Football isn’t an Olympic sport and probably never will, but Robert Washington and Conner O’Donnell were playing for Team USA since before the 2016 prospects were playing for SouthLake High School (Huntersville, N.C.).
Washington, a running back, and O’Donnell, a receiver, have got plenty out of the experiences so far.
“You get the pride of playing for your country first and knowing that you’re doing something unique across the high school landscape,” said Bub O’Donnell, who is SouthLake’s head coach and Conner’s father. “The maturation is amazing. Mentally, you’re going into an international event and you’re living with these kids for a week.
“They’ve matured beyond their years by playing national and international competition. Socially, they can go out and say, ‘I’m no different than kids from Massachusetts or kids from Arizona.’ They’ve got buddies all over the country and all over the world with kids from Canada and Sweden. I think they realized a kid’s a kid, a person’s a person. It takes away some of the mystique of playing college football and wondering how hard it would be.”
At first, Washington and O’Donnell were excited just to be a part of the team for the experience, but by year two they were starting and this year, both players were dominant on the field.
Team USA also offers kids the chance to get on the field for full-padded practices and games in July and February
“When you look at the opportunity to play for your country, you can stop right there and say that’s unique in itself and that’s why we would do it,” Coach O’Donnell said. “But also, to be playing when nobody else is playing, you have a unique opportunity to send some film out to some schools.”
The younger O’Donnell already has early offers from the Mississippi State, UCLA and Akron while Washington has those offers plus Arizona State, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Syracuse. They visited Notre Dame for camp in June and are also on the radar of several other schools, including Michigan and Vanderbilt.
Both prospects have seen boosts in their profiles since participating with Team USA in Dartmouth, Mass., this past July.
“If you look at Conner’s film from seven months ago to today, he’s three inches and 30 pounds bigger,” Coach O’Donnell said. “That’s where a coach can see the progression, so there’s value to us there.”
O’Donnell and Washington have helped SouthLake to an early 5-0 record already this season. Washington has rushed for 854 yards and 12 touchdowns on 84 carries while O’Connell has hauled in 21 passes for 610 yards and four scores.
O’Donnell currently sports a 4.1 grade-point average in the classroom while Washington owns a 3.5.
They have their eyes set on winning a state championship this fall, but also have an eye on recruiting. The teammates were in Ann Arbor last weekend for Michigan’s win over Akron and will be back in South Bend in November when Notre Dame hosts BYU. But they’ll also have be looking ahead to their next Team USA experience a well.
Tyson Fresh Chicken is sponsoring Team USA’s Football Tailgate Tour this fall, visiting schools of players selected to compete on the Under-19 squad that will play Team Canada in the 2014 International Bowl next February in Texas. Washington, O’Donnell and 2015 SouthLake quarterback Luke Lancaster have all been chosen and the tour will be in Huntersville on Friday night. Washington and O’Donnell are likely to be the youngest players on the team.
“It’s a great honor,” Coach O’Donnell said. “These kids are blessed, but at the same time, they’re nerds. They’re good kids. They read their books. They don’t go out at night. There’s no gimmick to these kids. They go to a good school, it’s a hard school. They do their football training and that’s it.”
The opportunity has also brought some unwanted attention from others.
“That really matured them quicker,” said Coach O’Donnell. “They found out the way the world works and people looking at them out of the corner of their eyes and thinking, ‘Who are they? They’re not that special.’ They’ve had to rely on each other, but also realized that they’re in the public eye and have to act accordingly.
“They’re going to behave right, they’re going to act right, they’re going to say the right things.”
But not all of the attention is bad. One coach with NFL playing experience didn’t know Conner was O’Donnell’s son and pointed him out to say he was impressed with how the sophomore receiver carried himself like a professional.
This was the first year college coaches were allowed to participate in the event and another Team USA assistant, Kutztown’s Andrew Casale, feels like he got as much out of it as the kids.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Casale. “I had a great, great time. I was telling the kids in my last meeting that I was sick a little. I love the game. I had the best time, it’s crazy to say it, but I probably had the best time I ever had. That includes vacations and all of that other stuff. It was just a great, great week and I can’t wait to do it again.”
He also believes it was a great opportunity for the players.
“The kids get away from Mom and Dad for a little bit at 14 and 15 years old,” Casale said. “They get a chance to see what a college schedule will be like. We’re going double-days, meetings, walkthroughs. We kind of grab all of their time. They get a little shot of reality as to what they would have to do as college athletes.
“To play for one’s country is also a pretty big deal. How many guys get to wear the red, white and blue, especially with football?”
Getting to see other players from across the country was also a learning experience.
“Some of these kids are coming from programs where they’re the stud,” Casale said. “It’s a reality check for them. Yeah, they may be good, but once they get to college, everybody was good on their high school teams.
“You compare yourself to them and it makes you work a little bit harder hopefully. There was some great talent out there. It was a lot of fun for me to see kids who actually get it. They know what they need to do and they know what it takes to be at this level and then higher levels.”
Casale was impressed with the talent he saw in Dartmouth.
“I coached in high school, I coached in Division III and Division II,” he said. “Some of these kids are beyond what I have here. That’s fun to see, young guys that get it like them.”
Casale thought the entire event was run well and is hoping to participate again.
“I e-mailed the guys who were in charge and said, ‘Thank you for the opportunity. I thought it was run fantastic. I don’t think it could have gone any better,’” Casale said.
“I’m happy that I got a chance to do it early because I feel like in a couple years, it’s going to be very, very difficult to get into it because it’s going to take off even more than they expect. I want to do it as much as I can because I think it’s going to be something big soon.”
For Casale, it also served as a shot in the arm for his own season.
“It builds your spirit for the future about what the game has to hold,” he said. “You see all of the bad publicity with the NFL guys, especially with what’s going on in New England and the schools that are having violations. Then you see a group of kids who get it.
“They’re very humble. They’re good in the classroom, they do things right and they do community service stuff. It’s refreshing to see a group of kids like that perform and excel and do the right thing. It pushed my work ethic a little.”