Another ballyhooed Signing Day in college football has come and gone. Long-awaited decisions have been made. Letters of intent, signaling the start of new and exciting partnerships, have been signed. Years of hard work – on practice fields, in weight rooms and in study halls – are about to produce the ultimate reward … a free ride to an institution of higher learning.
Accomplished teenage athletes choose a school for myriad different reasons: relationship with the coaching staff, quality of the facilities, proximity to family, a potential springboard to the NFL. There’s an almost endless array of factors in play, including for many the academic reputation of the university under consideration.
Memories are made in stadiums. Lifelong bonds are forged in locker rooms. School colors and fight songs will stir deep emotions long after the cheering has stopped. But for the vast majority of student-athletes, regardless of the sport, it’s the value of the degree that ultimately pays the bills and provides the foundation for a prosperous future. And a growing number of football stars understand that their brains, not their brawn, will be their most important assets throughout adulthood.
“Education was a major factor why my sons chose Northwestern,” says Henry Queiro, whose sons Kyle and Cameron accepted offers to play for the Wildcats in 2013 and 2014, respectively. “We raised them to realize that sports was just a platform for getting a top-notch education, and that hitting the books would always be the first priority in our household.”
The reality and the numbers back up Queiro, as well as every other parent or athlete placing an emphasis on classroom performance. Historically, less than 2% of college football players will ever be paid to play the game. Plus, with the average NFL career lasting just 3.3 years, even most pros will be working in a field outside of sports by their mid-twenties. In other words, that choice of which school to attend is more of a 40-year decision than a four-year one.
There’s also the matter of injuries, those career-derailing realities that strike without warning or prejudice. If nothing else, a quality education ought to be leveraged as an insurance policy to be called upon when the unexpected enters life’s equation. Take, for example, the multiple concussions that forced Cameron Queiro to prematurely retire from football last November.
Queiro had played sports his entire life. They were a part of his identity, as was the dream of someday continue playing in the NFL. To have that outlet, as well as the camaraderie with teammates, yanked away was painful. But football retirement had no impact on Queiro’s future, because that had been planned out a long time ago, beginning with the decision to attend Northwestern.
Queiro is going to miss the game in 2017. But he’s a little too busy these days to dwell on what might have been. The business student who’ll graduate in the spring of 2018 is currently interning at an emergency management consulting firm. So, instead of digesting new wrinkles in a playbook, he’s learning from 9-5 each Monday to Thursday about budget analysis and the leadership hierarchy during a crisis.
And when the Wildcats open next season with a visit from Nevada on Sept. 2, Queiro will be studying abroad in Madrid, Spain, broadening his horizons with an enriching semester in a foreign land.
“What Northwestern offers to students was a huge selling point to me three years ago,” states Queiro, who also strongly considered Duke and Vanderbilt. “Some players look at education as a backup plan, but that was never the case with me. Having that degree is essential for propelling me to the jobs I’ll be seeking in my field. Plus, the alumni network here is a phenomenal resource for young guys like me. Schools like Northwestern, Duke and Vanderbilt have such pride in their curriculum and put education at the forefront of their pitches, which is awesome.”
What makes the Northwestern model so successful is that there’s a buy-in at all levels, from university president Morton Schapiro and each of the school deans to head football coach Pat Fitzgerald. This is a tight, singularly voiced collaboration of leadership, and the message is being heard loud and clear from prospective students and their parents.
“You know, Fitz is just amazing,” says Henry Queiro, an engineer whose foundation, Educating Athletes, teaches young people how to leverage their athleticism to build a brighter future beyond football. “He really gets it. His first presentation to us parents was like nothing I’d ever seen before. He didn’t even discuss football, focusing instead on how Northwestern was going to help set the boys up for the rest of their lives. We really believe in that school an that program.”
Additional universities, such as Duke, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Notre Dame, Rice, a large swath of the Big Ten, the nation’s service academies and others, are perennially churning out young men prepared to win in all walks of life … including on the football field.
This past decade has witnessed a football renaissance for many of the nation’s elite academic institutions operating at the FBS level. A revenge of the nerds, if you will. Stanford has won three Pac-12 titles since 2012. David Cutcliffe led Duke to four consecutive bowl games prior to this past season. Vandy won nine games in 2012 and 2013. Navy has had one losing season since 2002. And Northwestern has finished two of the last five seasons with 10 wins and a Top 25 ranking.
The point? Unlike in the past, when the brainiest schools were little more than Saturday sparring partners, the nation’s brightest young men can truly have it all during their college careers. They can win at a high level and audition in front of pro personnel, while also securing the necessary tools and connections for prosperity away from the field.
“At a place like Vanderbilt, you get the best of both worlds,” says Marion Bell, whose son Tre spent three years with the Commodores before transferring to Connecticut at the beginning of 2016. “Vanderbilt offers kids a great education, an Ivy League-type education, while also competing in the SEC. That educational component is so critically important, because there are obviously no guarantees about getting to the NFL.”
Bell’s influence on the lives of young men extends beyond his own household. He’s also the coach of West Side High School in Newark, N.J., seeing firsthand the divergent paths created by those who make education a priority and those who do not. And his role in that process is both profound and profoundly important to him.
“What I’ve found in my experience is that so much depends on the background and the household of the kid,” adds Bell. “The kids from two-parent households are more likely to get that message about the importance of hitting the books. In the single-parent families, it’s too often about pro, pro, pro. In 90% of inner city football programs, the coach will impact the decision-making process, and that’s why I’m passionate about getting kids into college. They’re filled with hope and promise, but unfortunately they don’t believe getting there is possible. I feel as if it’s a part of my job to help with that process, so that they won’t have loans down the road and they can land a great job.”
For the sought-after 18-year-old who has dreamt of playing on Sundays for as long as he can remember, it’s borderline impossible to get him to focus on life after football, which must feel like a lifetime away. Considering that an athletic career can veer off course in the blink of eye, it raises the importance of sharing stories of former athletes thriving away from the field. And then sharing them again and again, because attention spans can be short when the subject is suits and ties instead of helmets and pads.
Derrell Smith is a former captain and two-time All-Big East linebacker from Syracuse. A hard-hitting run-stuffer, he finished his Orange career in 2010 with 270 tackles and eight forced fumbles as a three-year starter. But after brief stints with the Houston Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it was time to redirect all of his drive, focus and intelligence. Time to begin capitalizing on that Syracuse degree.
“Growing up, my parents placed a huge emphasis on education,” says an appreciative Smith. “Dinner didn’t go on the table until homework was finished. That mindset never changed for me, so I wanted to pick a school that had both prestigious academics and athletics. My personal brand is that I give 100% to everything I do, so when I committed to Syracuse it was a full commitment to school as well as football.”
More than five years since his last tackle, Smith is still winning. He’s a successful digital producer for a New York ad agency as well as the CEO of his own company, 99 Eats. And at every turn, Smith never loses sight of the importance of the formative years he spent in Upstate New York.
“Enrolling at Syracuse was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” says Smith. “That recognizable Syracuse brand and alumni network has helped me every step of the way. I’ll have that education for the rest of my life. That network is eternal. My athleticism, on the other hand, is fleeting. In the end, football wound up being a way for me to get my foot in the door.”
Not every athlete will qualify at, say, Duke or Northwestern or Vanderbilt, where acceptance rates are among the lowest in the country. Such is life in a competitive environment. But every kid can maximize his opportunity to earn a quality education by applying himself in the classroom and demanding to be seen as more than a one-dimensional athlete. If a scholarship is the compensation, for lack of a better term, for making plays, fueling wins and filling stands, it’d be a shame to leave school in four or five years without a degree or the networking contacts to provide support in the future.
“What I preached to my kids and to kids I mentor is to choose a school where you value the education even more than the sports program,” says Vince Lucas, whose son Jordan played four years at Penn State and is now a Miami Dolphins safety. “My message has always been that sports ought to be the vehicle used so that you can go where you want to in life instead of where you have to.”
Coaches and universities now travel to previously unforeseen lengths to land top recruits. The arm’s race has led to state-of-the-art football facilities sure to wow any teenager taking a tour. However, there is a subsect of student-athletes looking well beyond lounges, waterfalls, weight rooms and mini golf courses. These heady young men are also curious about research facilities, educational rankings, mentorship and internship programs. They have their eye on the big picture to that day when football ends, fully recognizing their National Signing Day decisions hinge on more than just school songs, new uniform combinations and championship banners.