Life After Sports: A Letter To Current, Former, and Future Student Athletes
by Delency Parham
It recently occurred to me that this is the first season in 12 years that I haven’t played football. For a person to understand the significance of this sudden realization, you need to take a look back at my journey as an athlete. Like many of my former teammates, I began playing little league football as a kid, went on to play in high school, and was lucky enough to earn a Division I scholarship. As I progressed through each level of competition, the NFL began to seem like a tangible goal. But there was always that small sense of healthy doubt that led to me take my education seriously.
As an athlete, you hear this advice all the time from coaches, counselors, parents, and even friends: “Get your education so you have something to fall back on.” Despite my rationalized thinking, football was still very much my top priority in college. I had put so much of my life into the sport I couldn’t fathom the possibility of doing anything else. This is where the problem lies. I have spent the last year thinking about the significance of student athletes immersing themselves so deeply into their athletic careers that they often forget it is most often temporary.
Many student athletes play, and only a tiny fraction make it to the top. According to scholarshipstats.com, in 2014 there were well over 1.1 million high school football players. Only 90,000 of those players will get the chance to play collegiate football and only 2.4% of college football players go on to compete at the Division I level. In other words, the odds of going pro are 603:1. For sports like baseball and basketball, the chances of an athlete playing Division I are slim to none.
It’s only worse for female athletes. Women are unfortunately less valued in this industry, meaning the opportunities to pursue athletics on a higher level are even less in comparison to their male counterparts. In 2014 scholarshipstats.com= reported that there were around 433,000 female high school basketball players and only 27,000 of those will get to play in college, with 1.2% of those girls playing Division I. The odds of a female basketball player going pro are 3,416:1 For a smaller sport like softball, there are nearly 370,000 players in high school. Transition to college and there are a total 27,000 players with no chance to play pro unless they play for a national team.
Reading these numbers can be extremely discouraging. Throughout my research I began to wonder why I even laced up a pair of cleats to begin with? The numbers show that student athletes have been working against what some people might deem “insurmountable odds.” With each passing year, an athlete becomes significantly closer to their career ending. There are a number of factors that lead to the end of an athletic career: injuries, age, not getting along with coaches, and the pill that most people have a hard time swallowing – just not being good enough.
With that being said, I still have no regrets about giving so much of my life to the game of football. There are certain values like hard work, dedication, perseverance, and teamwork that I wouldn’t have learned without playing football. I was able to take what I learned from the field and apply it different areas of my life. I think that should be the goal of sports on any level.
The question for most of us becomes: How can you take what you do on the court or on the field and use it in every aspect of your life? Use it to be a better student, employee, or even just a better human being. Going pro is great, and those that are blessed with the opportunity should seize it and make the most of it. For the other hundreds of thousands of student athletes who won’t play professionally, life doesn’t have to be over.
Life doesn’t have to be over after a college sports career ends. Many people take the skills they learned on the field to pursue other passions.
This is certainly true for Mario Brown, a 24 year old graduate and former college football player. Brown, who was born and raised in Berkeley, CA began playing football when he was in fourth grade. It was from that day forward that Brown let football be the foundation and the guide for which he would live his life.
“I remember playing for the local youth football team the Berkeley Cougars, and just waiting for my chance to play in high school,” said Brown. “Once I got to high school my next goal was to earn a scholarship and ultimately that lead to me wanting to go pro.”
After a tremendous career at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, CA, Brown was rewarded with a full ride scholarship to Eastern Washington University, where he won a National Championship in his freshman year. As the next few years passed, Brown would experience many of the hardships that accompany a collegiate career: a few injuries, coaches losing faith in him, and the birth of a son, Peyton. These trials and tribulations might be cause for the average person to call it quits, but for Brown they served as newfound motivation, in football and in life.
“Going through the injuries and having my son gave me a new perspective on life,” says Brown. “Having to miss games and even an entire season gave me a chance to get to know myself outside of football, and I decided that even if I wasn’t going to be playing football I wanted to be the kind of man my son could be proud of.”
After graduating, Brown recently moved to Seattle and is a sales associate at Enterprise, where he hopes he can work his way up the corporate ladder and eventually leave to start his own business. Brown says he sees working at Enterprise as a learning experience and an opportunity to see how a business operates from the inside. When it comes to football, he admits he misses playing. But he no longer feels defined by the sport and he wants athletes to know that too posses value outside of their athletic ability.
“I placed a lot of my personal value on who I was an athlete and I think that is a common mistake,” said Brown. “I think sometimes athletes forget that they have something to offer than just competing. I’ve learned that is the furthest thing from the truth.”
Another example of a former player who is flourishing is Taylor Wallace, who currently serves as a Behavior Interventionist at West Lake Middle School in Oakland, CA. Wallace began playing basketball at age 11. Her reward for her hard work and dedication to the sport was a chance to play Division I basketball at UC Riverside (UCR). Although she admits that she loved basketball with all her heart, she knew that she was using it as a means to further her education.
It was that kind of mindset that led to Wallace being not only a honor roll student at UCR but also an active member in the community. When she wasn’t playing basketball or in the classroom, she worked at Del Vallejo Middle School in San Bernardino. She’s now working her way through a Master’s/Teaching Credential program at Holy Names University. With her credential, she hopes that she can have a positive influence on the youth of Oakland and help them through the many obstacles they too will face on their path to success and adulthood.
“I plan on taking everything I’ve learned and teaching it to the young girls in Oakland,” says Wallace. “I understand the importance of education and the opportunities it can bring. I want to instil that same perspective in as many young women as I can.”
Not to be outdone on the court — or in the classroom — is Berkeley Native Khufu Najee, who in five years of school was able to earn two Division I scholarships as well as complete both a Bachelor’s in Communications and a Master’s in Sports Journalism at Indiana University- Purdue University (IUPUI). Najee is what some might consider a “late bloomer.” He didn’t play organized basketball until he was a junior in high school, but was a quick learner. And after one season of junior college, he earned a scholarship to play basketball at San Jose State University, before ultimately transferring to IUPUI. Najee believes that discovering his talents late gave him the perfect opportunity to develop other parts of his identity, so he had a sense of self worth way before he ever picked up a basketball.
“Oftentimes athletes have been playing a sport since they were kids and they began to associate who they are with the sport they are playing,” said Najee. “Since I didn’t play basketball until I was almost done with highschool I had already developed a life off the court.”
Najee’s understanding of who he was as a person gave him a different perspective on basketball and it allowed him to gain more from the sport than just playing time. He took advantage of his free education and saw that basketball had more to offer than just playing the game, which is how he found his passion for sports reporting. Najee is currently a radio talk show host at Sick Sports in San Francisco and he says he puts just as much dedication into his new profession as he did basketball.
“Before I was playing basketball I was really involved in performing arts but pursuing basketbal forced me to put it on the back burner,” said Najee. “I decided to do sports journalism because it gave me a chance to merge two things I cared deeply about: performing arts and basketball.”
Having the capacity to juggle both school and athletics is a habit that very few have been able to master and when done right the benefits are endless. Not only did Najee earn two degrees in five years, he was also a two year starter and one of IUPUI’s most productive players during his time at the University. Showing that it is possible to be a productive athlete as well as an exceptional student. He truly embodies the term “student-athlete” and he wants others to know that they too can be just as successful as he was.
“I would be a lie to say I don’t miss basketball, but it’s just a game,” said Najee. “I think if you approach any sport as a game and take it off a pedestal you start to see all that it can offer you in addition to going pro.”
Students don’t need to stop giving their college sport of choice every ounce of passion that they have. But they also owe it to themselves to create as many opportunities for success as possible after graduation. As a former college athlete myself, I advise not going through college like a robot — giving all your attention to a sport when the chances of going pro are basically nonexistent. If we can teach student athletes early on the importance of life without sports, then we can get them to put more thought into other areas of their lives. These college athletes I spoke with prove that it’s possible to excel both on the court and in the classroom. And in doing so, they have put themselves in a position to prosper long after their college careers are finished. To current and former student athletes take some time to think about what else you can offer this world besides your athletic ability because you are truly worth so much more.
Delency Parham is a staff writer at Afrikan Black Coalition. He covers sports, culture, and anything else pertaining to BLACK people.