saw him play in the Catholic/Public All-Star Game. Impressed, Buffone recommended him to a Louisville coach, who offered a scholarship. After one year at Louisville, he transferred to Minnesota and walked on to Lou Holtz' team.
Dayton was the only Division I school that offered Jack Fordon. He received offers from three Division III schools and lots of calls from Division II coaches. Illinois and Minnesota invited him to be a preferred walk-on. He also attracted interest from Penn State, Kansas, Florida Atlantic and Colorado State. He was on Air Force's waiting list.
Enter Nebraska. John Fordon called an old family friend, Bernie McGinn, a St. Ignatius graduate who was a starting fullback at Nebraska and now is a judge in Lincoln, Nebraska. One of his friends is former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne. McGinn put Fordon in touch with Mike Murray, a Mount Carmel graduate who was a Nebraska walk-on in the 1980s. Murray put him in touch with Nebraska assistant coach Jeff Jamrog.
Jamrog liked Jack's tapes. On Sunday, he called to offer him a spot on Nebraska's 105-man roster as a preferred walk-on. Jack didn't hesitate to accept. As one of 20 scholarship players and 13 preferred walk-ons in the incoming freshman class, he will begin summer classes in June.
"My goal is to earn a scholarship," Jack said. "To do that, I have to be willing to give 100 percent all the time, be in the weight room early and work hard on the field and in the classroom. It will be a lot of hard work but I'm willing to do that. If it gets me on the field, I'm willing to do whatever it takes. I'm excited to be a part of the program."
He only wishes the recruiting process had been a bit easier. He still insisted he would have had Division I offers if he hadn't broken his hand during preseason practice.
"It didn't help that I couldn't play to my full potential at linebacker," he said. "The recruiting process was a lot of work and stressful. All those camps in the summer, waiting for coaches to call, being on waiting lists. But it all worked out for the best. Now I'm working out every day and planning for June."
Brian, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound linebacker, chose another less stressful path to college. After visiting five Ivy League camps--Penn, Harvard, Cornell, Princeton and Dartmouth--over a three-week period last summer, he chose Dartmouth. He also had attracted interest from Northwestern and University of Chicago but when Dartmouth offered a spot last December, he was ready to pack his suitcase.
"I always wanted to be an Ivy Leaguer," said Brian. "I probably wouldn't have been admitted without football. The average ACT score for an incoming freshman is 33. I scored 30. But I did well at the camps. I was rated among the top two or three linebackers at every camp."
At Dartmouth, Brian will join former St. Rita linebacker Will McNamara and another St. Rita graduate, Don Dobes, who will be Fordon's linebacker coach. How badly did Dartmouth want him? Dobes called every Tuesday for six months to paint beautiful pictures of the football program and the campus in
Hanover, New Hampshire. "You're our No. 1 linebacker," Dobes told him. Brian liked what he heard and what he saw.
"I always wanted to play Division I football and get a Division I scholarship. I once dreamed of being the next Dick Butkus," Brian said. "But things got into perspective once I got older and matured. A degree from the Ivy League will take me to places that other colleges can't. I realized football would be my ticket. Now I have the best of both worlds. It's a dream come true. I get to continue my football career for four more years and get a great education."
Academics always has been his top priority. Since fifth grade, he set his alarm clock for 5 a.m. so he would get up early and finish his homework before school began. He plans to major in economics and finance and wants to work on Wall Street in investment banking or mergers and acquisitions. He already is lining up internships through contacts at Dartmouth.
"From day one, his dream was to play football at a higher education school," said his father Brian, a 1980 graduate of Marian Catholic who played football at Cal State-Fullerton on a scholarship. "He was very determined. Academics was first on his mind."
In fact, Brian's parents didn't allow him to play football until sixth grade because they didn't believe it was important to start that early. As a senior at Providence, he made over 100 tackles and was team MVP, All-Catholic League, All-Joliet Area and Academic All-State. In the classroom, he has a 4.33 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and does volunteer work with the student council, Eucharistic Ministry and Habitat for Humanity.
John Pergi, Providence's linebacker coach, predicted Brian "will continue to shine in the Ivy League as he was one of the most athletic linebackers I have coached in 30 years."
"A lot of people don't see how much time and effort I put in as a student. They just see me as a football player," Brian said. "But you have to balance your time. Time is valuable and you have to make the most of it."
He does three or four hours of homework daily and still gets up at 5 in the morning to tie up any loose ends. Last year, he had the hardest academic schedule of his high school career, including AP English and Honors physics. This year's schedule includes two AP classes and two Honors classes. English still is a toughie. "I'm a mathematics kind of guy," he said.
But as he looks ahead to reporting to Dartmouth in August, he knows he can't neglect the football side of his life. Last Saturday, he awoke at 4 in the morning to drive an hour to one gym for a two-hour workout, then took a one-hour break and drove to another gym for another two-hour workout.
How tough is it going to be? "When I visited Dartmouth last summer, two students told me that, when they were taking three classes in a 10-week term, they never learned so much in such a short period of time in their lives. I'm really looking forward to the challenge," Brian said.
"Football got me in the door. My father worked at the Board of Trade. From the first time I visited, I was attracted to it. I like dealing with money and big cites like New York and Chicago. I fell in love with the Board of Trade. It's what I want to do. I know I have to be an Ivy League graduate so I can get a job on Wall Street."