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October 20, 2011

Former Gator Starks talks recruiting decision

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For some high school students, just making the decision to attend college is a life-altering one. When it comes to student-athletes, picking the right university in which to hone their talents and improve as players is an even bigger decision.

With so many highly recruited players seemingly changing their minds multiple times before making a solid commitment, fans may think at times that teams and coaches are the ones forcing them to waffle when in reality there are so many other factors.

One hour before signing his letter of intent to play for the Florida Gators, offensive tackle Max Starks had no idea what school he would attend. One year before that, he had no clue that college football would be his gateway toward a great education and prosperous professional career.

As it turns out, Starks made a pair of decisions early in his life that undoubtedly set him on the right track.

A two-sport athlete in high school, Starks was a standout player in both basketball and football. He loved playing basketball and, as a junior who saw plenty of success with that game, hoped to use his athletic talent to earn a scholarship at a top-tier educational institution.

"Back in high school, one of the biggest things my mom always preached was getting an education. If you could use sports to get that education, why not explore it, especially because I loved playing," he explained.

After transferring to a Lake Highland Preparatory School for his senior season, it became apparent that it was football in which he would best be able to take advantage of his talents.

"When it came to football, I had just transferred to a new school and there were a couple of guys who were big-time division one recruits. All of a sudden all these scouts started coming after me for football, and I realized I had a better opportunity and a better choice of schools from football than I did with basketball," Starks said. "That's why I ended up deciding to pursue football. I realized I could go to a really good school not only for sports but for education as well."

When it came to picking that school, however, he had an even tougher time making a decision.

Starks began receiving letters from teams in spring of his junior year, but they came with even more regularity after recruiters got to see him in person.

"Going into my senior year, I was called a blue chip recruit who was top 100 in the country, and I started sitting down to think about where I wanted to go to college for education and to have fun playing sports," he said. "Funny enough, I took my final official visit and really wasn't happy. I liked the schools that I went to but wasn't in love with them."

That gave Starks's mother an idea. She decided to drive him up to Gainesville, FL for an unofficial trip to the University of Florida. While on campus, Starks asked an advisor to call the football office and see if he could meet with the coaching staff.

Head coach Steve Spurrier and athletic director Jeremy Foley each sat down with him to talk about life at Florida, the educational opportunities UF provides and what it might be like to play for the Gators.

Even though he thoroughly enjoyed his visit, Starks was still unsure where he wanted to attend.

"When it came down to signing day, I had my six letters of intent - the five schools I took official visits to (Notre Dame, Michigan, USC, Georgia, Florida State) plus Florida. I didn't know where to go," he said.

Starks turned to prayer to answer his question, and he believes it did just that.

"I prayed on it right before signing day at 9 a.m.," he recalled. "I'm sitting in my [high school] coach's office looking for a sign where I should go, what would be the best place for me and where I would get the most out of education, sports and student life.

"I remember opening my eyes up after I prayed in my coach's office. He had college helmets from every major school in the country in his huge office - all of the Division I schools. On that one day, all those helmets were out of there getting reconditioned except for the Florida helmet. I was like, 'There's my sign. There's no clearer sign than that.'"

Starks proceeded to grab the helmet off the shelf, run though his school's gym and into the student union on campus where national signing day festivities were being held in a faculty board room.

"I remember being the last one in there. Everyone else was up front with their hats and letters of intent and little paraphernalia. I walked in last and everybody is looking at me," he said. "The room just froze trying to figure out what decision I was going to make. I had no hat on and no jersey. My mom was sitting there with a Lids bag filled with six hats wondering which one I'm going to put on.

"I end up walking in with the Gator helmet raised in the air and the whole room exploded because half of my teachers were all Gator grads and all of them were Florida fans. They were just going nuts with anticipation of me picking that school. From that point on, every day I went to school there was a new Florida Gator decal on my car in my parking space. It was crazy. It was just really awesome."

There was one drawback to Starks's decision, something that he laughs about today when he thinks about how it unfolded.

"My cousin and I had talked on the night before because we were both seniors and we were both highly recruited. We were both trying to figure out where we were going to go," he said. "I'll never forget. The night before [National Signing Day] I was leaning towards Florida State, but I didn't know for sure. He said he loved Michigan and was probably going to commit there. I promised I would call him to let him know what I made a decision on.

"After I signed the letter of intent, I called him but he didn't answer his phone and had all his phones turned off. He ended up calling me later in the day to let me know we were going to play college ball together at Florida State because that's what I said the night before. I just hung the phone up on him and said, 'We're now rivals for the rest of our days.'"

Starks wound up playing against his cousin, a defensive tackle on FSU, during his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. The Gators were 1-2 against the Seminoles those three years.

"I still made the right decision," Starks said.

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