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February 4, 2004La Marque has been compared to a Super Wal-Mart for college football recruiters, but it was as busy as Christmas Eve at Toys 'R Us on national signing day Wednesday.
A total of 14 Cougar seniors signed with schools ranging from junior colleges to Big 12 universities, capping one of the most memorable seasons for the storied Galveston County program that went 16-0 and won its fourth state championship in 2003.
Rashad Bobino (Texas), Keith Dickerson (Texas A&M), Jared Williams (Texas Tech), James Francis and Trey Payne (Baylor) will stay within the state of Texas and play Big 12 football. Domonique Johnson, who did not play at La Marque due to eligibility issues regarding his transfer from rival Texas City, will go to Missouri.
Other players staying in Texas include Wilton McCray (Southern Methodist) and Darren Williams (Navarro Junior College).
High school teammates that never tasted defeat in their senior seasons will largely split ways - some, like Longhorn-to-be Bobino, will join a program knocking at the door of a national championship. Others, like future Bears Francis and Payne, will be part of building efforts.
"Me and Trey are going to go up there and do some things," said Francis, a second-generation Cougar whose father of the same name was a former La Marque and Baylor star before moving on to the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals and Washington Redskins.
Francis looks to be used as a linebacker and a goal-line fullback, two roles he had while helping La Marque earn a championship.
"We're used to winning," said Francis. "I don't want to go there and lose. We know what it takes to get it done; what it takes to win and how to focus in practice and focus on the football field. We're going to help turn things around."
Baylor, the world's largest Baptist university and the only private institution in the Big 12, has been largely unsuccessful in conference football play since moving there from the now-defunct Southwest Conference after the 1995 season. The two new Bears from La Marque say they will bring a winning mentality from one of the state's most successful high school programs in recent years to do whatever it takes to change the program's direction.
"My mindset is that if they want me to play, I'll play," said Payne, a primary receiver for quarterback Larry Kerlegan in 2003 under the Cougars' spread offense. "If they want me to redshirt, I'll redshirt. (Baylor) redshirted a lot of people and we'll have a lot of talent on the field. We will compete in the Big 12.
"I can say it's a blessing."
Bobino will take his experience as a three-year starter at La Marque and a championship ring to the Longhorns in hopes of earning another one with them.
"It's time to get it done in Austin," said an elated Bobino. "This feels so good. It's like winning a state championship. It's what you work for - to do well enough to play for a program like UT. It's kind of like winning a championship all over again."
The middle linebacker who made a splash in his high-school debut at the H-E-B Classic in San Antonio as a sophomore in 2001 - returning a fumble from the Cougars' goal line for a touchdown to lift La Marque over Schertz Clemens - hopes to make a similar, immediate impact for the Longhorns.
"I want to be coachable and fight hard," said Bobino. "I want to fight even harder than I have in high school, and be a difference-maker. I love Austin and the program is much like La Marque with a winning tradition. When I went up there, it was like a second home.
"I like being on top, No. 1."
His teammate to this point, Dickerson, will become a rival at Texas A&M. The wide receiver picked the Aggies after looking at Arizona where he would have gone as a package deal with cousin and teammate Jamaiel Dickerson, who is undecided with a number of offers.
The fact that College Station is closer to La Marque than Tucson, Ariz. was one factor in the change, but not the only.
"I felt A&M were more serious about education than Arizona," said Dickerson. "Plus, it's close to home."
Dickerson looks to ease his way into the Aggies' gameplan.
"I want to redshirt and learn the offense better," said Dickerson. "When I get better understanding of their system, I can play."
McCray will head further north to SMU, which has little other direction to go besides up.
"(SMU) redshirted a lot of players last year and will be improved," said McCray, who handled linebacker and punting duties at La Marque. "They didn't win a game last year, but everyone is going to be really surprised next year."
Academics played a part in McCray's decision, as he will major in business at the Dallas university.
Similar reasoning went into Rejaie Johnson's signing with Northwestern, a Big Ten school that like Baylor is the only private university in the conference.
"Northwestern has great academics and a great football program," said Johnson, who played tight end and defensive end for the Cougars but will be a linebacker for the Wildcats.
Domonique Johnson signed with Missouri despite having not played football since 2002 at Texas City.
"I want to thank the La Marque coaches for sticking their neck out and getting my name out," said Johnson. "Missouri really needed a DB, and Division I schools need to be three-deep. I want to redshirt, but there's a chance I could play some nickelback next year."
Not playing for a year can derail some prospects' hopes of getting a Division I ride, but Johnson's skills impressed the Tigers enough despite never playing a down for the Cougars.
"I also want to thank Texas City, because I was recruited on my junior film," said Johnson. "The coaches there taught me the basics."
La Marque head coach Bryan Erwin sent away one of the most talented senior classes from one school that the state has seen.
"This is a remarkable, tremendous class and it's a great day for these young men, their families and this athletic program," said Erwin. "This is a special class that has taken care of their academics, and that in combination with their athletic ability has earned them an education with the opportunity to play football at the next level."
Marcus Franklin (Prairie View), Larry Kerlegan (Grambling State), Anthony James (Coffeyville, Kan. Community College), Robert Conley (Utah) and Darrian Sumlin (Southern Arkansas) also signed on Wednesday.
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