The Other Side of Saturday
Because life will never again offer anything quite like it, game day remains the most seductive force to a college football player. The average fan never sees how much he gives up in return for those exultant three hours.
Atlanta Magazine | Septemer 1992
At some point in every major college football player’s career, he wants to quit. Time comes for another practice, and on his way to the locker room, he eyes with envy “regular” students soaking up cocktails and conversation at popular university cafes. He chafes at the uncompromising authority figures in his life, who tell him where and when to eat, sleep and socialize. He wonders if he is following that authority blindly, then straps on his jock and shoulder pads, resigned to the rationale that his discipline and commitment to football will serve him in life’s later goals.
RAY GOFF, head football coach
“There were a lot of things I missed out on in college. But I made that choice. I wouldn’t trade going out on that field on Saturday afternoons for anything. Going out and competing in that arena is such a rush of experience that you just can’t understand it until you’ve been there.”
At night, in the athletic dorm, he winces at the painful precursors of arthritis, then, with the dark humor of youth, laughs at the thought of himself 20 years later in a wheelchair. Resting on his bunk, too tired to study, too broke to go out, he shucks off his isolation from those who see him as little more than disposable entertainment, and he rejects their stereotypical opinions. They do not know what sacrifice he makes, nor what it takes to succeed.
Each player, at some pivotal moment, wrestles with the angels of glory and the devil of failure. Then he either exits the college football experience with a suitcase in one hand and a ticket home in the other, or he continues playing with renewed assurance that, for one reason or another, the trade-offs are worthwhile.
For most, the decision to keep playing is predicated on a warlike mixture of violence and camaraderie called Game Day, three supernatural hours 12 times a year when deification is never more than a touchdown or tackle away, and the roar of 85,000 strangers rushes to his nerve endings like amphetamines. Because he knows life will never again offer anything quite like this, Saturday’s arena remains the most seductive force in his life. Winning assuages the midweek humiliation of a coach screaming into his face mask. Winning makes worthwhile the herd mentality of practice, the missed classwork, the shot of Xylocaine in a broken wrist.
Few, after all, question victory; not the players, and especially not the fans, who seem obsessed with total offense, individual tackles, assists and completions, and applaud those they view as the embodiment of youthful athleticism and character. What the average fan never sees, however, is that in a value system dedicated to winning, how much those they envy can lose socially, academically and psychologically.
In barter for those few exultant hours each fall, a major college football player trades a full year of grueling physical preparation. He bears estrangement from his collegiate peers and a longstanding stigma of mental incompetence, often coming to believe the “dumb jock” stereotype himself. He trades his privacy to a voracious press. He squelches his healthiest instincts for rebellion, offering up his individuality to the altar of team spirit. And in the end, for fleeting glory, he often trades a mature perspective on what life is all about on the other side of Saturday.
Gradually, the Saturday fix becomes so important that even those now charged with explaining its relativity will not have avoided passing through the same crucible. Football was so important to Bulldog Head Coach Ray Goff that when Georgia lost the national championship to Pitt in 1977, with Goff at quarterback, he was so embarrassed, he called his father in Moultrie, Ga., and announced that he was quitting school, three quarters short of graduation, and coming home.
“That’s fine,” said Goff’s father, “As long as you get a job and a place to live.”
“Why’s that?” Goff asked.
“Because real life is about to start.”
REAL LIFE, INDEED, is the rub. When Dick Bestwick was head coach at the University of Virginia, he once saw a high school recruit’s transcript that included a course called “Spare Dime.”
“What was that?” asks Bestwick, who is now the Georgia Bulldogs’ associate athletic director for academic and athletic standards, or GPA coach for short. “To teach him how to beg after football?”
Dick Bestwick has been in the college football business for more than 30 years. He believes in the practical value of athletics. He also knows the harshness of a system that at times seems as exploitative as any child labor camp, and at other times, nothing more than an extension of the welfare system. In fact, if he had it his way, there would be no college football as we know it. Pro teams would draft the Great Players of Tomorrow from leagues maintained by the U.S. Armed Services, as well as from college teams that would then be for true student-athletes.
But that is Bestwick’s vision. His reality is a team of approximately 120 young men from various parts of the nation, who come to UGA with varying degrees of personal, social and academic habits and are supposed to invest, by his count, about 650 hours a year (not including summer workouts) in football, and leave the program better students — better people — than when they came in. It is such a challenge of intellect, motivation and compassion that Bestwick’s staff totals 70-80 administrators, counselors, tutors and dorm proctors.
“It’s a constant struggle,” he says. “Many, particularly black youngsters, come from backgrounds where people did not expect much from them. But my experience is that if you expect a lot, they will deliver. Some can overcome poor starts, but only if someone comes into their lives in some way. It doesn’t happen by osmosis.”
If every young man came into Georgia’s program from the same middle-class background, with some pocket money, good study habits and established values, Bestwick’s department would be unnecessary. But in college football, everything revolves around plucking athletes from widely disparate backgrounds and conditioning them to function as if they were a single entity.
The game itself provides a mechanism for melding those disparities into a team effort. But on the other six days of the week, there is no playbook, no game plan, no win-loss column for individual happiness and success.
IN THE CONVENTIONAL wisdom of college football programs, the key to success on and off the field is, in a word, control. Ray Goff, Dick Bestwick and Athletic Director Vince Dooley wield influence over virtually every aspect of life for any given Bulldog player. In some cases, that control has measurably positive results.
Bestwick has, for example, an exhaustive data base of information on individual players. He knows each athlete’s family, economic and social background. In the time it takes to whisk open a file drawer, he knows a player’s current, cumulative and predicted GPA.
Last winter quarter, when he decided that eight players per term with a B average or better was not good enough, he instituted mandatory class-attendance reports for all players. By the end of that quarter, he had 22 players with a 3.0 or better grade point average.
DICK BESTWICK, associate athletic director
“One of the most important points we try to make to players is that you’re going to be singled out, you’re going to be tested by other students. Keep your head.”
But that level of control—prescribed eating times at a training table, organized fun at team picnics, formal books of conduct, study hall programs which, to some degree, consider players academically guilty until proven innocent and tend to focus on eligibility for play rather than gaining real educational fiber—is also the primary threat to developing maturity, responsibility and self-determination in those under its jurisdiction. The effects of these parameters are not easily measured, often until college is but a distant memory.
The dominant metaphor for college football as a kind of institutional monitor is the athletic dorm, in this case Georgia’s McWhorter Hall. The NCAA, in recognition of some of the anomalies created by rigid sequestration of players, has mandated that in 1996, all such facilities must house a minimum of 50 percent regular students.
Athletic dorms, however, are a multilevel question not so easily answered. Dorms offer the stability and focus that some, especially younger players, do need. While those from privileged backgrounds tend to view them with displeasure, others, particularly from low-income families, see dorm life as a step up. “A lot of guys come here just because they know they won’t be living in slums,” says scat-back Garrison Hearst.
The majority of Georgia players also prefer McWhorter Hall, where little monkey business is tolerated, over rambunctious student housing. It is, in fact, a rather sedate atmosphere, a cocoonlike privacy players ultimately accept first for its comfort level and secondly out of the sense of team that is instilled in all football players, beginning from Pop Warner days.
DAN ROGERS, junior tackle
“It’s no longer just fun. The coaches are in it as a business. Their livelihood depends on what we do out there on Saturdays… You look at some guys with bad grades. The coaches know they won’t graduate. But if they can keep them around for a couple of years and they can contribute, hey, that’s part of the business.”
But the most consistent feeling at McWhorter is one of resentment. Until last year, Georgia players had no visitation rights from outsiders. Students in other dorms, and even other athletes, have unlimited visitation. Yet even under revised regulations, the football team is currently restricted to in-room visitors on Saturdays and Sundays only. There is no alcohol allowed. During the season, the Bulldogs have evening curfews.
McWhorter Hall is considered coed, but only in the sense that male and female athletes reside, dine and study in the same building. Beyond that, football players are barred from entering the women’s side by a passkey door.
“It makes us look like we can’t control ourselves,” says senior long snapper Scott Rissmiller. “But the truth is there are some guys who probably can’t.”
Scott and his roommate, starting offensive guard Jack Swan, have lived in McWhorter Hall for four years. Scott is a premed major. Jack hopes to someday draw his doctorate in English literature, perhaps working for his tuition as an assistant coach somewhere. Jack is from California, an amiable mix of lineman’s physique and surfer-dude persona. Long shorts. Beach sandals on Roman feet.
Lying on his bed in their dorm room, the size of which is dictated by a players’ grade point average, Jack gripes about the regimentation in his life. He grates at information forms that ask him to express himself in five words or less, and at having to pick up trash around the dorm four consecutive weekends for playing loud, neck-snapping music on Scott’s stereo.
Jack grumbles at the mention of meetings, films, and the futility of spring practice, where the carry-over values to fall are too low, and the risk of serious injury too high.
“I was positive last year I wasn’t going to finish spring practice,” says Swan, who has put off study in Europe to fulfill his contract with the Bulldogs. “I’m still telling myself that this year.”
FOR A SYSTEM that stresses control, it is ironic how much the system seems uncontrollable. Not specifically at Georgia. Everywhere. Although the advent of TV contracts, corporate sponsorship of games and the myriad other money-making schemes that Division IA programs are now entangled in have certainly driven the modern schism between football and higher education, the rift began decades ago. First, in 1973, with a resolution to create equal opportunity for lesser educated minorities, particularly black athletes, the NCAA lowered its academic standards, making the vast majority of all high school students eligible for college play.
Vince Dooley says, “When I first came here in 1964, the University of Georgia had higher standards for scholarship than we have now.”
He is gazing out at the grounds crew working below his office window in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, also known as The Dawg Mahal, opulent centerpiece of a $20 million-per-year athletic association, part administration building, Bulldog archive and training facility.
“In ’73, the NCAA lowered the eligibility standard to a 2.0 overall average. That was a big problem,” he says.
“The mistake I made was that I rationalized and fooled myself into taking at-risk players. I thought if a guy comes in and works hard, gets tutoring, then he’ll get his degree. It doesn’t always work that way.” He shakes his head. “But it was an honest mistake.”
A second major change by the NCAA in the early ’70s was instating eligibility for freshmen. “That’s one of the greatest problems, expecting freshmen to come in and compete,” says Bestwick. “It’s become a financial issue in order to field a team. But it puts freshmen in a kind of merry-go-round that they can’t get off.”
Shannon Stevens, who led his Cumberland, Md., high school team to a 26-1 record and back-to-back state championships, is riding that merry-go-round. One dizzying revolution after another, his studies suffer from the distractions of football—trying to compete, to fit in—while his play steadily deteriorates from low self-confidence generated in the classroom.
This morning, late-night barhopping with football buddies has left him boggy and inattentive. “If I was a regular student,” he says, pausing to yawn, “I’d be an A student.” In fact, Shannon Stevens scored 1,000 on his SAT test.
But by the end of spring practice, he was entering his third quarter of developmental studies, trapped in a downward spiral of frustration, medicated with drink and expelled in sudden fits of violence. “I’ve had the same classes over and over. That’s why I’m so mad. I’m not learning nothing in there. If I don’t get out this quarter, I’ll be ineligible, and then I’ll probably just hit rock bottom. If I can’t play, I don’t know what I’ll do, because all I look forward to is football.”
RAY GOFF, head football coach
“I tell players they are special. It’s not true that athletes should be treated like other students. There are not many people who could do what they’re doing at 4 in the afternoon. They’d rather sit around the pool with the girls.”
“When we’re recruiting, we tell them two things. Go to class and try. And off the field, act the way you should. If he does the first, with the amount of help we provide, a guy can make it. If off the field he shows his ass, we’re going to have a problem.”
While coaches argue that control is especially helpful in monitoring at-risk players like Stevens, the fact is that in many cases, it has the opposite effect. The overwhelming emphasis on team unity on the field, around campus and in the dorms thrusts players together with others who lack the maturity to balance athletics with university life, often exacerbating the two most unseemly connections with college football: rowdiness and substance abuse.
The latter is of such concern that Dooley recently sent Dick Bestwick to the Betty Ford Clinic for a seminar on intervention training. Bestwick calls it “one of the most worthwhile things’ I’ve ever done.”
The day after Bestwick’s return, in the cool of G-Day morning, when spring practice culminates in an intrasquad game that annually brings out thousands of the Bulldog’s faithful and hundreds of new recruits, Shannon Stevens’ room smells like a butcher shop.
There is blood on the floor, his bed, his clothes.
Earlier that morning, upon return from Nickle Night at Lowery’s, a popular Athens nightclub, Shannon punched his hand through a dorm window. The wire-reinforced pane sliced off the top of his thumb. He has 17 stitches in one finger, and his hand is mummy-wrapped from the wrist up.
The infirmary would not prescribe any painkillers for him because of his blood alcohol level. He had already spoken with Bestwick, saying afterward, “He really wants to see me succeed,” but had not yet confronted Coach Goff. Stevens knows, nonetheless, that today’s final opportunity to redeem himself on the field is gone.
“I’ve got some explaining to do… I’m in pain. And I want to play.”
PAIN IS SO INTEGRAL to college football that eventually it becomes as much a part of the experience as pep rallies and beer bashes. Players compete while injured partly because of a macho code they are conditioned to uphold, partly because they are critical assets, commodities played or not played in the ongoing risk-benefit analysis necessary to manage the big business that college football has become.
At Georgia, which is one of the few Division IA athletic departments that even operates in the black, football accounts for more than two-thirds of the athletic association’s total revenue. It supports more than a dozen other teams. Football is a major autumn boon to the Athens economy, and the indirect provider of an approximate million-dollar combined income for Vince Dooley, Ray Goff and, to a lesser extent, basketball Coach Hugh Durham.
But to sustain that, a team must win. And big-time college football programs win not only with teamwork, but by pushing its lowest-paid employees—the players—to their physical limits. When things go wrong, call the team surgeon. He takes out the useless parts, or puts in some steel or silicone ones, and a corps of dedicated professional and student trainers can whip a player back into shape for another round. Not playing often produces buried guilt for letting the team down.
Senior linebacker Torrey Evans explained, “My main frustration is not being able to play like I know I can because of my neck injury. Sometimes my fingers will go numb for two weeks after a good hit. When I’m hurt and not producing, I feel like I’m doing something wrong, or being a quitter, even though I know I shouldn’t be out there.”
Ironically, those most adept at rationalizing the pain are players themselves, consistently willing to jeopardize their health for the sake of the team. Scot Armstrong, the Bulldogs’ punter, reported on crutches for last year’s Florida game. “They [the coaches] said, “We gotta have you.’ When I came off the ground on a punt, my knee got sandwiched, tore my anterior cruciate ligament. I got punched in the stomach, too. And I still wanted to go back in. The doctor said, ‘Man, you’re through.’ ”
Finally, in a twist of logic, they sacrifice their bodies for the same guys from whom they receive the least amount of sympathy. “If you are not out there,” says Jack Swan, “you are ostracized.”
OF ALL THE CONCESSIONS built into the life of a college player, only academic atrophy tops the difficulty of social integration and the lack of an allowance for an identity beyond football. The oldest football cliche, perhaps, is “football players have a bad reputation.” At UGA, five arrests and one team dismissal in the last year have intensified that image. Based on interviews and conversations with more than 25 Georgia team members, however, the label appears unjustified.
But no Bulldog can claim to have escaped a certain estrangement from the rest of the student body, many of whom regard players as curiosities to be dealt with vicariously and at a distance.
Andre Hastings, who snatches quarterback Eric Zeier’s passes out of the air as effortlessly as a child clutches balloons, is a gifted receiver. And to most students, that is his identity. “You never have anyone come up to you and say, ‘How are you doing?’ It’s always, ‘How’s football?’ Or I’ll give an answer in class and people will look back like they’re surprised. People think all football players are dumb. It doesn’t do you any good to try and explain,” he says.
There is little opportunity for players to soften these perceptions, either. Between practice, games, off-season training, class, study, rest, injury rehabilitation, curfews and a tendency to stick together around campus, players simply are not in the mix of regular students.
“They think we all have money and cars,” says punter Scot Armstrong. “That’s all bullshit.”
In reality, there is a notorious lack of spending money among players. “We’re making all this money for the school, we ought to see a little of that,” is a common refrain at Georgia. However, many studies document that major college athletic departments actually contribute very little money to the academic end of their universities. Perhaps their greatest contribution is to resupply universities every year with legions of rabid football fans in the guise of tuition-paying students.
ALEC MILLEN, senior offensive tackle
“After a couple of years, it would be better to live off-campus and learn to manage your own time like we’ll have to out there after college. It will be interesting to see if we all make it… I have learned discipline on the field, but I think we are sheltered as far as learning to manage our outside lives.”
Nonetheless, what Georgia’ players see is the athletic department’s $20 million bottom line, and some teammates who can’t even afford new underwear. Alec Millen, a senior offensive tackle, presented to his speech class one quarter the idea of paying players a modest stipend. He pointed out that athletic scholarships do not pay any personal expenses, and that NCAA regulations prohibit players from working even part-time jobs during the regular school year.
Other students can earn whatever extra money they are willing to work for, and at the same time build resumes. Players are at the mercy of a system that often leaves them hungry between meals, with no laundry or gas money home, no new clothes to accommodate the two or three size changes that some go through, or enough money for dates.
“I worked it out one time,” says Jack Swan, who divided the actual value of a scholarship by the time he spent in football, “and I figured we’re working for less than minimum wage.”
Regardless of financial woes, dating is still a dubious activity for football players because there is a dearth of women who will date players without preconceived notions of disreputibility or, conversely, misguided adulation. Freshmen are especially vulnerable to distorted expectations. Locker-room braggadocio also fosters degrading attitudes that hinder some from relating maturely to women. Says one freshman player of the Athens bar scene: “That’s your objective. Find a girl and take her home.”
At a post G-Day game party, one Georgia coed verifies the ease of that mission. Watching a precocious young woman and several players dancing in front of the stereo, she says, “If you’re a football player, you’re a god, and they’ll sleep with you.”
As for the few mature liaisons that do develop, one or two hours squeezed in per week are an achievement. More often, relationships just plain sour out of the woman’s incomprehension that to a football player, football always comes first.
There is also a palpable level of alienation between the football team and UGA’s other high-profile institution. Greeks and athletes are the two big movements at Georgia. Occasionally those movements clash. When football players are involved, such as the recent conflagrations between Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity, and several of Georgia’s black players, the incidents make ready headlines for local papers and eager journalists with student publications, perpetuating the myth that players are more prone to cause trouble.
“Players aren’t any more problem than the rest of Georgia’s student groups. Less than most,” says one campus detective.
More often, the distance between the football team and other students is a subsurface resentment that festers through lack of communication. “That’s the most frustrating thing,” says Scott Rissmiller. “People saying things about us who don’t understand what it’s like.”
There are, however, real differences between players and other students. The training table food is perhaps a grade better. Players have early registration and an on-site Academic Achievement Center complete with computers, study carrels and on-demand tutoring. All of this creates the impression that players get special treatment.
Most students, in fact, think football players are special. At about 4 o’clock, while the team is slugging out the second scrimmage of spring over in Sanford Stadium, three tri-Delta sorority sisters are munching subs in an Athens cafe. All are returning in the fall for “one more season.”
“Students think [football] is worth it when the team is doing well,” says one sister. “And it’s kind of cool to see them around campus. We saw them earlier getting off the bus and just kind of went, ‘Hey, wow, there goes the team!’ ”
Another says, however, “I kind of feel sorry for them in a way. They don’t have visitation. I guess it’s kind of for their own good. But it’s ridiculous. They’re in college. They shouldn’t have to be baby-sat.”
Three Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers, who were watching that day’s scrimmage, commented that they, too, were all returning for a fifth fall quarter, despite the opportunity to graduate on time. One, who came to Georgia because he was raised on Bulldog football, said, “I thought about going elsewhere with respect to higher education, but I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world.”
He glances upward at the empty 85,000-seat stadium—The House That Herschel Built—then beyond the English privet hedges, out to midfield where the team groans away like a couple of 11-headed dogs in a pit fight.
“We hear stories about them that make them seem just like us,” says his brother. “But it’s hard to believe. They look like a bunch of men out there.”
PERHAPS THE HARDEST thing for a coach is dealing with those who may look like men, but still carry many of the confused attitudes of boys. The way coaches handle that dichotomy is with discipline, hard-edged, militaristic methods that combine the threat of reprisal with a near constant level of physical stress. Discipline is vital to a coach’s authority, to his ability to marshal a hundred straight-walking men out of unruly boys. But can there be too much do-it-my-way influence from coaches and not enough room for error and its real-life consequences?
“That’s hard to answer. You’ve got to have a feel for it,” says Ray Goff of his own method. “You have to adjust. You have to be firm and let them know what you want, but still be flexible.”
Goff implemented the ultimate conclusion of his method last year after a line-in-the-sand meeting with starting nose tackle Willie Jennings, who was having frequent run-ins with both Athens police and campus authorities. In the following few weeks, Jennings violated team rules at least two more times, and was also nabbed in a well-publicized arrest for credit card fraud, for which he was dismissed from the team. A week later, Jennings showed up intoxicated at McWhorter Hall, causing a ruckus that brought out the campus police. Then, other than one forlorn-looking appearance in the stands at a spring scrimmage, he disappeared from UGA football.
“Hard? Hell yes, it was hard,” says Goff of his bouts with Jennings. “Willie had potential, and not just on the field. I feel like to some degree I failed.”
Most head coaches, and without question Ray Goff, do care about their players. And they care about their Willie Jenningses as much if not more than their seemingly perfect Eric Zeiers. But their position lets them put little of that into practice, because the bottom line is that for a head coach to be effective, players must not only respect him, they must also fear. Fear getting caught with some beer and a date in the dorm or a sack of weed in the glove box. Fear his taking away their scholarship, or losing their position to his critical eye. Fear his wrath should they miss a tackle, drop a pass, run off the field without the proper zeal, oversleep a meeting, films, practice or, God forbid, a game.
Punishment usually serves the team as much or more than the individual. Standard measures include extra running or weight lifting, and confinement to dorms to ensure eligibility, or civic duties and charity work. The thing players crave most, game action on Saturday, is infrequently taken away as a disciplinary tool.
Punishment is eventually accepted with the same resignation that a player adopts in order to keep his balance amidst a bombardment of conflicting commands: Stay in control/Be aggressive, Think/Don’t think, Take charge/Be a team player, You’re special/Don’t act special. Eventually it is just easiest to do what the coach commands at any given moment.
A cornerstone of football’s mythology is that out of this cauldron of slogans, discipline and teamwork, a player’s personal values are forged. Most likely, an athlete’s essential verities have already taken shape by the time he reaches college.
Some, like linebacker Mo Harrell, who would not be in college without his scholarship, bring sound values from home. Harrell, from a Dodge County cotton mill town, says, “I go back and see so many guys I played with in high school who were better than me. They could’ve been the great names here. Now they’re either selling drugs or on it, and I ask myself, Why not me? All I can think of is my mother.”
Some, like quarterback Eric Zeier, just seem blessed with the maturity that comes from knowing what one has always wanted and how to get it. “I’ve always had positive dreams about football. Except for, you know, leaving my equipment behind or something, I dream about being in a big game and making all the right decisions,” he says. “If it comes down to partying or doing something oriented around football, I’ll do football every time.”
There are others, like Shannon Stevens, who didn’t know that his grandmother was not his real parent until the day she announced “Mama” was coming over to visit, who grew up in a town where, since the Kelly Springfield tire plant closed, “everyone just sits around and drinks” and there are “more cops than regular citizens.” Stevens and those like him are in the hands of men like Dick Bestwick, yet ever under the influence of a system that provides an extremely narrow focus. What is important to football players is football. And hand in hand with the intoxication of commanding screaming hordes that swarm onto campuses on Saturday is a belief that the hard work, pain and suffering will carry over into positive lifelong values.
“In short, adversity should bring out the best in us,” says Hornsby Howell, the Bulldogs’ director of career development and placement.
Adversity in real life certainly can do that. But the premeditated adversity of college football has a psychology all its own, and specious semantics. Discipline, sportsmanship and winning, work ethic, loyalty and try-your-best competitiveness are the standard ideals. But for each player who benefits in a model way, there are many who do not. Consider that for them:
- Football does not teach discipline. It teaches subservience.
- It creates a radical hatred for losing. When those losses do come, so does the guilt for not being better. Trying is not enough.
- Having finally escaped the authority and constant pressures to perform, some spend their initial free years drifting in inactivity and belligerence. Instead of employing their football competitiveness in later life, they tend to do anything to avoid competition and commitment.
- It is difficult to make a case for the carry-over values of the hostility that it takes to knock a 250-pound man on his ass. Knock blazes out of the other guy, and the gridiron world falls neatly together. In the real world, communication and tact are more important.
- Football at the major college level is a world of drastic swings from the highest highs to the lowest lows, a kind of manic-depressive existence. According to Vince Dooley, there is a current movement for college programs to provide professional psychiatric counseling for players. Dick Bestwick says he sees more players with self-esteem that is too low, rather than too high.
- After a lifetime of weighing personal worth by the opinions of parents, coaches, teammates and cheering fans, many seem to continue to validate their lives only through the approval of others.
- And finally, why is no the hardest word for a player to say? Because to say no to football is to lose.
AT 6-FOOT-7, 278 pounds, Alec Millen would need a big motorcycle.
He doesn’t own one yet, but by appearances he has everything else a 22-year-old American male could want. He is a starting offensive tackle for the Georgia Bulldogs. He has a pretty girlfriend, good grades and an active spiritual life. He has a chance of playing in the NFL.
But what Alec really wants is a motorcycle. The bigger the better, because after he plays out his final season for the Dawgs, if he doesn’t get drafted, Alec’s fantasy is to prop his big feet on the front pegs of a well-tuned machine and ride away fast from football.
“We talk about it all the time, me and some of the other guys. But it’s just our fantasy,” he says.
He is, in fact, a onetime quitter. After playing his freshman season for the North Carolina Tar Heels, Alec walked off with no plans to return. But Alec isn’t the quit-for-good type, no more than fellow senior and motorcycle dreamer Jack Swan. Two weeks after Jack discussed his own doubts about college football, he stood at midfield during halftime of the G-Day game. He shook Vince Dooley’s hand, and with the other hand accepted the Coffee County Hustle Award, conferred at the conclusion of spring drills to the player who exhibits the greatest team desire and hustle.
“I have a dichotomy in me,” Jack later says. “I hate all the bullshit that goes with football. But I love the game. I love to play the game.”
The truth is that one does not have to be a starter or a hustle-award winner for college football to seem worthwhile. He just has to feel a part of the team. From the lowliest fourth-string scrub to the star quarterback, to even the managers and trainers who have every bit the time invested that players do, the only accepted currency for a ticket to Saturday is sacrifice.
“Mind over matter,” shouts assistant coach Richard Bell during conditioning drills. “If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”
There are some good things to be learned on a football team, including racial tolerance for those most in need of it, and the value of friendship born of shared experience. There is even something to be said for perseverance, no matter what the goal. But if there is one thing above all else that college football attempts to establish, it is the diamond axiom that nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever been had by quitting.
Later, even that may not seem so clear. ✦