Hammer & Rails has been around for over nine years as of this past February. We’ve seen a lot and grown a lot. To me, one of the greatest honors we can get is when a current or former player reaches out to us for something.
One of the most vocal recent players through social media has been former safety, Albert Evans. Evans played under Joe Tiller in his final season in 2008, then for the first three years of the Danny Hope era. Yesterday, he contacted us because he wanted to give our fans a look at what life is really like for a college football player. What follows are his words on what is like in the high pressure world of college football.
While students who have struggled and planned their lives around having to pay for college may wish they had their college paid for by an athletic scholarship, a lot of the athletes on those scholarships wouldn’t consider or be considered by their college if it wasn’t for their sports. We may see these ‘opportunities’ as good things, but it can be like giving a baby money. Do they really know what to do with it? We recruit the fastest runners and highest jumpers, go into urban cities and country sides, and play on the emotions of young men who want to go pro. Although that opportunity is provided (the NCAA being a breeding ground for pro sports, an argument for another day), we know the percentages of individuals making it pro is microscopic. So while those students who do graduate have that piece of paper, it’s oftentimes a piece of paper they don’t know how to use while surrounded by family and social structures that don’t know what to do with them either.
THE REAL DEGREE
When I was 10 years old, I wrote an article for the local newspaper that asked me what school I wanted to go to and what I wanted to study. I said Purdue University in their school of Engineering. I didn’t know that one day I would actually be able to attend Purdue on an athletic scholarship. But I wouldn’t be able to go for Engineering. Neither would I be able to go for Athletic Training, my second choice, which I wanted to use to create a path into Physical Therapy School. I was told that the Engineering caseload and class schedule would not work, especially if I had dreams of playing. I was told I would not be able to receive my hours for Athletic Training because they were mostly during football season and spring practice. At that point, I was on my third choice which wasn’t even a choice.
I was literally just there to play football. Having two choices of my own was more than a lot of my teammates and friends at other schools could say as they were left undecided and thrown into General Studies, Communications or Organizational Leadership and Supervision. So while those on the outside are complaining of paying for school because that’s something they value, imagine getting something for free that you aren’t just not interested in, but also something you don’t really know what to do with it.
Collegiate sports looks glamorous from your couch. You play on national television. Your friends and family cheer for you. The fans cheer for you. You travel. You get free food. There’s a lot of perks.
But you don’t get to see what goes on inside those walls. They tell a different story for an 18-22-year-old boy. I didn’t really believe that they did with you what they wanted until I arrived on campus. I was recruited as a running back, moved to safety, redshirted, had it pulled, played a few snaps at linebacker, all as a freshmen. Then they moved me back to safety as a sophomore. Talk about a whirlwind. What I wanted didn’t come into consideration, just what they needed from me.
Players literally feared the film room after a loss or a play they didn’t do so well on. I’ve seen players transfer and careers go to hell because they couldn’t take the scolding that would follow.
Is that what it means to be an “amateur”?
The pressure of knowing coaches’ jobs were based on your performance was a heavier burden than I wished to carry. At one point, I was brought into a coach’s office and pleaded with to turn the season around because they feared losing their job. By pleading, I mean crying and family pictures being brought out and asking me to do it for their families. I left that office with a burden I have never forgotten. The kicker is, we got to a bowl game and won and some of those coaches still moved on to their next position.
Along with mental pressure is the pressure placed on you to perform hurt. I’ve seen guys called names, man-hoods challenged because they couldn’t practice or play. I had two surgeries while at Purdue. One was on my ankle and one was on my shoulder. Both times I remember rushing back to play because comments like, “you can’t make the club in the tub,” would be said.
Today, I struggle with motion in both of those areas. I tore my MCL one game. Sat out two games and got a tape job that made my knee stable to where I may have been 65 percent. Our current safety was getting killed and coaches saw me jog one day and next thing you know all the coaches were asking if I was ready to play. “Of course I’m ready!” I was a kid, I just wanted to play.
I couldn’t walk on Sunday and Monday after games. I couldn’t jog without the tape job. By Wednesdays, with tape, I could run and that’s all that mattered. It took four months of rehab after the season to be able to sprint without a brace or tape. I know at least 20 stories from teammates and friends similar to mine.
Was my mind and body worth a free degree?
BIG MAN ON CAMPUS with no price
I hear the term “amateurism” thrown around often. Are you really amateurs when grown men, women, and children can purchase and wear your jerseys? At one point in college, I was on billboards from Monticello, Indiana to South Indianapolis. I was on local street signs, the football facility, TV commercials, and radio spots. I asked one day, why me? We have guys on this team who are top draft picks. They responded, you’re marketable. You play with a chip on your shoulder. You have good grades. You’re from the state. You have a fan base within the state. We wanted somebody who can be related to by our fan base and state.
So while I was excited just to call my parents and show them the new billboards, I wasn’t really aware that I was being sold. I wasn’t really aware that all the autographs we signed at marketing events and after games wasn’t just us selling the program but ourselves. In the summer, we signed a stack of compliance forms and some of them were giving the rights for the school and conference to use you for marketing purposes. Sometimes guys wouldn’t sign and they would bring you back in and force you to sign it or you couldn’t play. You were forced to be a part of the system.
My national letter of intent didn’t mention these things did it?
Everybody wants to be an athlete until your schedule looks like this. Eighteen-hour days minimum.
- 5:00 am Wake up
- 6:00 am: Workout
- 7:15 am: Check-in to breakfast (grab whatever you can so you’re not late to class)
- 7:30 am: Class
- 9:00 am: Class
- 10:30 am: Rehab and treatment
- 12:30 pm: Class
- 1:30 pm: Grab lunch if you have time (most days you don’t), get taped, and get to meetings by 2pm
- 2pm-6:30: Meetings and Practice
- 7:00 pm: Dinner
- 8pm-10pm: Study Hall
- 10pm-Midnight: Finish school work, Find food, Watch film, Study Playbook
For most of us, it’s the greatest days of our lives. We walk across the stage hearing our families scream and celebrate. Many of us doing it for the first time in our family. We couldn’t be happier. The world is in the palm of our hands. I’m seeing players see their families for the first time in four years. Sounds crazy, right? You would think they’re from another country. Not at all — they just couldn’t afford to travel to Indiana and their son couldn’t afford to go home. Fast forward to post-playing careers (you usually give it one to two years to chase your dream) and now you’re 25 and back in your home towns that you thought you’d never see again. At your parents’ house trying to figure out what’s next. Time to turn to that degree and get to work. That degree that you didn’t want or choose in the first place.
We turn to our coaches and connections from college but they are onto the next set of athletes and could care less about you. There are some exceptions who reached out to help but most of them are looking for their next opportunity, so you’re an afterthought. Off to go into the world and see what this degree can do for me but you come to learn a million years of experience is needed. You come to find out that while you were playing sports that others with the same degree were interning, networking, and gaining valuable experience. So you’re behind the 8 ball.
Many of college students may say we have similar struggles and I’ll say to you, at least you received the degrees you desired. Or, did the university or any other organizations benefit from your abilities? While athletes are grateful (I think), at least in the same manual labor job they’re working, they would have made supervisor by now if not for taking a four-year break to help make others money off of them just to have the same opportunities afforded to them when they graduated.
After there are no more lights or people chanting your name, there’s you. That banged up body. That degree. Figuring out what’s next. If we can be real, I know a number of prominent college players who left college with a degree and are back in the streets hustling. A number of them working manual labor and jobs that don’t require degrees. I have also attended a number of former athlete’s funerals (with degrees). I guess they should say thanks for prolonging their life for four years. You will say that’s their choice. It’s a hell of a choice when it’s all you know. When you’re dumped into the same jungle that you were pulled out of. When you don’t have parents or mentors to guide you elsewhere. Back to the same friends and habits.
I know the other side of the spectrum, too. There are ex-players going into significant debt to get post-graduate education or even undergrad degrees they actually want. Many may say it’s a personal issue. How is it fair that these individuals are not helped to be more when they were just working to help create a billion-dollar organization for four to five years? I don’t know any Fortune 500 company you leave empty-handed after five years of service. You gave your mind, your body, your time to a million-dollar institution and a billion-dollar organization and your assistance in becoming more than an athlete or coach is very limited. We grasp to old videos and pictures to tell the younger generation what we once were with no connection or dwindling connections to the institutions or organizations that we helped thrive.
People will probably ask me what the solution is and I don’t have the answer. Current players can discuss compensation, nameless marketing, coaching ethics, schedules, useless degrees, etc... Former athletes could discuss post-graduate education, company partnerships, and resources to find careers. The possibilities are endless but the first thing is acknowledgment. If I knew what I know now, that Engineering degree looks a lot better.