What do you do when your Faustian bargain doesn’t pan out?
The NFL Draft is about the promise of the future, whether it be that of a franchise or an individual player. On Draft Day, all things are possible. Any team might find that missing piece they need to make it to the Super Bowl, and any player might find himself set for life financially, with the opportunity to make a living on living out his life-long fantasy.
Yet often forgotten amidst the delirious joy of realized hopes for the few is the vast majority of NCAA football players who won’t be making a living playing the game at the highest level. Among all the stories like “no one ever thought I’d make it” and “never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d end up here,” few consider the fate of those borderline players, who by draft’s end are faced with the reality of a life quite different from what they had hoped. What’s next for those beyond Mr. Irrelevant?
What lies ahead for three young men, players you’ve heard of, now facing an uncertain future?
Jason White may still land on his feet. The Heisman-winning quarterback who twice led the Oklahoma Sooners to the national championship game slipped all the way through the draft due to concerns about frequent injuries and arm strength, but managed to convince the Chiefs to give him a shot in rookie camp. Dick Vermeil was uninterested at the end of the three-day camp, but the Tennessee Titans picked up right where he left off, reportedly signing a two-year deal with the team for a chance to compete for their third quarterback spot at mini-camp beginning May 17.
Taylor Stubblefield still thinks he has a shot as well. Despite catching more balls than anyone in NCAA history, no NFL team was willing to spend a draft choice on the ex-Purdue wide receiver. While Stubblefield hoped to go as high as the fourth round, he will now content himself with trying to ease doubts about his size and speed at free agent camp for the Carolina Panthers.
Timmy Chang’s quest to become the first Asian-American quarterback in the NFL isn’t quite finished yet, either. During his career at the University of Hawaii, Chang broke Ty Detmer’s NCAA record for passing yardage, but was seen as a system QB rather than someone who succeeded on his own merits. He will compete for a spot on the practice squad for the Arizona Cardinals, and may well make it on a team with a dearth of talent at the position.
The question, of course, is what happens if he doesn’t? Sure, there are always a few undrafted free agents who stick around and make a career for themselves in the league or bounce around in NFL Europe, Canadian football, and the Arena League, but the bulk of them are never heard from again. Why, after what must have been one of the most painful experiences of their lives at the Draft, do these three refuse to consider that they’re likely to be among them?
For a star player at a major college, a life outside the game is something they’ve never truly thought about. Frankly, given the passion for the game necessary to make it such a central part of your life, it’s probably a little too terrible to contemplate. Certainly, the confidence one needs to play Heisman-level football would lead one to be dismissive of the possibility of needing another option. Nor would years of being the Big Man on Campus, being feted and fawned on by T.A.s and coeds alike, and being the subject of national attention for your accomplishments be great preparation for a less glamorous life.
Beyond this, the general academic standards that a Division I-A football player is held to are not conducive to the job market. For all the complaints about athletes getting free rides, they tend to receive the education they pay for. Before Kansas City came calling, Jason White’s best offer was a job as a pitchman for life insurance. Steady work, but a crushing blow after six years of screaming fans and national attention.
In their time, all three of these players, and countless others like them across Division I-A, played the game with dignity and class, bringing in the fans and filling the coffers at their schools. There’s no denying they reaped benefits from their days as college football players, but few would argue that they got the better end of the deal. The school and the NCAA earned money and news coverage. The players got high-quality training and a shot at the big time. Unfortunately, if that shot doesn’t come through, the players are far from adequately prepared for the future.
It is difficult to imagine what these three young men must have been going through over the past few weeks. They were so close to the good life, big money, and a career that would make every sacrifice worth it. Now, after college experiences that prepared them only for the pros, they have been unceremoniously dumped into the world. From here on, they are on their own way, perhaps with just enough of an opportunity left to prevent them from making a clean break. There’s not a lot left to do after your dreams die on Draft Day.
Jason White, Taylor Stubblefield, and Timmy Chang: Wish them luck. They’re going to need it.