Football players dream of winning championships at Texas and moving on to the NFL but 1.2 percent of them will get drafted. Many struggle in their professional lives after football. (American-Statesman photo)

Cedric Golden

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Golden: What happens when a Longhorn doesn’t make the NFL? Real life, and it isn’t always easy

Posted November 14th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • Concerned Texas alumni have met with Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte out of concern for athletes who graduate and struggle in their professional lives after the pro sports dream ended.
  • Among those who have expressed concern are Vance Bedford, Marcus Myers, Trey Hardee and Michelle Carter.
  • Studies show that only 6.5  percent of high school football players make a college roster and of those, only 1.2 percent will be drafted by an NFL team. And for the ones fortunate enough to make a pro roster, the average career lasts only 3.3 years.
  • “We wanted to hear our alumni’s experiences and their ideas,” Del Conte said. “Our goal is to make sure once a student leaves the Forty Acres that they have a chance to pursue their professional endeavors," Del Conte said.

Football isn’t forever.

And for some, it ends much earlier than they could have ever imagined.

We all know a kid from the hometown who had can’t-miss stardom written all over him. He was the best player in Pop Warner, all-state in high school and a fixture in recruiting rankings. He played Division I football, but somewhere along the way, he stopped progressing and didn’t make it to the NFL.

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In many cases, he didn’t have a backup plan

“So where do I go now?” he asked himself.

Great question.

A few dozen Texas alumni are coming up with some good answers in partnership with some smart folks on campus. The alums were engaged in countless Zoom calls earlier this year as current UT players were marching and protesting during a time of civil unrest and uncertainty. Those players suffered scorn and ridicule on social media in several instances — some of the vitriol coming from Texas fans —  yet they stood up for that they believed.

Longhorn Nation noticed, among them some notable names who played here themselves.

Former UT player and assistant coach Vance Bedford spoke with fellow Texas exes like William Graham, Lawrence Sampleton and others about his concerns. He had teammates who played here and graduated, yet found themselves struggling to get solid footing in their careers after football. He also later coached Longhorns who battled the same issues.

Bedford’s group wasn’t talking about stars like Vince Young, Cory Redding, Jamaal Charles and Michael Griffin, who realized their NFL dreams and made tons of money in the league, but the ones who graduated and didn’t enjoy a long pro career.

Former Texas player and coach Vance Bedford is devoted to helping Longhorns football players find networking and employment opportunities in their lives after football. (Jay Janner/American-Statesman)

“My heart is for the kids who are out there looking for opportunities after football,” Bedford said. “The only thing that matters to me is the kids. I played with guys who struggled for a very long time after football and I don’t want these kids to go through the same thing.”

One person in the group, Mike Hatchett, was an all-Southwest Conference defensive back who lettered from 1979-81.  Recently, he reflected on his recruitment, when Texas coaches made sure to ask about his career aspirations outside the sport.

“I told them I wanted to be a lawyer,” Hatchett said. “They said Texas had one of the finest law schools in the nation and that they would make calls and grease the skids, so to speak, when I was ready to pursue a career after football. It’s why I decided to come here.”

Football ended not long after. He got his degree in 1984, then approached a high-ranking official in the athletic department and asked if he could make some calls on his behalf regarding applying to the law school.

“He told me, ‘I wasn’t here when you were recruited,’” Hatchett said.

Disappointed, angry and hurt, he decided against reaching out to his former coaches and set out on his own.

Thankfully, his cousin connected him with a dean at Texas Southern. Hatchett applied and eventually graduated from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and has been in private practice with his wife for the last 27 years in the Houston area.

His is a success story, but one with that came with some heartache. Hatchett still wonders why no one from the UT was there for him once he stopped making tackles and grabbing interceptions.

Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte and his staff are teaming with alumni to help ensure a smoother transition for athletes in their lives after football. (Stephen Spillman/For Statesman)

“There were no mentorships or internships, per se,” he said. “And that’s not to say alumni weren’t interested. I would say there was perhaps a cultural disconnect, which is to say they just didn’t know how to go about creating and establishing that dialogue and creating those opportunities.”

Widespread mentorships and connections post-football were lacking for decades, but now that the school and the alumni base are teaming together, things are on the upswing.

Athletic director Chris Del Conte has met with alumni and all share  the goal of giving current Longhorns opportunities that some from previous eras didn’t get. He has invited them to virtual events and wants to see them on campus once this COVID-19 mess is sorted out.

With athletics staffers like Arin Dunn, Kevin Washington and LaToya Smith exposing athletes to personal and professional development programs on campus, the move is in play to make that next step after football not so steep, especially for the ones whose professional dreams end earlier than expected.

Before he became director of the T Association, Ricky Brown (44) blocked for Heisman Trophy winner  Ricky Williams. Part of his new duties include easing the transition for Longhorns from college football to the work force, notably those who do not make it to the NFL. (Brian K. Diggs/American-Statesman file photo)

“We wanted to hear our alumni’s experiences and their ideas,” Del Conte said. “Our goal is to make sure once a student leaves the Forty Acres that they have a chance to pursue their professional endeavors.”

While Leverage is a campus program designed to give players the information needed to maximize and organize their earning potential when it comes to profiting off one’s own image and likeness per the new NCAA provision,  4EVER TEXAS emphasizes growth through internships, workshops and other activities. This involves mock interviews with local businesses, résumé building, being fitted with suits for meetings, teaching dinner table etiquette, etc.

Then there’s The Hustle, a Kevin-Washington-inspired competition that involves athletes splitting into teams and competing in brand-building exercises. The plan is to eventually involve schools like SMU and Houston in competition with celebrity judges who have made it big in the business sector.

“It’s like a ‘Shark Tank’ model with judges,” Smith said. “The team that wins would get a trip to New York and experience how other businesses operate. The purpose is to think beyond your sport and be creative with a goal geared toward entrepreneurship.”

Sometimes, getting those players to buy in to what’s being offered is a difficult undertaking because of the programmed belief from childhood that the NFL is a slam dunk once you make it to a program like Texas. Smith calls it identity foreclosure.

“You’ve been playing a sport since four or five years of age and that’s who you think you are,” Smith said. “Whether you make the pros or not, that chapter will one day be over. We’re tapping into other interests and we start during freshman orientation with their curriculum.”

In some cases, the NFL dream has been realized — and that’s great for those fortunate enough to make it — but the numbers of those who fall short of that dream is exponentially higher.

Texas ex and former Olympic champion Trey Hardee is among many alumni who have expressed interest in to mentoring graduating Longhorn athletes in their future professional endeavors. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

For those who don’t fulfill their NFL dreams, the transition can be painful, especially for an athlete who has been groomed since  elementary school to be an NFL player. When that dream doesn’t come to fruition, the fall can be steep, even if that player returns to his hometown with a degree, which is often not viewed with the same pride as the lottery ticket that comes with being an early-round draft pick.

After he blocked as a fullback for Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams, Ricky Brown spent years in the financial sector with companies like Merrill Lynch and JPMorgan but now is the director of the T Association. One of his tasks is to ease athletes’ transitions from football to the work force.

“The opportunity to play professional ball is extremely limited, and if you make it, it’s extremely short,” Brown said. “This is where we want to develop them as workers. It’s not me picking up the phone to set up job interviews for them. I can do that, but I’m just one person.  The real benefit anywhere in life is when you can find leverage.  The leverage of a network is better than one individual.”

That’s where the alumni are starting to become a real mobilizing force in this area. As the saying goes, it’s always good to know people who know people.

“We want to use the network of our alumni to solve all types of problems,” Brown said, “but the issue of transition is having the power to want to be great at my craft in life outside of the sport I played. It’s a real challenge.”

Studies show that only 6.5% of high school players make a college roster, and of those, only 1.2% will be drafted by an NFL team. And for the ones fortunate enough to make a pro roster, the average career lasts only 3.3 years.

In other words, there are many more who don’t make it.

Marcus Myers was a junior on the 2005 national championship team, but by the time that magical season ended, he had already come to the realization that he would not play one down in the NFL.

Injuries took their toll on his body and psyche, but Myers — a Connally High honors student who entered college as an academic sophomore — continued to hit the books and graduated with a degree in economics. He applied for jobs, but interview offers from great companies weren’t falling from the sky.

“I was really floundering out there,” Myers said. “In recruiting they talked about this huge University of Texas network that would be there, but when you leave, you start looking around and asking, ‘Where do I go?’ I worked part-time as a bank teller at Well Fargo. I lived in the Dallas area during a lot of my professional life and most of my job connections came from Aggies and Horned Frogs.”

His biggest break did come from his home university, though. After he got his MBA from UT-Arlington in 2012, he placed a call to Texas senior athletic director Arthur Johnson —  a trusted confidant and mentor to countless Longhorns athletes for parts of the last two decades — who connected him with officials from Walmart and Lockheed Martin.

Myers worked five years as a business operations analyst at Lockheed before landing a job at Apple in Austin three years ago. At 36, he’s a financial analyst who manages a budget of $200 million. He’s also devoted to developing relationships between his company and his university in order to open doors for graduates who are interested. He doesn’t want them to flounder like he did before he found his professional stride.

“I believe when recruits come on campus, they should be introduced to guys like Marcus who are looking to help,” Sampleton said. “He’s a great example of a success story who did it without making it to the NFL.”

Brown said if it took Myers five years to establish networks en route to success, the university’s plan is to shorten that wait to two years for players moving forward and that includes those who didn’t graduate but return years later for that important piece of paper.

Myers had Sampleton — a longtime family friend — and Johnson as mentors, but he wants to make sure the current group of players has more opportunities than he had. Just like Bedford, he took to Zoom and joined with fellow Texas exes like Trey Hardee, Michelle Carter, Julie Sommer and Kira Robinson on to how bridge the gap between former players and current ones in the area of mentorship.

These are heavy hitters. Myers is a star in the making for a Fortune 500 company.  Hardee and Carter are track and field legends who went on to become Olympic medalists. Sommer is a former swimmer who is now a prominent attorney in Seattle. Robinson ran track here and earned her law degree at the University of Colorado. In five years at Goldman Sachs & Co. in the Metroplex, she has worked her way up from associate to vice-president.

The love of one’s school doesn’t stop at graduation. When alumni partner with on-campus facilitators to provide needed guidance to young adults transitioning into full-blown adulthood, the whole machine operates a lot smoother. Other campus-created initiatives — like Hooked In, a Longhorns version of LinkedIn —  are making waves.

The website,  a passion project of Texas Exes executive director Chuck Harris, went live this summer. It’s designed to connect graduating seniors with alumni from all corners of the globe in the areas of networking and finding employment. It’s a great resource given the unique challenges faced by potential employees who are grappling with COVID-19 pandemic concerns.

They say what happens at Texas changes the world, and while 2020 has been a year of strife on campus and beyond, it’s nice to see some things are changing for the better.

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