Ath­letes get ad­vice for life af­ter sports

At power pro­grams like Clemson and Ohio State, a holis­tic ap­proach to player well­ness is used

Baltimore Sun - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - By Chuck Culpep­per

Buck­ing cen­turies of habit with one salient com­ment, Ohio State de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Greg Mat­ti­son sat at the re­cent Fi­esta Bowl me­dia day and said sim­ply, “You have to re­spect foot­ball play­ers in col­lege so much now.”

Thereby did a young 70-year-old man mas­ter what so many cranky 70-year-old men have flunked through time: the keen­ness to pon­der a sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tion rather than just giv­ing it a lazy lam­poon­ing. Hav­ing no­ticed that this gen­er­a­tion of play­ers func­tions in a spi­ral of haz­ards much greater than that of the pre­vi­ous cen­tury — more dis­trac­tions, more peo­ple in the world, more crit­i­cism from so­cial me­dia, more pulls upon their time — Mat­ti­son and oth­ers see rea­son in help­ing them cope with the times and man­age the ex­panse.

As yet an­other 21st-cen­tury fea­ture ab­sent in the 20th, col­lege foot­ball pro­grams have es­tab­lished pro­grams within their pro­grams such as “P.A.W. Jour­ney” at Clemson and “Real Life Wed­nes­days” at Ohio State. Th­ese inner pro­grams in­volve ca­reer guid­ance, ad­vi­sory speak­ers, com­mu­nity ser­vice, even hu­man­i­tar­ian trips abroad. They op­er­ate within ath­letic de­part­ments, geared to­ward bol­ster­ing the whole hu­man be­ing of the player. They might even en­hance team co­he­sion, which might even en­hance team vic­tory to­tals.

“None of that was done,” Mat­ti­son said of his be­gin­nings at Illi­nois in 1976, “be­cause the play­ers weren’t be­ing dis­tracted or tempted with things that to­day’s so­ci­ety has. Then, you were a foot­ball player and you went to class, and that was all that you did. There wasn’t so­cial me­dia and all this stuff as now” — all things to nav­i­gate and han­dle.

As they bring in speak­ers from by­gone ros­ters or cor­po­rate board­rooms to pro­vide ad­vice for play­ers, th­ese pro­grams can sound like se­rial ca­reer days. Nyles Pinck­ney, a Clemson de­fen­sive tackle, said he gained greatly near the out­set of his col­lege days from lis­ten­ing to for­mer Clemson de­fen­sive tackle Rod By­ers and hear­ing some­thing play­ers of last cen­tury might not have heard: “He told us his NFL ca­reer lasted all of two days. All that preparatio­n for two days, and he was telling us how it worked out for him. That re­ally mo­ti­vated me. It was like: ‘You know, you can’t put all your eggs in one bas­ket. You’ve got to know foot­ball ends at some point in time.’ ”

Yet th­ese pro­grams have blos­somed ex­pan­sively be­yond that, to in­cor­po­rate as­pects that would have seemed far­fetched in days of Woody (Hayes) and Bo (Schem­bech­ler) and Bear (Bryant) and John (McKay). That’s how al­lAmer­i­can Clemson guard John Simp­son can re­flect upon Haiti, and Ohio State de­fen­sive tackle Robert Lan­ders can re­flect upon a rev­e­la­tion.

At Clemson, so of­ten at the van­guard th­ese days, P.A.W. Jour­ney traces al­most to the mo­ment in 2008 when Dabo Swin­ney be­came the head coach. Swin­ney brought in for­mer Clemson and NFL player Jeff Davis, an as­sis­tant ath­letic di­rec­tor who has en­vi­sioned and shep­herded the pro­gram in the heady years since. Nowa­days, one can pe­ruse the bios of the Clemson ros­ter and find some 30 play­ers who serve as a “P.A.W. Jour­ney am­bas­sador” in a lit­tle pur­ple ban­ner head­line, men­tioned above all foot­ball ex­ploits and sig­ni­fy­ing lead­er­ship within the pro­gram-within-the-pro­gram.

“It’s a great honor to be a P.A.W. Jour­ney am­bas­sador,” Pinck­ney said, and there’s an en­trenched sys­tem for be­com­ing same. Prospec­tive am­bas­sadors seek out three rec­om­men­da­tions, from coaches or other staff, and then the cur­rent am­bas­sadors vote on the en­su­ing set of am­bas­sadors.

In the case of Am­bas­sador Simp­son, a se­nior from North Charleston, South Carolina, the pro­gram has lent some eye-widen­ing, none big­ger than 2017 and com­mu­nity ser­vice in Haiti.

He left Haiti, but it didn’t leave him. “Oh, man, when we were there, we were rid­ing across the bridges, and see­ing peo­ple in the wa­ter, show­er­ing in the wa­ter,” he said. “Now, I can’t just like throw away any wa­ter.”

He said: “Any­thing they could get their hands on, they were so grate­ful for it. It opened my eyes. We’ve got some un­grate­ful peo­ple [in this coun­try]. And just see­ing those peo­ple that would take any­thing. Some of us, we took our shirts off and gave it to them. It was crazy, just know­ing we were help­ing peo­ple out.”

He said, “That’s all I want to do in my whole life — just help peo­ple.”

He thinks all col­lege stu­dents should go abroad, and not just to see the

Eif­fel Tower.

In the case of Lan­ders, a se­nior de­fen­sive tackle from Day­ton, Ohio, Ohio State’s pro­gram lent a cru­cial clar­i­fi­ca­tion.

“I can’t re­mem­ber ex­actly the date be­hind it,” Lan­ders said, “but we had a guy come in by the name of Dr. [Derek] Green­field, and Dr. Green­field spe­cial­izes in men­tal health. And through­out the time in Real Life Wed­nes­day, he was ac­tu­ally touch­ing on th­ese taboo top­ics. But the way that he does it, it makes it easy for guys to kind of ad­dress those is­sues. He is at do­ing that. I’ve yet to meet a guy, an­other per­son, that does it the way he does, to make such a taboo topic com­fort­able for a group, es­pe­cially a group of young men who play foot­ball, and there’s a stigma be­hind it of, you’ve got to be a tough guy out­side.”

He said he felt he had been strug­gling but ig­nor­ing the is­sue, telling him­self, “Suck it up.”

“Now, I’ve re­al­ized it,” he said, “and I’ve done my home­work, and I’ve learned dif­fer­ent ways to deal with it, cope with it, be­cause it’s an on­go­ing bat­tle. It’s not some­thing that it hap­pens, you rec­og­nize it, okay, you deal with it, it’s done. It’s in and out, up and down. It’s like a roller-coaster ride, you know what I mean? Some­times it’s new. Some­times you’re go­ing up. Some­times you’re go­ing down. . . . You never know what’s go­ing to hap­pen. But once it comes, you’ve got to deal with it.”

His po­si­tion coach, Larry John­son, 68, can look back across a four-decade­plus coach­ing ca­reer that be­gan at Lackey High and McDonough in Mary­land and T.C. Wil­liams in Vir­ginia and has coursed all the way through Penn State and Ohio State to 2020, an era with a pile of demands and a wealth of good time man­agers: the play­ers.

“It’s a ma­jor change, the fact there’s more at­ten­tion paid to not just a player’s play­ing abil­ity but to just know the state of where he is as a stu­dent-ath­lete,” John­son said. “I think that’s huge. I think the di­rec­tion it’s go­ing right now, it’s a big change in col­lege foot­ball, and I think it’s needed.”

“I think the di­rec­tion it’s go­ing right now, it’s a big change in col­lege foot­ball, and I think it’s needed.”

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Clemson de­fen­sive tackle Nyles Pinck­ney said he gained a lot from lis­ten­ing to for­mer play­ers like Rod By­ers on how to plan for a life af­ter foot­ball: “He told us his NFL ca­reer lasted all of two days.”

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