When the Clock Hits Zero
How former college athletes can find purpose in their career after sports
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I know, I know. A Tuesday afternoon post? Why? Well for starters, I will still have my regularly scheduled article on Thursday morning. However, I am cohosting a roundtable discussion tonight with seven other former/current professional and collegiate athletes about sports, business, and finding purpose after you hang up the cleats for good.
The speakers are Ndamukong Suh (Tampa Bay Bucs), Cory Gearrin (MLB pitcher), Sahil Bloom (Stanford baseball), Andrew Petcash (Boston University basketball), Dickie Bush (Princeton football), Jared Doerfler (UNI golf), Barrett O'Neill (Virginia baseball), and me (Mercer football).
Here's the link for anyone who wants to tune in at 5:30 ET! Shout out Sahil for putting this together.
I published a piece last October on this very topic, and I decided to update it since my audience has grown 8x in that time. Hope you guys enjoy this piece. I'll see y'all again on Thursday 🤝
You arrive on campus in June for summer workouts as an eager, nervous 18 year old kid.
In high school, you were Mr. Everything. Team captain, all-state, school record holder. You thought you would roll into college, show the coaches just how good you are, and play as a true freshman. Then you walk in for the first team meeting of the summer and see 100 grown-ass men sitting in the room with you. These guys, benching 350, squatting 500, some sporting full beards, are who you’ll be competing against each day. Talk about a reality check.
As you slowly look around, you see 25 other eager, nervous 18 year old kids just like you. At first you view them as your competition: guys you need to beat out to get on the field.
After a full summer lifting and running together, getting cussed out by coaches together, and making stupid college freshmen decisions together, these other 25 guys become your closest friends.
You don’t get on the field at all your freshman year. You are “redshirted” like most of your class, and you spend practice working on the scout-team against the starters. You make it your mission to earn playing time the next fall. You bust your ass in the offseason, and your coaches take notice. A few seniors graduate, some spots on the depth chart open up, and you perform well in fall camp the following year. Now you finally get a taste of playing time.
As the next offseason comes to a close, you’re now through with two years of school. You declared a major in finance, and you’re hoping to further elevate your game next fall. The next two years fly by. Some wins, some losses. Countless memories.
You blink and it's May 2019. Yesterday you were a wide-eyed freshman trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Today, you’re walking across the stage with a diploma taking pictures with Mom and Dad.
Has it really been four years since you arrived on campus? Time flies.
Some of the 25 guys that you started with have quit, transferred, or run out of eligibility. 13 of you who were redshirted stick around to play for a fifth year the next fall. One last ride.
Three weeks of fall camp seem to drag on for months. It’s Groundhog Day, but each morning you’re a little more exhausted.
Breakfast at 7:30, practice from 8:30 to 11, lunch, lifts, meetings, walk throughs, sleep, repeat. The most exhausting three weeks of your life.
Then camp ends, like it did the previous four years. Except this time, it’s over for good. Then the season begins, and everything accelerates. You’re starting for the first time in your career, and you’re nervous as hell. Then the first game goes by. Then six games go by, and the season is halfway over.
You’re trying to enjoy the present moment. Trying to savor it. Trying to make it last as long as you can. But panic creeps into the back of your mind, because football, which always seemed like it would last forever, is quickly coming to an end.
Living with your best friends, hanging out in the locker room, sweating on the field, and countless little moments are soon to be gone for good.
All you can think is "JUST SLOW DOWN!"
But life doesn't listen to your request.
Then you blink, and you’re playing your last game in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Then you blink again, and you’re taking your last snap, with 10 other seniors, as the clock hits zero.
Then the game is over, and you’re sitting in your locker. You don’t want to take off your pads, because you know you’ll never put them back on. You hug your coaches. The same men who cussed you out all year, who you have a love-hate relationship with, are now tearing up that you’ll be gone. You hug your teammates. The guys that you fought with, and laughed with, and competed with, and forged an unbreakable bond with. The guys that you’ve made too many memories with to count. You laugh, and cry, and feel consumed by all sorts of emotions.
The scrawny 18 year olds that you arrived with are now parting ways as grown 22 year old men.
You hop on the bus back home, and you try to savor every last second of it. Every bump on the road. Every bite of that post-game meal. Every inside joke. Every story that’s been told 100 times, and gets told once again. Every little thing. Because once you get off the bus, you’re not an athlete anymore.
You were always told that it will go by fast. It didn’t feel fast when you were a freshman trying to figure everything out. It didn’t feel fast when you were struggling to survive three weeks of camp. It didn’t feel fast when you sprawled out on the locker room floor after an offseason workout.
But here you are five years later, and it went by faster than you could have imagined.
And then you get home. You go to your room. You take a shower. And your athletic career is over. Now what?
What comes after football?
You Are More Than Your Jersey Number
Sports are what you do. They aren’t who you are. That’s a difficult distinction to make for many athletes. Why wouldn’t it be? We spend 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, working to become the best players possible. A conference championship and a starting role on your team are the two biggest goals for every collegiate athlete. You feel guilty focusing on anything other than football.
I was fortunate to have a well-rounded college experience. I was involved in Greek life. I studied abroad. I participated in a variety of campus organizations. But I didn’t feel like a student-athlete. I was a football player who happened to do other stuff. Student-athlete is a terrible term. No student-athletes feel like student-athletes. If anything, they all feel like athlete-students.
Athletes spend years 18-22 with their sport at the center of their lives, a north star to guide their ambitions. And then the clock hits zero one last time, and the game is gone forever. That’s really, really tough.
It’s easy to sit around and think back about the “glory days”. To reminisce on your memories from the field and the locker room. I have tons of great memories from college football, and there’s nothing wrong with looking back fondly.
But you can’t dwell on it. Living in the past is no way to live.
Life happens in stages. If you were fortunate enough to play a sport in college, your college “stage” was unique and incredible. acknowledge that, and appreciate that. But also accept that college athletics was a “stage” in a really long life. Don’t let the stage that ended prevent you from enjoying the stage that comes next.
So how do you find that next stage?
No one knows what they want to do with their life. Especially not at 22 years old. I majored in finance, but I had no idea what I was looking for in my professional life. You probably feel, or felt, the same way. And that’s normal.
In reality, you can’t map out the rest of your life at 22. You're going to feel like you need the whole thing figured out, like the world is racing ahead of you, and you'll soon be left behind. But no one knows what they're doing at 22, or even 25, and that's okay.
How do you figure out what to do with your life? To find your “calling”? You do two things:
- Make the next best choice. Do that over and over again.
- Take a bias towards action.
- Experiment with different things.
The Next Best Choice
The most important thing that you can do is focus on making the next best choice, over and over again.
You can't plan the next 20 years of your life, because you have no idea what variables will appear along the way. You don't know what job offers you will get, what skills you will develop, and what people you will meet.
You can make the best choice for you at that moment. You get a few job offers, and you take the one that seems the most interesting. You jump at the opportunity to meet someone who has succeeded in your field. You pursue that skill that seems interesting.
Imagine a map of your life, branching from the day you’re born to now. The path that formed your past as an athlete is set in stone, but the future paths you can take are infinite. You can’t see what the whole journey will look like until it’s done, but you can focus on making the next best decision, and exposing yourself to as many new branches as possible.
You may not know exactly where you'll end up, but focusing on the next best decision will ensure that you'll end up in the right place.
Bias Towards Action
The most important thing that you can do is take action. It is easy to fall in the "planning trap," where you feel underprepared to try something new. The thing is, no one starts off as an expert, and you can't plan your way to getting better.
Freshman year, I was terrified of getting my ass kicked by the upperclassmen. For my first month, I would lag in the back of the line during 1 on 1 pass rush drills, because I didn't want to get embarrassed.
Well one day my defensive line coach, Kenny Baker, threw me in the fire. "Raines, get your ass up here!"
I thought I was about to have a heart attack, but I jumped up to the front of the line. As I predicted, I got stonewalled after the ball snapped.
The world didn't end, and I jumped up hopped back in line.
In film that day, we reviewed the rep and talked about how to attack the next day's practice. The next morning, I got wider in my stance, focused on keeping the offensive tackle's hands off of me, and I won the rep.
The only way to get good at anything is to screw up, learn, and repeat. Coaches, bosses, and coworkers respect those who put in effort, regardless of outcome.
Take a bias towards action, and everything else will fall in line.
Experiment with Different Things
If you are like pretty much every other college athlete, you spent 95% of your time focused on your sport. Which means you have no idea what you want to do when that sport is gone. This can lead to an existential crisis as your try to fill that gaping hole.
It's okay to not have everything figured out. It's not okay to not try different things out. Most college students have less free-time when they enter corporate America. You and I both know that we have more free-time without practice, meetings, workouts, and everything else.
Sorry NCAA, no school is America is following your scheduling mandates.
For the first time in your life, you have the time and money to try anything you want. Personally, I was working in finance, but I started writing online. Writing turned into both a passion and income, and it has now replaced my finance job. You probably won't be a writer, but you will be a something.
Try a dozen different things, and double down on your strengths, especially if you enjoy them. The world is so full of opportunities now, go seize them.
You’re More Prepared Than You Think
I was talking to my friend Austin Sanders a few weeks ago. Austin was our starting left tackle at Mercer, and he and I competed everyday. He reminded me of something I said after one practice during fall camp in 2019:
We were in the ice baths on day eight of camp. The temperature was scorching, we had been banging heads for hours, and life was miserable. We were chatting, and I said, “This sucks, but you know what? This is the hardest thing we’ll ever have to do. We wake up and spend 2.5 hours knocking the shit out of each every single day. We’re sore, we’re hot, we’re tired, and this sucks. But pretty soon, it’s going to be over. What’s going to be tougher than this?”
Two years later, I still haven’t experienced anything more physically or mentally taxing than fall camp. At work, mistakes I made were met with “Hey Jack, can you please make this correction next time? Thank you!”
Mistakes at football practice were met with some quotes that I can’t publish online.
If you played a college sport, you’ve dealt with more adversity than 99% of your peers. You know how to work in teams. You know how to get stuff done without making excuses. You even know how to do small things, like being on time everyday. You dealt with all of the same struggles as your university peers, with 40 hours per week of athletics lumped on top. You’re more prepared for the professional world than anyone else.
You just need to know how to tell your story.
Weaving Sports Into Your “Story”
College coaches often say that if you get _____ degree, you’ll be good to go.
Mercer is a solid school, and we were often told that the Mercer degree would set us up for life. That’s not entirely true. Here’s an inconvenient truth: employers love former athletes, but your three point percentage isn’t going to help their company make money. Unless you went to Harvard or played quarterback at Alabama, your college athletics experience isn’t getting you hired by itself.
While your athletic career won’t get you hired by itself, it can be the variable that differentiates you from the field. You just have to know how to tell your story.
An anecdote from my life:
I applied via deferred enrollment to Columbia Business School in 2019, and I was fortunate to land an interview. I had a 4.0 in finance and Spanish from Mercer University, and I played football. Not a bad resume, but the competition was fierce. The other guys interviewing went to Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Princeton. They were working for Goldman, McKinsey, or some west coast start up, and their resumes were pristine.
That being said, I had one advantage: I knew my story well.
I walked on at Mercer University as a freshman. I was a seventh string defensive end who didn’t even get invited to preseason camp in 2015. I suffered a concussion, broken wrist, torn labrum, and separated hip in three years.
As a 220 pound freshman, I had no business on a Division 1 team. But I worked, and worked, and worked. By my senior year, I was a 265 pound team captain with a full athletic scholarship. The despair of tearing my hip during my best spring practice. The joy of being rewarded a scholarship in front of my entire team during camp in 2017. My heart beating out of my chest before my first start in 2019. Crying in the Chapel Hill locker room after taking off my pads for the last time.
Everyone loves a good story. And everyone really loves a good underdog story. So I leaned into that. I told my story: an underdog who managed to build my football career from scratch. Sure, I had good grades, decent campus involvement, and a solid internship, but all of those details served as complements to my story. I was a football player who took a difficult path to the top of my sport. Columbia loved it.
Everyone has a story, and as an athlete yours is more interesting than most. You have lived through so many highs and lows. Overcome so much adversity. Figure out what your story is, and tell it well.
A former athlete with some good college stats and nothing else becomes another rejection.
A former athlete with a compelling story about their journey becomes a must hire.
Tell your story.
Moving on from college sports is tough. Like going through a difficult break up, you are going to have feelings of loss and longing. Instead of dwelling on the past, appreciate your experiences and use them as leverage for your future.
Your time as an athlete might be over, but the rest of your life is just beginning. The future is exciting, and terrifying, and full of infinite possibilities. Spend less time trying to plan out your whole life, and more time taking the next best step and experiencing new things.
An athlete’s journey is the perfect career prep, and you will enter the workforce capable of dealing with issues that many of your peers have yet to encounter. You just need to get your foot in the door.
You get your foot in the door by telling your story. What were your struggles? Your triumphs? Your failures? When did you feel most alive? How did you succeed? That’s your story. Figure out your story, learn your story, and tell your story.
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