Why you should care

Turns out Texas isn’t the national MVP when it comes to sending players to the NFL. 

Saturdays down South. Texas forever. There’s an established pipeline between the NFL and the states south of the Mason-Dixon Line, which produce many of the league’s players. It’s not surprising, then, that more NFL players — 211 in total — hail from Florida than any other state. California and Texas are not far behind, at 185 and 175, respectively.

But Florida, California and Texas have more in common than their temperate climes. They are also the three U.S. states with the highest total populations, with 20 million or more residents apiece. Of course, those states will produce a high number of NFL players and other athletes. They’ll also produce more veterinarians, biologists, lawyers … you get the picture.

The number to watch is which state or territory produces the most NFL players per capita. When we dig into those figures, we find that the state with the most NFL players per capita is not a state at all, but the District of Columbia. According to data from the NFL:

The District of Columbia produces the most NFL players per capita of any area in the U.S., with one player per every 54,702 people.

For reference, the national average is one NFL player per every 184,988 people.

Why are so many kids from Washington, D.C., finding their way to the NFL? It starts, of course, at the schools where they hone their talent. High schools located in Florida, California, Georgia, Ohio and Arizona produced the most players on NFL opening day rosters in 2018, but right after those is Friendship Collegiate Academy in D.C., with four players: Eddie Goldman (Chicago Bears), Jermaine Carter (Carolina Panthers), Jalen “Teez” Tabor (Detroit Lions) and Yannick Ngakoue (Jacksonville Jaguars).

In all, 11 students who made 2018 NFL opening day rosters went to high schools in the Washington, D.C., area, which ranks seventh among hometowns producing the most NFL players — tied with Orlando, Florida.

D.C. parents, explains Friendship Collegiate Academy Athletic Director and head football coach Mike Hunter, can choose the school they want their children to attend. Some of Friendship Collegiate’s students enter the charter school at the elementary or middle school level. But others — including football-minded students who have seen the recent gains Friendship Collegiate graduates have made in the NFL — can choose to go there for high school only.

Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, who is now the University of Maryland cornerbacks coach, founded Friendship Collegiate Academy’s varsity football program in 2004. In its first 10 years, the program compiled a 62-39 record; the Fighting Knights then won the District of Columbia Athletic Association Championship game in 2012.

Friendship’s NFL draft successes have been relatively recent — Goldman in 2015, Ngakoue in 2016, Tabor in 2017 and Carter in 2018. But the school has seen more than 100 former students receive scholarship offers from college football programs. Their success is all the more impressive when you learn the Fighting Knights don’t have a dedicated practice field or locker room.

We’re developing not only the athlete but also the student.

Mike Hunter, head football coach, Friendship Collegiate Academy

According to Hunter, the dirt field behind the school is nicknamed “Friendship Beach” — “because it’s all dirt, you can’t really put lines on it, and when it rains it becomes a swamp.” Every game is a road game for the Fighting Knights. While in office, former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray wanted the District’s high school sports programs to receive more resources. “If we want to be a state, we have to run our school sports like a state, and be as inclusive as possible,” he said at the 2011 national signing day ceremony.

Friendship’s football program was not founded with the purpose of funneling players to the NFL. “Friendship’s mission, putting athletics aside, is to help students get to and through college,” Hunter says. “We started athletics here as an avenue to help pay for college.” While he notes that players’ recent NFL success is “definitely a blessing,” it’s not the goal.

But the successes are happening — and Friendship is the only high school among the 12 in the District to boast more than one student on an NFL roster in 2018. One obvious pipeline is the Maryland connection, with Abdul-Rahim now stationed there. Two of the four Friendship players on NFL rosters attended the university. Three more Friendship alums are currently on the Maryland football roster.

“When we talk about going to middle schools or elementary schools and trying to identify student-athletes, we’re not just looking at athletic ability,” says Hunter. “We’re developing not only the athlete but also the student.”

As Friendship and other D.C. high schools continue to produce top talent, college scouts are taking notice — and can be expected to keep returning to the well.

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