BRADENTON, Fla. — In the moments after IMG Academy once again finishes lighting up a scoreboard somewhere across the country, its players are often swarmed. Kids tap players asking for a pair of gloves worn during another IMG rout. They even ask for sweat-stained towels. Teenage contemporaries have their Snapchat apps open on their phones and ask for selfies. Those who show up to watch IMG know they’re watching brightening stars who will soon explode onto the national college football scene.
“These kids are rock stars,” IMG coach Billy Miller said.
These are also high school students.
IMG, however, is not your average prep football powerhouse. IMG’s sprawling 600-acre campus, bathed in sunshine and palm trees, includes a 5,000-seat stadium for track and football, a state-of-the-art performance and sports science center and its own 150-room luxury hotel for visitors. A Johns Hopkins University hospital affiliate manages all health services and physical therapy, according to the school’s website.
Since Florida State’s 2000 Heisman Trophy winner, Chris Weinke, helped launch IMG’s football program in 2010, the Ascenders have gone 92-7. That includes a 38-game winning streak, the 2020 national title and blowout wins over several of the nation’s top high school programs. IMG had 14 alumni on NFL rosters as the season opened, the most of any high school in the country, according to the NFL.
The boarding school with 75 former players on rosters of Power 5 college programs, including seven on two-time defending national champion Georgia, keeps annihilating opponents.
Last year, the Ascenders beat West Toronto Prep, 96-0. Most IMG games are blowouts — whether it’s a great high school team lining up across the field or an 0-7 team like WTP. This year’s team has players who are committed to programs such as Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee and Georgia.
Remember the Bishop Sycamore charade? IMG is the program that awkwardly stampeded over what would eventually be discovered to be a fabricated school and program on national television.
In 2020, IMG went on the road and beat nationally ranked Duncanville, Texas, 41-14. The Ascenders haven’t landed a single Texas high school team on their schedule since.
Some schools have stopped answering phone calls to play again, said Miller, who coaches the national team. Some who haven’t played IMG don’t bother to respond to emails, texts or calls at all. The Athletic reached out to programs in five different states that have played IMG in recent years and the only coaches who were willing to discuss IMG were recently approached in person at a tournament in Florida.
IMG’s ascent in the prep football world has left many football fans pondering common questions: Is IMG Academy too good? And who exactly is monitoring its recruiting practices?
The program with rock stars at nearly every position might be the most dominant school in the country, but it is not without its detractors. Some coaches have accused IMG of actively recruiting players away from their programs, selling the IMG reality that, in Bradenton, you can simulate life as a future college football student-athlete more accurately than anywhere else and practice and play alongside the best talent in the country. Others have decided to see IMG’s rise as a gold standard of sorts.
“The thing I try to teach my guys is to run to the fire, not from it,” said Messay Hailemariam, who coaches St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, one of the regular staples on IMG’s schedule each season.
IMG Academy started as the Nick Bollettieri tennis academy in 1978, a place for tennis prodigies. It’s where Venus and Serena Williams developed into legends. In the years since, IMG has expanded to 15 sports and produced hundreds of Olympic and professional athletes.
But what is now one of the preeminent high school football programs in the country started in a single-wide trailer surrounded by tomato fields. Weinke trained at IMG in the months after his stellar career at Florida State ended in 2000. Ten years later, he was hired to find a way to add football to the academy’s growing list of distinguished sports. Weinke told IMG it would take five years to get a football program off the ground. It took him and his newly assembled staff three.
There just wasn’t any place to do it at the time.
“I had to literally order my own football equipment. I did not have a football field. I had to utilize a soccer field,” said Weinke, now co-offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech. “I was on a campus that was much different today than it was back then.”
The concept for what IMG football could become over time started to materialize.
“My whole vision and goal of that program was to mirror what a college football program looked like so that players who left IMG were more prepared and ready to play at an earlier age in college than your typical high school player,” Weinke said.
IMG began to purchase more land around its expansive campus. Those tomato fields, Weinke said, soon became football-specific practice fields. Football players used to share a weight room with other athletes before the 55,000-square-foot IMG Performance & Sports Science Center was built. All this was necessary for IMG to reach that goal Weinke envisioned early on.
The football program has 155 players spread out over four teams, Miller said. It starts with the star-studded national squad, but there are also two varsity teams (IMG white and IMG blue) and a postgraduate team, which won the National Post Graduate Athletic Association championship last year. The rosters on the varsity and postgraduate teams aren’t very large so players get more playing time. That’s by design.
“The only downfall about going there is that when you leave there to go play college football, the facilities may be worse than what you just had in high school,” Weinke said, laughing.
Commitment. Sacrifice. Hard work. When you come to @IMGAcademy, it’s bigger than you.
— IMG Academy Football (@IMGAFootball) August 18, 2023
Kevin Wright, who succeeded Weinke after Weinke left to be the quarterbacks coach for the St. Louis Rams in January 2015, remembers going to visit former star linebacker Dylan Moses at Alabama just a few months after Moses graduated from IMG in December 2016. Moses told Wright that life at Alabama — yes, Alabama — was a breeze compared to the strict schedule as a student-athlete at IMG.
“We’ve never had so much free time in our lives,” Moses joked with Wright.
Wright, who coached at IMG until 2019, has spent the past four seasons as tight ends coach at Indiana. He reiterated that while IMG comes with all the perks of building a modern-day star athlete, it doesn’t work without embracing the grind of the schedule and lifestyle. That’s what Weinke wanted to build, after all.
“That place is tough,” Wright said. “It is absolutely not for everybody.”
Football fans might know Josh Lambo as a kicker who spent nearly a decade playing in the NFL, but he started out as a member of the U.S. youth soccer team at IMG. Lambo lived the Bradenton life before he transitioned from soccer to football, but said the rigors of IMG prepared him for the pressures of life and the position.
“We weren’t really allowed to be kids, but being a kid is overrated,” he said. “I’d rather be successful as an adult than have fun as a kid.”
Winston Watkins has a lot going for him.
He’s the cousin of 2014 NFL first-round pick Sammy Watkins and an elite high school receiver in the graduating class of 2025 who is committed to play at Colorado for Deion Sanders.
He likely still would’ve developed into one of the most coveted recruits in his class had he not transferred to IMG in ninth grade. But there’s a reason Watkins bought the recruiting pitch when he was still an eighth grader: IMG’s top-notch infrastructure and its track record of putting players into the NFL.
“IMG gives me that exposure I need and also keeps me from all that nonsense I don’t need to be around,” said Watkins, who caught 25 passes for 393 yards and 10 touchdowns on the Ascenders national team last season as a sophomore, and who is ranked the 55th best player in his class according to the 247Sports Composite.
“I get to be around greats all the time. If I stayed in Fort Myers, I feel like I wouldn’t be as good as I am now because I wouldn’t have to try at practice. Because there’s a lot of kids who don’t care about football. Here, I go against the best of the best in practice and real games.”
Watkins transferred to Naples First Baptist last week, he said recently in a social media post, to be closer to an ailing family member. But he loved his time at IMG.
Players at IMG said they’re convinced access to world-class facilities, top coaches, a college-type schedule — practice in the morning and school in the afternoon — while living on campus prepares them for the next level in ways going to a traditional school cannot.
Alabama freshman defensive back Desmond Ricks, who transferred to IMG after his freshman year of high school in Norfolk, Va., said IMG helped him hone his time management skills. Talk to current IMG national team players, and you hear many of the same reasons they left their respective high school programs.
“I wasn’t mature enough to come and leave my family when IMG first recruited me as a high school sophomore, but at the end of my junior season I was like, I need to enroll early (in college). I need to handle my business and this is a school that I felt prepares you,” said four-star offensive tackle Jordan Seaton, who transferred to IMG from St. John’s Catholic school in Washington, D.C., in May.
“I’m not saying I wasn’t prepared back there. But this school is as close to a college as you get. Being able to breathe this life, eat this life — sleep, eat, sleep, work — doing it over and over again consistently, I feel like I’m one step closer to my big goal.”
Seaton, whom Miller compares to 2022 No. 7 pick and former IMG star Evan Neal, has trimmed his body fat down to 8.4 percent after weighing as much 350 pounds at his previous school. He’s worked with nutritionists at IMG and changed his diet. At 6-5, 300 pounds, he’s one of the top remaining uncommitted high school recruits in the 2024 cycle. Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Colorado are among his current leaders.
Attending IMG isn’t cheap. The school website listed the football program’s tuition for the 2022-23 school year ranging from $65,400 to $87,900 per year depending on age, boarding and grade of student-athlete. Some receive financial aid. Others do not. Sponsorship from companies such as Under Armour and Gatorade helps cover some of the costs.
“Everybody paid something, I know that,” Wright said. “At the end of the day, it’s a for-profit business.”
The day The Athletic visited campus, there was a sign posted in the men’s bathroom above a urinal reminding students on campus to make sure they were completely outfitted in Under Armour apparel.
Endeavor, the parent company of International Management Group, sold IMG Academy to a Hong Kong-based private equity firm in April for $1.25 billion. The academy generates roughly $80 million a year, according to Zippia, and doesn’t participate in the Florida High School Athletic Association state playoffs, in part, because it recruits players globally.
High school coaches and fan bases aren’t happy when IMG recruits their best players away to join its star-studded national team roster.
“I can tell you there’s plenty of high school coaches that didn’t like me,” Weinke said. “I can promise you that. And that’s OK. My ultimate goal was to put something in place to create opportunities for young men to maximize their potential. Bottom line.”
St. John Bosco coach Jason Negro, whose team from Bellflower, Calif., ranks 10th in the national polls, is one of those coaches. He said IMG recruited away one of his top receivers in 2018, Josh Delgado, who is now at Oregon. Delgado had the offer from Oregon before he left for IMG, Negro confirmed.
“The only problem that I have (with IMG) is there’s no governing body that regulates their ability to chase after players,” Negro said. “We are bound by rules in terms of contact period, undue influence. My kids are constantly called by people from their organization, and that doesn’t sit well with me. If I have a kid that chooses to go there or come to me, I’m not opposed to transfers. But what I don’t understand is they want to call my players and call two weeks later to play a game. That doesn’t sit well with me. Coach your guys up with your people. But don’t come and actively hunt my guys.”
IMG in the national polls
Negro said he’d schedule IMG if he could, but Bosco can’t because California state rules do not allow it to play versus schools ineligible for their own state tournament. Bosco’s rival, Mater Dei, beat IMG, 28-24, in 2018 before state rules changed, Negro said.
The programs who do schedule the Ascenders, Miller said, are led by “like-minded people” who “want to play good football programs.” IMG opened the season with a 35-10 win at Nashville’s Lipscomb Academy and a 17-14 victory against Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s Prep, two schools that won state championships last year. They defeated Indianapolis’ Ben Davis, one of Indiana’s top-ranked programs, 34-14, and Glenville (Ohio) 28-6. Bartram Trail (Fla.), which went 12-1 last season, is up next on Oct. 6.
#Oklahoma 5-star DL commit David Stone with a ridiculous 94yd pick six to put IMG Academy up 27-7 at Indianapolis Ben Davis in the third. A crucial play as the home team had momentum. pic.twitter.com/R0xxNO28E2
— Steve Wiltfong (@SWiltfong247) September 9, 2023
There are only two teams ranked ahead of IMG in MaxPreps national rankings: top-ranked Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei and Las Vegas (Nev.) Bishop Gorman.
“(IMG) reached out to us, but our schedule was full,” said Hollywood (Fla.) Chaminade coach Dameon Jones, whose team has won five state titles in the past seven years and is ranked two spots behind IMG in MaxPreps’ national rankings at No. 5. “We played them my first year (in 2016, losing 43-0). They showed us where we had to get to.”
IMG’s Anthony Rogers, a four-star running back in the Class of 2025 who is committed to Alabama, said his old high school teammates and coaches called him a traitor when he transferred to IMG in March and told him he “wouldn’t be able to compete at this level.”
Miller waved off the notion that IMG’s ascent is a blemish on the state of prep football.
“To me, whoever has something negative to say, it’s probably envy,” he said. “You can’t say one thing until you live it. You have no idea what it’s about.”
Like dozens of his teammates, four-star linebacker Nathaniel Owusu-Boateng is in the midst of his college recruitment process. Name a blue-blood program, and it has already offered. In choosing a school, though, Owusu-Boateng is seeking out an experience that will show him there’s more to life than just football. He wants to be prepared for the time football ends.
But in order to look beyond football way down the line, he had to think about the football path he’s on first — the one that brought him to IMG this spring from Hyattsville, Md.
“It was a business move, but at the same time a great move,” he said. “Knowing the guys who came in and came out, you can just see the cause and effect.”
(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photos: Manny Navarro / The Athletic)