A Road to Glory, Traveled by Many

You probably won't believe this, but I once made an official recruiting visit to a major college football program. Yes, in real life.

When I was 15, I had a friend who was a very highly regarded linebacker at another high school. I was staying with his family for a week while my parents were out of town. My friend invited me along to a kind of cattle-call visit at Wake Forest, where he would ultimately play.

In a free chow line before the game (the Deacons and Ricky Proehl beat North Carolina and first-year head coach Mack Brown that day), someone on the football staff handed me a questionnaire and told me to fill it out.

I wasn't yet six feet tall and probably wasn't much more than 150 pounds, and had never visited a weight room except for P.E. class. I had never played a down of high school football - and never would. I didn't know how to answer these questions.

"Hey, what's my position?" I asked my friend.

He thought for a second. "Safety."

"What's my 40?" I whispered. He looked me over.

"Five flat."

Unsurprisingly, Wake Forest head coach Bill Dooley did not call to ask for my tape.

Much later in life I did become a five-star prospect - all of it in EA Sports' NCAA Football's singleplayer career mode, which has been called Race for the Heisman, Campus Legend, and since 2009, Road to Glory. It's the first singleplayer career mode in a team sports simulation, going back to NCAA Football 06. (Madden's Superstar mode followed a month later.)

Despite that kind longevity, it's also one of the most underappreciated and underdeveloped modes of its type, and suffers from a puzzling neglect especially given the popularity of Be a Pro modes in both FIFA and NHL, the outstanding Road to the Show mode of Sony's MLB The Show, and 2K Sports' gains in this realm with its My Player modes for NBA 2K and MLB 2K, both within the past year. Road to Glory is one of the very few disappointments in NCAA Football 11, only getting passive enhancement thanks to an overall upgrade in the game's playcalling authenticity.

It's one of the biggest missed opportunities in major sports gaming, given the unique potential this mode has among other singleplayer career modes. In structure, Road to Glory offers a compact experience - you only have to play four seasons to be the greatest ever, and "win" the mode, unlike 15- or 20-year careers in the NBA or Major League Baseball. Your player performs very specific tasks with natural breaks in the action, and plays not involving him can be simulated out, both speeding up the game and driving the focus hard to your own execution in it.

A Road to Glory, Traveled by Many

And finally, millions of people have direct, personal ties to the 120 colleges featured in the game. The deepest professional draft each year is Major League Baseball's, with 30 teams taking 1,525 prospects. Hell, if I made a college football recruiting visit - however loosely defined - you're talking about something a lot of people not only would pay money to live, they'd pay to re-live it.

"It's much more of a relatable experience," says Ben Haumiller, a designer on NCAA Football. "We all went to college. Making a leap to the pros, in any rank, is such a further leap, where it's a bigger pool to get to play college football, or to even be considered for it."

Haumiller concedes that Road to Glory, especially given the age of the feature, is underweight; production decisions for NCAA 11 prioritized the game's Dynasty mode, played by far, far more users - upwards of 80 percent, Haumiller said. Online Dynasty didn't get much of an upgrade last year, and with that kind of participation, "we didn't want to leave that for two years without any sort of upgrade to it."

There's a lot Haumiller wants to do with Road to Glory and other aspects of the game, but not everything can fit into a limited budget of both time and money.

"Dynasty is our top dog, far and away above everything else," Haumiller said. "RTG is smaller, but gaining, definitely. Last year, the presentation additions with Erin Andrews helped bump that up. But it's still in its infancy as far as where it can be, as a mode offering a complete and total experience."

Haumiller also feels a personal tug with Road to Glory. Growing up in Florida, he played for Winter Park's Lake Howell High School (alumni include Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall and Bills linebacker Kawika Mitchell), and was himself an offensive line prospect. He and plenty of friends were recruited. Haumiller briefly fielded interest from Texas A&M in the R.C. Slocum years, could have walked on at Baylor, and even Florida State, where he did enroll, but chose to focus on getting his degree instead.

"I got maybe a whiff of a look for half a second," says Haumiller, a self-described "big, slow white guy" - "but now I can go into the game, create myself, and project myself into a college football life, where I can run out of that tunnel and play for whatever team. It's a chance to live out what you've always fantasized for yourself, on much more relatable terms. Growing up, maybe you always wanted to play first base for the Mets, or quarterback for the Cowboys. But that's a much less tangible goal than to be a walk-on at Tennessee or somewhere else like that."

Inevitably, even though I know I'll lose momentum after that first all-America year, or winning the Heisman as a sophomore, that accessible fantasy is what drags me back to Road to Glory every year. It was the first mode I played when I got my review copy and, even if it didn't get much dedicated attention, it still got a boost in the playcalling variety, and I still had a great time with it.

I've written about sports simulations as a role-playing game and my inclination to expand the story far beyond what's taking place on the screen. And starting Road to Glory as a high school quarterback, just entertaining the fantasy of being a coveted football player, is enough to bring me back to my teenage and college days, when so much was possible, even if I was never going to suit up for any college program no matter where or how small.

A Road to Glory, Traveled by Many

Haumiller said that kind of daydreaming is what this mode's all about. For example, "Texas is one of those schools, it's described as a country club atmosphere. One of the best things in the world is to be an athlete at Texas," Haumiller said, his voice drifting off into wonder. "I mean, how much fun would it be, to be, just, The Man at that school?"

Oh, Lord, I can think of a ton of things the NCAA would never approve.

Past iterations of Road to Glory featured off-the-field decisions like choosing a major and "going to class," - essentially taking a trivia test that could boost your attributes. ‘The NCAA really loved us for doing that," Haumiller said. Going forward, he wants to build up the mode's focus on preparation: "How will you learn that playbook, how will you earn - not just playing time, but then different responsibilities on your team?"

Recruiting could probably use some stronger integration with how it's done, on the coaching side, in Dynasty mode. "I wouldn't want it to be just picking from a list of schools, but we'd want to keep that at a brisk pace, too," Haumiller said. "And we'd want to give you a reason to practice. Maybe there are storylines with other players, like you're a junior who wants to be a starter, but there's a hotshot recruit coming in. That's the key, giving your player a story and identity."

Haumiller said that, in the past, the team even considered integrating Road to Glory with NCAA Basketball (now canceled), giving you a chance to play as a two-sport star, like North Carolina's Julius Peppers. "The ship dates were so far apart ... it was a logistical nightmare, although we always thought it would be a really fun way to do things," Haumiller said.

But creating a two-way player on a football team - a wide receiver/defensive back, such as Ohio State's Chris Gamble - could be a possibility. "I could see a place for that, being a lot of fun," Haumiller said.

Even though offensive line is one of three unplayable positions in Road to Glory (kicker and punter are the others) I asked Haumiller if he ever creates himself and gets attention from Texas A&M. "Yes," he said. "It always makes me laugh to see them in there with the scouts looking at my games. And then I think about what could happen."

That's the real fun of NCAA Football, the idea that this is your one sports fantasy that had the best chance of coming true in real life. Even 22 years ago, a free plate of barbecue and a questionnaire that assuredly ended up at the bottom of a trashcan in Winston-Salem created an indelible memory that will always make me smile.

And it's a path to the heart that NCAA Football would be foolish not to exploit.

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.