Cedric Whitaker, now an assistant coach for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, can’t imagine how his life would have turned out without that one pivotal day in 2011. That’s when he walked onto the Houston Texans’ practice field with hundreds of other high school football players, dreamers all of them.

He was a senior at Houston’s North Shore Senior High School at the time, hoping that something he did—a sprint or a tackling drill or an interview—would get the attention of the dozens of college coaches observing that day.

Something did. Whitaker still isn’t sure what impressed the coaches at Texas Lutheran University, but he remains thankful for the path it set him on: playing defensive back for the Bulldogs, earning a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, and then leaping onto the coaching carousel with jobs at Houston Baptist, Texas Lutheran, and Baylor. His biggest break came two years ago, when Matt Rhule left Baylor to become head coach of the Panthers and brought Whitaker with him to the NFL. 

Over the years, Whitaker has often thought about how that one day more than ten years ago changed the arc of his life so dramatically. Likewise, he has thought about the other kids who showed up. “A lot of these guys are like me,” Whitaker said. “Maybe someone thinks we’re too slow or too short. We’re guys that just need a chance. If you take care of your business in the classroom—and I did—you’ve got a great shot.”

The event, known as the Greater Houston Senior Football Showcase, was born in 2009 out of one high school coach’s frustration at college teams’ lack of recruiting interest in his players. He believed they could compete at the college level and created a forum to prove it. 

This weekend, the Texans will host the fourteenth edition of the event, with 51 colleges attending and 600-plus senior athletes from more than two hundred high schools throughout Texas signed up. So far, the showcase organizers say, the event has helped 1,400 high school seniors land scholarships worth around $140 million.

These kids aren’t the high-profile recruits you hear about on National Signing Day. They won’t be playing nationally televised games for Texas or Texas A&M. But they can help plenty of Division II, Division III, and NAIA teams win—and many of them would have no other chance to attend college without football. 

The showcase is about something less glamorous than—but just as important as—million-dollar endorsement deals. It’s about preparing young athletes for life, not the NFL. But because Texas high school football is played at such a high level, these players are plenty good enough to play at hundreds of smaller schools around the country.

“One coach told me he can see more talent in one day with us than in driving around Nebraska for a week,” said Coby Rhoden, the golf coach at Aldine High School and one of the showcase’s original organizers. “People don’t understand the talent gap in Texas and everywhere else. Not the stars. I mean the run-of-the-mill talent.

“You could take [a Texas high school power like] College Park in the Woodlands, and they would probably win some of these [college] conferences we’re sending kids to.”

Cedric Whitaker understands. “I wanted a chance to compete academically and a chance to play ball,” he said. “I just knew that would make my heart happy.”

High school seniors must show proof of at least a 2.5 grade point average to participate in the showcase. The event looks like a lot of other football practices, with volunteers from the Houston area running an assortment of drills and meetings. The GPA cutoff is important because the college coaches scouting the workouts mostly come from smaller institutions that offer some athletic scholarships but also other forms of financial aid that are often tied to academic performance.

Whitaker has returned to watch the event a few times over the years, and during each visit, he recognizes the same emotions in the seniors on the field that he felt back in 2011. “I saw the same look in those eyes,” he said. “Those coaches, they were looking for guys like us. You could say we were overlooked—maybe we were an inch too short or a half second too slow.

“But you were still good enough to play if you got an opportunity,” he continued. “The thing that was so great is you’d run a [forty-yard dash] or do a drill, and coaches would come up to you with their cards. Maybe right then they saw something in you.”

All this began in 2009, when Phil Camp, then the head football coach at Houston’s Milby High School, floated the idea to Rhoden, who was an academic coach at the school. “Hey, I’ve convinced Tabor College to come look at a couple of our guys,” he told Rhoden. “Why don’t we call around and see if other schools want to come over?”

Rhoden and Camp began working the phones, and by the time they were done, eighty players and seventeen colleges had shown up. The duo knew the kids were good enough to play somewhere if only college programs would pay attention to them. Camp recalled his annoyance at not seeing his players get recruited, and how that inspired the idea to start the showcase. “My quarterback, running back, and left guard [were] not getting a look one year,” he said. “We’re just trying to give kids a way to better themselves. It’s that simple.”

“I just want to kick myself that we didn’t start this twenty years earlier,” added Chris Vaughan, an advisory board member of the Touchdown Club of Houston and another of the original organizers. “There was such a need there, and we couldn’t find a way to address it.”

That first year, the tryouts were held on Milby’s home field, and Camp’s goal was modest: secure one scholarship for one kid. “That would have been a success,” he said.

“We ended up with a bunch of kids getting offers,” Vaughan said.

Ever since that first year, Houston’s football community has rallied around the showcase. Vaughan reached out to friends, local restaurants, fellow coaches, and the city’s NFL franchise for financial support. “No one has turned me down,” he said. “When you tell them what’s being done at these things, they’re all in. That’s the lesson of all this.”

Such events aren’t unusual around the country. What sets Houston’s showcase apart is that it’s free. Otherwise, many of these players—more than half of whom qualify for their schools’ free lunch programs, according to Rhoden—wouldn’t be there.

“I forget who said it, but it applies here,” Vaughan said. “ ‘If you have a network of people, and you don’t use it for the benefit of others, then you just wasted your time on Earth.’ And that’s all I’m doing, is using the people I know to do something good for others.”

Folks like Camp and Rhoden and Vaughan are the best of us. All those coaches who give their time to help organize and pull off the showcase, year after year, are a reminder of how much they care for these students, in whom they’ve invested much more than time.

Like-minded events have sprung up around the country. Former UCLA coach Terry Donahue runs a similar tryout in California, and he often tells Camp, “Phil, we’re doing God’s work here.”

Neither Camp nor Rhoden still works at Milby, the high school where the whole operation began. Camp has retired from coaching, while Rhoden has moved on to coaching golf at Houston’s Aldine High School. But both men have never given up on organizing and promoting the showcase.

“It’s how to break the poverty cycle,” Rhoden said. “We’ve got to get those kids out of there, put them in another situation, and then support them in that situation. And that’s what football does.”