BROOKLYN — For decades, Brooklyn has been the unofficial basketball capital of the world.
And for good reason.
But there’s a change in the basketball borough, which is quickly becoming a hotbed for football talent.
In fact, the top three ranked players in New York state in the Class of 2014 by Scout.com — Lincoln defensive tackle Thomas Holley, Erasmus Hall receiver Curtis Samuel and Poly Prep defensive end Jay Hayes — are all from Brooklyn.
“People definitely underestimate New York City football. There’s a lot of great names who come out of New York for basketball, but for football we definitely have a lot of great guys,” Holley said. “To have three Brooklyn kids on top, that’s making a statement. Hopefully further down the line we’ll have even more guys up there.”
Basketball was Holley’s first love, but when he realized he was already an undersized forward in high school, the 6-foot-4, 290-pounder made the switch to the gridiron after transferring from Christ the King to Lincoln.
Holley is a Fresh Meadows native, but he competes in Brooklyn, attending a school synonymous with basketball legends Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair and Lance Stephenson.
“There’s not too many 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5 power forwards in college and the NBA,” Holley said. “I was only going to get but so far so I had to try something different.”
Just eight games into his football career, Holley is a five-star recruit, the top-ranked player in the state and the No. 3 defensive tackle in the country. He has a host of BCS-level offers from Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida and Miami, among others.
Although still raw, Holley, 17, was being recruited initially off limited tape, in part, because he’s at Lincoln, a program that produced Ishaq Williams, a junior outside linebacker at the University of Notre Dame.
“It’s a lot easier than it used to be,” Lincoln coach Shawn O’Connor said. “Here’s proof that Brooklyn and New York City football has risen up because you have a kid here who has only played eight football games in his life and he’s from New York and he’s got all these offers.”
While Lincoln was also home to Nyan Boateng, who went to Florida and then California-Berkeley, and Lansford Watson, who played at Maryland, Williams is, in many ways, the pied piper for the recent crop of Brooklyn national recruits.
“I think Ishaq definitely opened doors, especially for a player able to see a kid and say 'Wow, I’m from Brooklyn, I’m from the hood, and I can go to the University of Notre Dame? I can go to Ohio State? The University of Florida?' That’s phenomenal,” Hayes said.
Hayes, who hails from Crown Heights, said football is the vehicle that has helped him get off the streets and earn a coveted scholarship to the University of Notre Dame.
“Coming up I didn’t have the best life,” Hayes said. “Trust me, I was going down the wrong path.”
Hayes, a 6-foot-5, 272-pound defensive end, is a senior at prestigious Poly Prep Country Day in Bay Ridge. Unlike Holley, Hayes, 18, has played football his whole life and has been opening eyes in national camps and combines since he was 14.
“People underestimate us, especially when we go on a visit,” Hayes said.
Also from Crown Heights, Curtis Samuel, 17, has blistering speed — he runs a 4.3-second, 40-yard dash — and also proved himself against the nation’s elite at college camps, as well as The Opening, Nike’s prestigious national combine in July.
“It’s the city of hard knocks. We play with a chip on our shoulder,” Erasmus Hall coach Danny Landberg said. “People say New York football isn’t as good as it is in other places and that’s good enough for me. We’re looking for the challenge, how dare you say that and we’re going to prove you wrong.”
Last month, Samuel, who helped lead Erasmus Hall to the PSAL title last December, verbally committed to play at Ohio State University, choosing the Buckeyes over Alabama, Notre Dame, Miami and Rutgers.
“I think, before, no one really recognized all the talent Brooklyn had, but now we’re starting to get more guys putting themselves out there at camps and getting recognized,” Samuel said.
While all five high-level players competed for Brooklyn high schools, they share a common bond that also makes them even more valuable for college recruiters.
“Every one of those guys will be eligible to play,” said Mike Quick, who has covered high school sports for MSG Network and MSG Varsity for nearly 30 years. “The fact these guys are taking care of the stuff off the field makes it much easier to come into New York City and recruit.”
In fact, Williams and Ogundeko both graduated early and enrolled at their respective colleges early.
“We have a better understanding of the qualifications,” O’Connor said. “The whole city has gotten better at that.”
Landberg said coaches have also gotten a better feel of what it takes to get their players noticed. It’s not just sending out highlight DVDs and making a few phone calls anymore.
“It is about the camps. It is about the grades. It is about the training and it is about branding,” Landberg said. “You have to show we have what it takes here. We always talked about it, but we’ve never put them out there under a microscope and challenged them.”
That’s happening now and Brooklyn is proving it can play football one All-American at a time.
“I’m not going to lie. If you’re from Brooklyn, basketball is probably your first love,” Hayes said. “But they overlook football and don’t realize that talent is being nurtured.”