FOLEY, Alabama — Mike Ebert has a story for just about every athlete he’s helped get a college scholarship over the years.
“These are stories that almost nobody has heard, but they deserve to be recognized,” Ebert said. “Everybody needs someone in their lives that simply won’t give up on them and for a lot of these kids, I took on that role.”
In nearly three decades as an educator and a coach, Ebert has helped hundreds of athletes fulfill their dreams of taking their skills to the next level, but it goes way beyond advancing their athletic skills. It’s about getting young people a second chance at life.
“When they come to me, a lot of these kids simply have nowhere else to turn,” Ebert said. “For whatever reason, their coaches either don’t know how or just simply won’t help them. I’ve always felt my job is not to judge them, but to get them in front of coaches so that they can see what they’re capable of.
“College coaches can often be judge, jury and executioner for these kids and they just need somebody to point them in the right direction, first and foremost get their academics straight, and present themselves in the best way possible. In most cases, we just need to get them there and let them do the rest.
“With all the hundreds of athletes I’ve helped through the years, I’ve only ever had two college coaches complain about a kid I sent them. I think that’s saying something about the quality of kid we produce in this area.”
And while he retired from teaching about a year ago, Ebert continues to work to provide those opportunities through the creation of the Starfish 23 Foundation with his son, Jordan, who was himself a college athlete, having played baseball for Auburn University before moving on to the professional ranks.
“I grew up watching my dad help athletes go to college,” Jordan Ebert said. “Many nights he would be on the phone out on our back porch at all hours and my mom would have to explain to us that he was doing it to help people. I’ve always admired my dad for the work he’s done and through the years came to appreciate the process.”
While at Auburn, in addition to being a standout on the field, the younger Ebert also hosted youth camps, receiving Community Service awards in both his junior and senior seasons at Auburn.
“We didn’t even know there was such an award,” Mike Ebert said, explaining that every year the Southeastern Conference hands out one award to each of its member schools.
Jordan Ebert is currently in his fourth season as a professional, starting with the Idaho Falls Chukars before moving on to compete in the Kansas City Royals (for the Arizona Royals) and the Colorado Rockies (Grand Junction) as a rookie.
He spent two seasons with the AA Winnepeg Goldeyes and is just finishing up the 2019 campaign with the AA Sioux Falls (South Dakota) Canaries.
“About two years ago, I started asking a lot of questions,” Jordan Ebert said. “Dad was about to retire, and I wanted to do something to be able to continue to help and (as a professional athlete) I had developed a lot of connections on my own.”
So together, Mike and Jordan Ebert created Starfish 23, an organization dedicated to helping those who might not otherwise get an opportunity.
“A lot of people don’t know it, but through the year’s dad has spent his own money helping these athletes,” Jordan Ebert said. “I’ve seen it more than once. He helps someone get a scholarship, but they don’t have a car and don’t have enough money for bus fair, so dad uses his own money to get them a ticket with a care package in hand.”
For Mike Ebert, his journey began over 30 years ago as a high school and college athlete himself.
“I can relate to these kids because, let’s face it, I was a knucklehead,” he said. “And I’ll admit it, I’m still not perfect.”
A native of Virginia (Ebert’s parents were both from Foley and graduated from Foley High School), Ebert received a Division 1 scholarship to East Tennessee State University, but lost it because of grades, he said, and ended up transferring to Faulkner State Junior College (now Coastal Alabama Community College) in Bay Minette.
From there he went to the University of South Alabama and received a teaching degree.
His days as a college recruiter began fresh out of college, when he got a job teaching and coaching softball at Frisco City High School in the early 1990s.
“In the spring, the football coach at the time left, so I kind of took on the role as interim head coach until they could find somebody before the next season started,” he said. “One weekend I took a group of football players on a recruiting trip to Auburn.”
Derrick Crayton, a 6-foot-7 star basketball player for the Whippets, went along on the trip, Ebert said.
“All the coaches swarmed him, wanting to talk to him because of his size,” Ebert said. “All I remember is that he just kept telling them, ‘I don’t play football.’”
Crayton would, however, become Ebert’s first success story as a recruiter.
“I contacted Jack Robertson (legendary basketball coach at Faulkner State) and asked him to come look at Derrick,” he said.
But at halftime, Crayton went into the locker room and didn’t come back out.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Ebert said. “Coach Robertson didn’t know what to think.”
Turns out, Crayton had had an allergic reaction and had broken out in hives all over his body. He left the game to get medical treatment.
He would go on to play for Robertson, eventually signing with the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, a Division 1 school.
Soon after, Ebert got a job working at Summerdale Middle School while coaching at Foley High School. It was there that he devoted himself to helping athletes through the recruiting process.
“My first year at Foley was the year the team went 11-1 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs,” he said. “We had so many talented athletes on that team, but a lot of them weren’t getting scholarship offers.”
So, Ebert said, he went to Coach Jimmy Nazary and asked if he could take on the role of contacting college coaches about their athletes.
“I created the recruiting coordinator position as a way to identify myself to college coaches,” Ebert said. “A lot of people thought it was a joke. They would say, ‘So you are recruiting athletes to come to Foley?’ and I would have to say ‘No, I am helping athletes get recruited by colleges.’ Now, a lot of schools are hiring recruiting coordinators and paying them to do what I did for free.”
In total, Ebert spent 12 years as a coach at Foley High, including four years as a teacher at Summerdale Middle and eight years as a teacher at FHS.
“While I was there, we were getting 25 to 30 athletes a year signed to college scholarships,” he said. “Most often, these kids weren’t the most super talented, or they needed help with their grades, or they were athletes that had already graduated and had either lost their eligibility or hadn’t been able to obtain a scholarship, but still wanted to compete. Again, I never saw that it was my job to judge them. I never turned anybody away.”
From Foley, Ebert went to Carroll-Ozark for two season, where he helped about 40 athletes, but said he continued to get calls from athletes, or their parents, back in Baldwin County asking for help.
He came back to Baldwin County in 2008, spending a year at J. Larry Newton, a Fairhope High feeder school, before going to Baldwin County High in Bay Minette, then to Perdido School before finishing his career at Foley Intermediate.
Along the way he helped recruit athletes to the Max Emfinger All-American Bowl Classic.
“After that I started getting calls from athletes and their parents from throughout the nation,” he said. “People who I may or may not have helped, but for whatever reason heard about me and went back to their homes, telling others that there was this guy in Alabama who was helping athletes find scholarships.”
Ebert’s son Jordan, who began as a standout athlete in Foley’s youth leagues, also began his high school career during this time as a freshman at Fairhope High School while Ebert was at Newton, before becoming a three-year letterman for the Tigers at BCHS.
Through the years, Ebert said, he had to step back a few times because the volume of calls became overwhelming for one person to handle. The creation of the Foundation is also a way to get, not only Jordan, but the entire family involved.
“It’s definitely a family business,” Mike Ebert said. “Higher education is a passion my wife and I have always shared and it’s something my kids grew up with and are now actually participating themselves.”
Ebert’s wife Tammy is also a longtime educator in the Baldwin County School System and with Faulkner State/Coastal Alabama Community College.
Oldest son Tyler is a graduate of the University of Alabama and continues to live and work in Baldwin County, while youngest daughter, Kaitlyn, was a standout track and field athlete at Eastern Illinois University, where she recently received her degree.
The Starfish 23 Foundation, which received 501 (c ) 3 status this past May, goes beyond just helping athletes get recruited by colleges, but also provides training and helps supplement the cost of traveling youth organizations.
The brochure explains the story of the name Starfish, which is based on a tale of a man who comes across a boy throwing starfish back into the ocean. When the man tells the boy that with so many starfish on the beach, he could not possibly save all of them, the boy responds by picking up a starfish, throws it in the ocean and says, “I made a difference to that one.” The number 23 represents Jordan Ebert’s jersey number that he has had since youth, an homage to Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan.
Since starting the foundation last August, Ebert said they have helped nearly 20 athletes find scholarships, while still others are in the process of getting the help they need.
Among the success stories over the past year are:
• Garrett Dyess, Baldwin County High, Spring Hill College, baseball.
• Peyton Mueller, Bayside, Lurleen B. Wallace Community College, baseball.
• Mac Douglas, Bayside, Trinity University, football.
• Bryan Bell, Fairhope High, Southeastern University, Lakeland, Florida, football.
• C.J. Pickens, Fairhope, Southeastern, football.
• Wendell Harris, Fairhope, Southeastern, football.
• Chase Eicher, Foley High, Huntington College, Montgomery, football.
• Josiah Golden, Foley, Mississippi College, football.
• David Hendrick, Foley, University of Alabama Birmingham.
• Garrett Newman, Gulf Shores, Missouri Valley, football.
• Bryce Coleman, Robertsdale High, Trinity, football.
• David Lynch, Robertsdale High, Ecclesia College.
• Jordan Davis, Lynn High, Seton Hill University, Greensburg, Pennsylvania, football.
• Gabe Faucheaux of Pensacola, Coastal Alabama East, Brewton, baseball.
• Tucker Bailey, Snead State Community College, baseball.
• Chris Maurin, Blue Mountain College, baseball.
• Donovan Whibbs, Troy, baseball.
• John David Neutze, William Carey, baseball.
“As an educator, I see the Foundation going far beyond sports and college athletics,” Tammy Ebert said. “There are so many people out there who need help academically and I’d like to see us help with that as well, such as providing ACT and college entrance training for students free for students who can’t afford it. Most of Mike’s work has been with male athletes because that’s what he knows best, but it can be so much more.
If you would like to learn more about Starfish 23, visit starfish23.org, or call 251-923-9226.