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The allure of going pro

The odds are long, the pitfalls endless. But for student athletes who’ve toiled for years to make it in sports, the dream of playing professionally can be hard to shake.
Saturday, December 31, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:45 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

MU quarterback Brad Smith stands behind the center and waits for the snap. Second-and-10, with 8:56 to play, the Tigers are down by 10 to Iowa State. They need something big to win their Homecoming game on this unseasonably warm October afternoon. The center snaps the ball. Smith looks to pass. But the quarterback who holds the NCAA record for single-season rushing yards always has the option to run.

Stepping out of the game, Smith has a different set of options: to make a career out of football, to put his business administration degree to work or to use his $18,000 post-graduate scholarship to finish his master’s degree in economics. Smith, like many of his senior and fifth-year teammates, will pursue the once-in-a-lifetime chance to make it to the professional leagues. As Missouri’s standout player, he might have the best chance of any Tiger to actually make it. But he and his teammates know it’s just that — a chance.

Even for the best college players, the odds are long that they’ll get to continue doing in the NFL what they’ve done as student athletes. One expert puts the odds at 76-1. But for the players, football means everything. It’s a part of their personal identity. It’s who they are to the fans. It’s a dream they’ve harbored since they first strapped on pads and donned a helmet in Little League.

Still, it’s a dream and a pursuit that can lead to regrets.

Back in the game, the offensive line has broken, and Smith is sprinting left, looking for receivers. He pump fakes — once, twice — but to no avail. A Cyclone player rushes in for the sack. Feeling the pressure, Smith fires an incomplete pass as he’s tackled at the 20-yard line. Third-and-10, and the starting quarterback is down with an apparent concussion. The fans anticipate Coach Gary Pinkel’s decision.

The Iowa State game presented the kind of situation Pinkel had emphasized to his players from day one. Would they be mentally and physically tough enough to come from behind against a talented opponent to win in the final quarter?

Just getting to this point — playing in a game at this level — required his players to be tough. The demands on student athletes are grueling. With a minimum 12-hour class schedule, mandatory study halls, tests, papers and group projects, his players have plenty to do even before sports. The early-morning practices, relentless weight-lifting and team meetings with Pinkel add up to 18 hours a week. His players have no option but to focus, organize and prioritize in their free time.

To a man, they are dedicated to their sport. They spend hours watching videos to improve their skills and get ready for the next opponent. Because the NCAA prohibits players from spending more than 20 hours a week preparing or competing during the season, much of the time they spend on football is considered voluntary.

There’s no question, Pinkel said, that football players can get their priorities reversed, putting sports ahead of their schoolwork.

“You see athletes all over the country, they put everything into playing in the league, and they’re sitting out there without their degree and nothing to do,” Pinkel said. “That’s more of the norm than going and making millions of dollars and retiring when they’re 31 years old.”

Pinkel continually reminds his athletes of that. When he spots the flames of temptation flickering in players — the smoldering tendency to slack off in the classroom and put all their effort into football — it’s his job to put out the fire. He does it with team punishments.

If a student athlete misses class, he and his teammates sweat together through the punishment. If they won’t apply themselves to their studies for themselves, perhaps they’ll do it for their team.

Still, Pinkel understands how the temptation can be irresistible.

“Certainly, (football) is a great high,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity, and it’s a great responsibility ... to be a Division I, BCS, college football player. You run out in that stadium in front of 65,000 people on national TV — it’s pretty awesome.”

With Smith sidelined, Pinkel puts the pressure on backup quarterback and true freshman Chase Daniel. The crowd comes to life. Maybe the quarterback with a penchant for passing can spark a drive against Iowa State’s stalwart defense. Third-and-10, and Daniel converts. The dramatic drive ends in a field goal, and a tie is a mere seven points away. When the Cyclones fail to score on their next possession, the pressure returns to the offense. The quarterback turns to Sean Coffey, his most experienced receiver.

Standing on the sideline, Adrian McBride watched Coffey catch Daniel’s pass at Missouri’s 33-yard line. The first-down catch, the cheering fans, the pressure: It was all too familiar for McBride, who to this day is built like the football player he once was. It’s a part of his identity he can never shed.

McBride came to MU in 1982 with one mission: to play football. He remained academically eligible — or “beat the system,” as he put it — but throughout his college days, he was interested only in football. He didn’t even earn a degree.

Instead, McBride landed a free-agent contract with the Cleveland Browns. Two short years later, after the then-St. Louis Cardinals gave him his pink slip, McBride realized his life was football, but his career was over.

“I didn’t really pay attention to a whole lot of anything else,” McBride said. “I went from junior high to high school to college, and my next step from there was, naturally, into the NFL, and when I was finished ... I walked out there almost like a deer looking into headlights. I was just like, ‘Oh man! Now what do I do?’”

McBride tried to hold down jobs for a year and a half, but they just weren’t him. Adrian the bell-hop? No. Adrian the UPS driver? No. Adrian the maintenance guy at the meat factory? No. He was still Adrian the football player.

McBride isn’t sure just when he did find himself outside of his former sport — maybe five or 10 years later — but when he did, he retraced his steps to MU. He founded the Life After Sports program and began consulting for the athletic department in January. McBride’s mission is to seek out the athletes who are super-focused like he was and to persuade them to invest outside of sports. His partner in the effort is his wife, Julie Dorn-McBride, who had a similarly difficult transition after her career as an All-American gymnast for MU ended. Their credibility stems from experiencing the ecstasy of sports and the ensuing agony of an identity and professional crisis.

They are also living examples of the fact that professional success after college often requires more than grades or degrees. The Life After Sports program helps student athletes find internships and job shadows and secure jobs with resume and interview coaching.

Complementing the university’s Total Person Program — the academic wing of the athletic department that provides tutors, academic counselors, mentors and study resources — student-athletes today have two opportunities McBride lacked 20 years ago.

“What we’re trying to do is change the culture of college athletics, and this is not going to be overnight,” McBride said. “What we’re trying to do is get the older guys and girls to plant the seed, along with us, to the incoming freshman of why you need to get involved with this program today versus tomorrow.”

Having met with 120 student athletes and talked with each team at MU, McBride still sees that same trend in Division I athletics: Some student athletes are so consumed with sports that they lack a game plan for life when they finally graduate.

Third-and-10, and the Missouri offense is stalled at Iowa State’s 21-yard line. Two consecutive plays, two near interceptions. With 39 seconds to go, Daniel calls for the ball in a shotgun formation. Coffey runs along the right perimeter and hooks left just in time to catch Daniel’s bullet down the middle for a gain of 17. First and 10. Already responsible for 52 yards in the drive, Coffey huddles next to Daniel and makes plans to finish the drive.

Coffey, a red-shirt senior, is accustomed to this kind of pressure. If the competitor in him succeeds, he’ll grab the touchdown pass and win the game. If he misses, his team might not get a better opportunity. The same is true of his personal effort to go pro.

“Who wouldn’t take that shot?” he asked. “But I’m not pushing all the chips on the table with this opportunity here, you know? The big thing is you only get to do it once, and a lot of people dream.”

Coffey’s plan is simple: Do what he does best. Worry only about the things he can control. Play well. Catch footballs. Let the story write itself. If the chance to play professionally comes, he’ll snatch it. If it doesn’t, he’d like to use his hotel and restaurant management degree as the owner or manager of a sports bar.

Football has provided important lessons, Coffey said. He has learned discipline and drive, and he’s developed the ability to juggle a hectic schedule of differing demands. He’s learned how to come through in the clutch and to work hard for his 112 teammates. These are the kinds of life skills employers want to see.

“Setting up your career is really important, like working, and we really get to miss that, being scholarship athletes,” he said. “I do a lot of reading and a lot of different things that enhance my skills that I have, even though I don’t have experience. I have a lot of skill, and I can vary.”

Thirty-two seconds left, and the center hikes the ball to Daniel. Coffey again runs along the right side, shooting past the Cyclone safety and into the end zone. He leaps to gently catch Daniel’s pass. His body still sailing through the air, Coffey jabs his right foot down to stay in bounds and get the touchdown. The cannon on the north side of the field explodes, and smoke swirls into the seats. Jubilant fans join in a fight-song chorus. Hope lives, but many of the Tiger faithful have already left Memorial Stadium.

One fan, Richard Cox, had been listening to the Tigers on the radio but forsook the game in favor of yard work when the team fell behind at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Cox, chair of the Department of education, school and counseling psychology, has studied sports psychology extensively and written a textbook on the subject.

From a sample of MU varsity teams, Cox found that football features the highest percentage of players who consider the professional leagues a viable career option. While the chances they’ll make it are slim, athletes don’t think that way.

“If that’s your dream, you can’t be deterred by probabilities,” Cox said. “You have to believe in yourself.”

And what a beautiful dream it is. It’s easy for those who have the talent for sports to watch professional athletes on television and aspire to be just like them. The motives of fame and fortune combine with a love for the game to create a powerful triple incentive.

“Willie Mays always said he’d play for free,” Cox said, adding, however, that he doubts many of today’s athletes would say the same.

The sports industry offers some fallback options for players who don’t quite make it in major professional leagues. There are opportunities in Europe, in minor leagues in the U.S. and in jobs that require neither jerseys nor pads. There are countless former athletes who’ve become coaches, athletic trainers, broadcasters and administrators of sports programs.

Cox, however, would still prefer to see student athletes make academics their top priority. He admires the college athlete who plans to become a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman or a teacher before the first day of practice. College athletes who “beat the system” are really just “beating themselves” and wasting a college education, he said.

“If education is an afterthought, then you’re not trying to master what you learn in a psychology course or a biology course,” Cox said. “You’re not internalizing any of that, because that’s just another stepping stone ... to getting you to your real goal.”

MU kicker Adam Crossett stands eight yards behind the ball, ready to kick the extra point and tie the game. Perfect snap, perfect hold, perfect kick. The game will go into overtime. Special teams players lift Crossett onto their shoulders. After a short intermission, defensive lineman Scott Wheatley and the three team captains walk to the middle of the field, where the referees will flip a coin to determine who gets first possession.

Wheatley was reliving the comeback magic of Missouri’s 2003 victory over Nebraska, a game he watched from the sidelines.

But this game, for which he was named an honorary captain, was different. Wheatley had already contributed a couple of tackles.

A starter for four years in high school, Wheatley walked on at MU and worked his way up the football ladder. His first three years, he didn’t play in games, but he took constant motivation from his teammates.

“Being here with your friends, with your guys, they keep you motivated,” Wheatley said. “Just working as hard as possible to be the best you can. Internally, I mean, your self-motivation won’t let you quit.”

It was either that dedication or Wheatley’s seniority that must have prompted Pinkel to choose him as a captain for the game.

The red-shirt senior, who already has his business degree, has a been-there-done-that perspective on sports and academics. Knowing from experience that sports is a time-consuming passion, he has encouraged younger players to get involved with job shadowing or internships during the off-season. That’s what he plans to do after his last game, before he completes his master’s degree in economics.

“I went through college, basically, just concentrating on football,” Wheatley said. “I never really thought about the life after football, so it’s almost too late. Young guys will realize that when they’re first starting that there are very few people that make it to another league and they have to have something to fall back on. And I’d love to help them with that.”

But Wheatley acknowledges he’d also like to continue playing football.

While he knows his chances probably are less than Brad Smith’s or Tony Palmer’s — two of the team captains who stood beside him for the coin toss — he plans to see what options open for him. If the NFL or the Canadian Football League come calling, he’ll answer. If the smaller ones express an interest, he won’t.

The eight players convene in the middle of the field and listen to the head referee recite the rules. Missouri wins the toss and gives Iowa State the ball. After one tackle for a loss and two incomplete passes, Iowa State faces fourth and 11 and tries a 43-yard field goal. The kick sails left. Missouri fans like Joseph Hipskind now have faith that MU can pull off a win.

What a terrific game, Hipskind thought as he listened to the radio while driving in St Louis. Hipskind, an athletic agent, has worked with MU for five years with the law firm Stinson, Morrison and Hecker, which represents former MU football players Brandon Barnes and James Kinney.

Hipskind said that over the past 10 years, the number of players trying to get into the NFL has remained the same despite increases in practice squad numbers, the expansion of the NFL to 32 teams and the proliferation of lower-level arena leagues.

“It’s a testament to the endearing popularity of the sport and ... the financial windfall associated with becoming a NFL player and finally — and most importantly — playing football is fun.” Hipskind said. “It’s an enjoyable profession, just as it was 10 years ago.”

Hipskind said his experience tells him that college coaches are in constant contact with NFL scouts and that they try to help players remain realistic about the odds of going pro. Coaches, he said, are often brutally honest.

For every former college athlete who plays his first year in the NFL, Hipskind said, nine will participate in training camps or compete in smaller leagues such as the AFL, AF2, NFL Europe or Canadian leagues. Some hope to prove themselves on the field and work their way up to the big time. Regardless, all must be confident in their skills if they’ve succeeded at the NCAA Division I level.

After a two-play drive to the seven-yard line in overtime, Missouri faces third-and-goal. Crossett lines up for a 26-yard field goal to win the game. The snap comes quickly. Crossett steps once, twice, three times and kicks. The ball flies through the goalposts to secure the victory. Success in a stadium filled with pressure, despite the fact that thousands of fans have already left.

Greg Holliday, a psychologist and associate clinical professor at MU, was alternating between the Tiger game on the radio and the Cardinals game muted on TV. The self-described sports nut had left the game at halftime, not because Missouri was down, but to allow his children to play outside in the warm weather.

Holliday respects football players and other student athletes who handle their dual roles well. Heck, he said, he wishes he could have played. Student athletes, he said, have terrific networking opportunities with alumni and high profile people that other job seekers don’t have. Still, he knows from teaching career exploration to MU athletes that a sports focus can make academics tricky.

Holliday compared student athletes with nonathletes. Often, he said, nonathletes struggle with their identities from the moment they step on campus. They look for something, anything, to sink their teeth into. It could be a part-time job, an internship or a relationship, but it’s often something that connects to their professional futures, he said. “A student-athlete not only doesn’t have that time but doesn’t have that need,” Holliday said. “I’ve got my social group. I’ve got my community. I’ve got my esteem needs met. So, my life is just fine, thank you.”

Those who see college as a stepping stone to sports careers also tend to show less interest in doing volunteer work or internships. Those pursuits might seem unimportant, Holliday said, especially when coaches and teammates don’t necessarily encourage players to spend time and energy outside of the sports venue.

“These folks are really purpose-driven, and not only am I here to play ball, but my future is to play ball.” Holliday said. “So if I’m going to invest in my future, then dangit, it better be trying to help me play ball better.”

He worries that the prospect of playing in the professional leagues can be a false lure. The most important thing is that these players have balanced identities — not rooted only in sports – because retirement will come some day, sooner than later for most.

“It’s not what’s out there; it’s what’s in here,” Holliday said, patting his chest. “If there’s nothing else in here and my value is based upon whether or not those people are clapping or booing, then my sense of well-being is in their hands. And we better hope we have a good year.”

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