National signing day usually comes and goes without much fanfare at Lanier High School, where football players seldom suit up again after their senior season. But not this year.
When linebacker Xavier Perez Coley and offensive lineman Johnny Vizcaino sign with Seton Hill (Pa.) University and New Mexico, respectively, on Wednesday morning in a ceremony at the Lanier Alumni Center, the event will mark a seminal moment for the inner-city high school.
"It's a big day for our school, our program and our community," longtime Voks head football coach Don Gatian said Tuesday. "It's an honor to coach two guys who have the talent that they have. They will meet new people and be exposed to opportunities by going to college. That's the neat thing."
Coley and Vizcaino, both captains last season, are believed to be the first Lanier football players in years, if not ever, to sign with a four-year NCAA school.
New Mexico plays in the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly NCAA Division I-A, and Seton Hill, which is in Greensburg, Pa., competes in Division II.
Wednesday is the first day that high school seniors across the country can sign national letters of intent with colleges.
While the recruitment of such local blue-chippers as Sam Houston defensive end Javonte Magee (Baylor) and Steele quarterback Tommy Armstrong (Nebraska) has been well chronicled, Coley and Vizcaino didn't make their college commitments until recently.
Coley said he was sold on Seton Hill when he visited the campus two weeks ago, and Vizcaino committed to New Mexico during his visit to the Albuquerque school last weekend.
Vizcaino will play for Bob Davie
Vizcaino, 6-foot-2 and 295 pounds, played guard for the Voks last season and was a three-year starter on the varsity. He initially committed to Sam Houston State in mid-January after visiting the school in Huntsville, but he changed his mind when New Mexico came calling a few days later.
Or, specifically, when former Sam Houston State offensive line coach Derek Warehime, who joined Bob Davie's staff at New Mexico just last month, contacted him.
"I was just hanging out and thinking I was going to sign with Sam Houston, but Coach Warehime called me and said he thought I was a pretty good player, a real good steal," Vizcaino said. "He wanted to know if I would be interested in him putting me on the board at New Mexico, so he could talk to the other coaches about me."
Within days, Vizcaino had a recruiting visit lined up for New Mexico.
"I met with Coach Davie and I was real impressed with him and the rest of the staff," Vizcaino said. "I felt a real connection with them. I also felt real comfortable with the other guys who were visiting that weekend. We stayed up late one night talking about the good things at UNM. I felt that UNM was the place where I wanted to be."
Former Southwest Texas State head coach Bob DeBesse joined Davie's staff as offensive coordinator last month after serving in the same capacity at Sam Houston State the past two seasons.
Coley, who led the Voks in tackles for a loss with 11 last season, said Seton Hill coaches have told him that they plan to keep him at outside linebacker. Coley, 6-1 and 215 pounds, played on the Lanier varsity for four seasons and was a three-year starter.
Coley felt comfortable at Seton Hill
Coley said he was taken by the overall setting of the Seton Hill campus.
"It's really different," Coley said. "The whole entrance to the school is lined with trees. Everybody was good people and I just felt comfortable there. I'm thrilled, This will have an impact on the next four years of my life, or really my whole life, since it's about making a decision on what college I'm going to."
Greensburg is about 35 miles southeast of Pittsburgh and about 60 miles southeast of Aliquippa, Pa., where Gatian grew up.
Vizcaino and Coley said their pride in themselves and Laner has driven them to dream big dreams and work to make them a reality.
"Coming out of here, we weren't sure where our opportunities were going to come from, or whether they were going to come at all," Vizcaino said. "But we were just blessed enough to have a coach that cared enough about us to put us in the position we're in now. We're just excited and we're going to make the most of it."
"Hard work is the ultimate passport to anywhere you want to go. Hard work will get you where you want to go. That's what I've always lived by. There have been guys that have come through the program, guys who have been good players. But in most cases, it's been academics that's held them back."
Coley was succinct when asked what advice he would give his younger teammates.
"You just have to work," Coley said. "Determination can open a lot of doors for you.
Gatian praised by players
Vizcaino and Coley credited Gatian for his father-like guidance on and off the field.
"He's very much the father I never had," Vizcaino said. "He's always shown he cares about us."
Said Coley: "It wasn't until my freshman year that I started thinking that this possible. Coach Gatian made me realize what I was capable of becoming, so I worked real hard for it physically and mentally. Overall, I just pushed myself to be a better student and better person."
Vizcaino and Coley said playing for Lanier was a special experience they will cherish for years to come.
"Playing for a community like this and playing at a legendary place like the Rockpile, it's hard to put into works," Coley said, referring to Alamo Stadium, where Lanier plays most of its home games. "I'm going to miss it."
Vizcaino nodded in agreement.
"A lot of people think it's hype, but for the last three or four years, Friday nights were everything to us," Vizcaino said. "It was our identity. To the community, that's who we were. We were Voks. It meant a lot to us. It hurt when it was over, but I'm ecstatic that I'm going to get the chance to continue playing."
That will be the prevailing sentiment everywhere on another highly anticipated national signing day.