Continued from page 1

_ Only one would make a different choice if given the chance to do it over or would advise his child to take a different path.

“You’ve got a unique experience that millions of people would die to have. To put on the uniform, to go into the largest stadium in the country and to get a free education,” said J.J. Grant, one of Michigan’s starting linebackers in 1988 and now a shipping team leader for MillerCoors.

“It’s a huge opportunity to put your foot into a door and open a conversation into just about anything you want to do.”

For some players, an athletic scholarship was their only means of going to college. Tuition, even at a state school, was too expensive, and that scholarship meant the difference between higher education and a blue-collar job or a career in the military.

More than that, however, were the experiences and contacts their education provided _ opportunities that helped shape their adult lives.

For some, college was their first time away from home; one player said he wasn’t sure if he’d ever have ventured beyond the state where he grew up otherwise. For others, their status as a college football player gave them entree to a future employer, be it through a direct connection or the affection the large network of alumni and fans have for anyone who wore their favorite team’s jersey.

“The first couple years, I knew people who were interested in what I did,” said Jim Thompson, an offensive lineman at Auburn. “I write big-truck insurance. It’s not like car insurance. It’s a specialized market. I don’t think playing college football hurt me.”

When Tennessee Titans defensive line coach Tracy Rocker got into coaching, he already had a long list of contacts from his days at Auburn, where he was a two-time All-American and the SEC player of the year in 1988. Grant’s former Michigan teammates are now a “Who’s Who” of athletic administrators, business executives and coaches, San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh among them.

While his friends don’t play a pivotal role in his career, they might for his son Derek, a college junior who ultimately wants to get into sports management.

“I’ve got unique connections that can help him,” Grant said. “You’ve got to use those connections. It comes back to not what you know, it’s who you know, and I’m using the hell out of them.”

A number of players also said the goal-oriented nature of a football team made them attractive candidates for potential employers, some of whom told them they figured that if a man had enough focus and drive to earn a football scholarship, that work ethic would translate to his next job.

“Certain characteristics that I developed during football … were lifelong skills,” said Alvin Mitchell, who started at outside linebacker for Auburn and is now a minister and a sergeant in the Polk County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office. “I still use them every day. Every. Day.”

But Shan Morris, who played safety at Auburn, said he’s done the math on his scholarship, and it doesn’t quite add up.

Yes, athletes get a free education, along with room and board. That’s no small thing considering tuition and room and board averaged $17,860 for in-state students at public universities in 2012-13, and $39,518 for students at private schools, according to the College Board.

But even with limits on practice that were imposed in 1991, playing a college sport is the equivalent of having a full-time job. And then some.

Story Continues →