The balloons floated just as high as ever. The cake tasted just as sweet. (Or so I’m told. Believe it or not, I actually didn’t partake.) The Momma and Daddy tears flowed just as readily.

All the ceremonies, scattered at high schools across Central Texas and beyond, seemed to carry the same buzz as before.

Yes, National Signing Day has become National Signing Days – a two-part mini-series beginning in December and ending in February. You can call the new December date “the big one” if you want, and you’d be accurate. Certainly the majority of the nation’s fiercest passers and catchers and earth-movers finalized their scholarship deals shortly before Christmas.

But you know what? As we at the Trib hustled around to a variety of signing events on Wednesday, it still felt pretty big to me.

And, more importantly, it couldn’t possibly have been any bigger for those involved.

Even considering how many Central Texas athletes signed on Wednesday – and if you scan our signing lists you’ll see that it was a bunch – landing an athletic scholarship is no small feat. It’s a rare achievement worth the pomp and circumstance these high schools assign to it.

You’ve probably read the numbers before, but they’re worth repeating. According to the NCAA, only two percent of the nation’s high school athletes will be offered a scholarship to play a sport. In some of those sports, that offer won’t cover the full cost of attending school. The average scholarship is worth less than $11,000, the NCAA says.

So, yeah, for the kids who get a full ride – and even those who get a partial lift on the handlebars of their educational journeys – Signing Day is a big deal. Doesn’t matter if it’s December, February or any other time of the year.

“Very, very few (are offered scholarships),” said Midway athletic director Brad Shelton, who presided over a gathering in which 18 Midway athletes finalized their college plans. “That’s a testament to their athletic ability. Walter Payton said, ‘Twenty percent talent, 80 percent hard work.’ There’s a reason they’re here.”

True that. Lazy steps don’t lead to athletic dorms. Several of the kids I talked to on Wednesday reflected on the rigorous training that led them to this day. Running bleachers, lifting weights, even editing highlight videos for prospective college suitors.

McGregor senior Michael Irons will play football at Cornell University, in the Ivy League. His moment of scrawling his signature onto a letter of intent was not only a dream come true – many kids, including Irons, used that expression – but a worry relieved.

“Once I got up to junior high and high school, every night I used to worry myself about it and would pray for it a lot,” Irons said.

So when the Cornell coaches informed Irons that they were issuing an offer, his stomach turned back flips. Not so much, though, that he couldn’t have a little fun with it first.

Irons said he didn’t tell his parents right away. He let the news marinate for a bit. “Once I told them they were like, ‘Wow!’” Irons said. “They were extremely happy. I took my visit and came back, and I committed as soon as I came back home.”

Of course, Signing Day isn’t just for football players. It’s for knee sock-wearing soccer players and eyeblack-attired baseball hitters and net-kissing volleyball spikers and every athlete in between. It’s for the FCS kids and the Division II athletes and those going to NAIA schools and junior colleges and Division III institutions, the latter of which can’t offer athletic scholarships but can still provide an outlet for competition.

Don’t believe me? Just listen to the words of the kids themselves.

“It’s huge.”

“It means the world to me.”

“I’ve been waiting for this day my whole life.”

For years, I’ve said that National Signing Day is to the sports media what April 15th is to CPAs. It’s a busy day – even taxing, you might say – a jam-packed whirlwind that forces us to rise early and travel much all day long. It’s a grind. It’s also fun. It’s kind of what we live for.

Yes, this February felt the same as ever. Sign here. Look here. Smile for the cameras, guys. Of course, that last instruction is hardly even necessary.

Anyone who ever thought that football players don’t smile in pictures never attended a Signing Day event.

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