What Does It Really Take?

April 3, 2012

Sports

I’ve always wanted to investigate what it takes to be a college athlete. I know fans and the media get in the mode of thinking of these young adults as just a number or a name on a uniform. But there is a real person, who faces real pressure to perform at a high level. No one ever knows what they go through, on a daily basis.

So, I decided to interview 10 former student-athletes from five sports – six males and four females – to find out how much pressure they were under, while playing college sports.

The average freshman athlete comes in with stars in their eyes, hoping to make an immediate impact. Some – like Reggie Bush, Kevin Durant, or anybody that John Calipari recruits – do make a splash right away, but, for most freshmen, their experience is a reality check. They go from being a big fish in a small pond, to being just another athlete.

“It’s really tough coming from high school, where you are the best player on your team, to become just another guy, when you get to college. A lot of guys go through depression, their freshman year. You get angry and want to transfer. You don’t understand why you’re not playing. I guess you just have to be patient and learn what is to play at the college level,” says Cortez McCraney, who played for the Memphis Tigers and Mississippi State Bulldogs during his playing career.

“I personally experienced that, going to Memphis and playing in my hometown. I only played one year of high school football. You’re so used to being “the man” in high school, and you think that automatically transfers to college. You have your friends, peers, and family all in your ear, telling you this stuff”.

Most Division One athletes are on scholarship, but there are a brave few that walk-on to college sports teams. Reggie Harris, a former walk-on, who earned a place on Mississippi State’s football team as a long-snapper, from 2000-2003, felt he had to work extra hard to stand out: “Initially, it is tough, I think, for any guy that walks on. Number one, you have do something to prove yourself, knowing that all the odds are stacked against you. You have to earn people’s attention”.

Junior college transfers have a tough time adjusting to their first year on a college campus, as well.

“When I went to Bevill State, in Alabama, it was totally different. You had to be self-motivated, because there wasn’t a lot of motivation. When I got to Mississippi State, it was a whole other level. There was a whole other workout and weight plan, and it took me a whole year to get used to it. I barely finished workouts,” said Talisha Lee, a former hurdler for Mississippi State’s track team.

One of the toughest things for an athlete to learn is time management. They have to resign themselves to the fact that their social lives will be limited, if they hope to be a high-level athlete. The athletes that I interviewed felt it was tough at times, but it came with the territory. They knew what they were getting into, in a nutshell.

The day-to-day balancing is tough, but the hardest thing sometimes is dealing with pressure from your family. Some athletes have the weight of their whole family on their back. A professional contract could be life-changing, in some cases.

“Most guys come up in tough situations. So, sports was their way out. I heard someone say, the greatest motivation is being hungry. When you’re on a college campus, they do everything for us. We have family, back home, which are hungry. Parents, back home, don’t have the money to pay a bill or keep the lights from being turned off. You’re just thinking – I have to feed my family; they’re hungry,” said McCraney.

“I heard one guy say, once, ‘if I don’t play football, I don’t what I will do with my life’.”

College athletes play for their families, but they also represent their school. With that comes rabid fans, who can be unforgiving, at times. Bill Buckley, who is considered one of the greatest wide receivers to come through Mississippi State, recounts how he was treated, by fans and the media, after a poor performance.

“The first game of my junior year, we played Auburn. I dropped three passes. In The Reflector (Mississippi State’s student newspaper), that next Monday, the big headline was “State Has No Receivers”. I got harassed the whole week; people were dropping forks in the cafeteria. I had people who I didn’t know, calling me at my dorm room,” said Buckley.

The hardest part, for athletes, is not being able to respond to the criticism.

“The tough thing is being scrutinized and not being able to defend yourself. It comes to a point where you are darned if do and darned if you don’t. It’s kind of one of those things. You get guys who pick on you because they know you can’t fight them. But, you can’t be aggressive with them, because you will get in trouble – you’re the one who will get kicked off the team or out of school,” said Harris.

The majority of Division One athletes are on scholarship, but there are some that have partial scholarships, that they must fight to keep.

“It’s pretty difficult. If you get a half-scholarship in baseball, you’re doing pretty well. There are players that get full scholarships; the ones that get those, in baseball, were high draft picks or potential high draft picks.

If you play for a coach who might pull your scholarship, if you’re not performing, it can definitely add a lot of extra pressure to the situation,” says Josh Johnson, who played on Mississippi State’s baseball team from 2003-2007.

Something I discovered while conducting these interviews, was how tough international players have it. The most revealing fact that I learned was that foreign athletes have to pay tax on their scholarship. It just goes along with other issues, like the language barrier and the problems associated with not being an American citizen.

“It was tough being an international student, especially having a pretty hard summer. The toughest part was not being an American citizen. There was an issue I had, early in the year. The coaches were away and were traveling. It was difficult for me to resolve the issue without any help, because I didn’t have a social security number. For example I can’t just go out and get a loan or even getting a regular phone; I had to get a pre-paid phone,” said Lee Anna Osei, who played one year for the Miami Hurricanes, before transferring. She spent one year at Trinity Valley Junior College, before giving up the game, due to injury.

“I didn’t have a permanent address in America, I didn’t have a social security number, and I couldn’t get an on-campus job. That was huge, for me, because I couldn’t be as self-reliant as I was, back home”.

As everyone can see, college athletes have several distractions before they even step on the field, court, or track. Once they do, injuries are sure to occur, and the pressure of to get healthy can be discouraging. Alexandria Hagler, who played two years for Mississippi State, dealt with agonizing knee tendonitis, during her short time playing college basketball.

“It’s definitely discouraging because you want to be successful and do your best. The injury is something you have to deal with. So, the pressure of trying to meet the expectations of coaches, it can be discouraging; it was for me. I wanted to please my coaches. My injuries prevented me from doing that,” says Hagler.

There are situations where college athletes have to end their career, prematurely, because of injury. Hagler had to face this reality because of her knee injury. This is something no athlete takes well. She spoke about how it felt to learn that her career was over.

“It was devastating. It was probably one of the toughest things that happened to me, in my life. I had played, since the third grade. It was my dream to play in college; it was stripped away, involuntarily, because of injuries,” said Hagler.

The athletes who do stay healthy, have a chance to prove themselves. They may even get a chance to shine, early in their career. But, it sometimes causes jealousy from teammates – especially when they take a more veteran teammate’s spot.

“I started, my sophomore year, over a guy who was a senior. He was a well- respected guy. The players really liked him. That was not a popular thing to happen. I was a young guy, and didn’t kiss anybody’s butt. I was trying to play ball. This senior was a popular guy, to everybody, and I was putting his butt on the bench,” said Buckley.

“I kind of got ostracized – especially by the older guys. They made life kind of hard for me.”

Athletes can achieve several individual accolades while playing college sports, but that doesn’t always result in team wins. If teams lose, then their coach’s job can be in jeopardy – the proverbial hot seat. It can be a tough environment to be in, for a young athlete.

“You have to walk on egg shells, especially if you’re not one of the “go-to” guys on the team. You can’t afford to make any mistakes; it feels like you’re dooming the game or the season, if you do,” said Cyrus McGowan, who played two years at Arkansas and his final two, for the Miami Hurricanes.

Coaches who are on the hot seat tend to trust very few players. That could result in a talented player sitting on the bench.

“It was frustrating; I felt like the coaches were out to get me and didn’t like me. I put in the work. I killed, in practice. You play like that in practice, and you expect that you are going to see some minutes. It was nothing but lies. The work ethic and hard work I put in, during my two years at Arkansas, never helped me get on the court,” McGowan said.

Male athletes can take comfort in the praise from fans. The female athletes have to deal with the pressure, while not always receiving that same adjuration.

“One thing people don’t realize is that we work just as hard as the men’s teams do. The tennis team, surprisingly, went into the gym and did the exact same workout as the football team did. No one gave us credit for anything like that. They don’t realize that we go to the gym or that we workout or condition and train like that, but we really do. We work really hard.  I just hope they appreciate it and realize that fact,” says Yawna Allen, who played tennis for Arkansas and Oklahoma State, during her college career.

“It’s hard for women in sports because they don’t get the same type of fan support that the men’s teams do”.

It’s almost heartbreaking to think of what these young athletes have to go through, for free room and board, as well as tuition. We always hear about the positives of participating in Division One sports, but the negatives are just as numerous. The pressure that these 18-23- year-olds are under to perform can cause even the biggest, strongest athlete to crumble.

It’s something for a fan to think about, the next time they want to tweet, Facebook, or call a radio show, complaining about a college athlete not giving enough – they should put themselves in their shoes, and realize what it really takes.

Jeremiah Short covers Mississippi State University football and basketball.  Follow him on Twitter, @JeremiahShort26; join his Facebook blog, Real Story Sports: J.Short’s Blog, or e-mail him, JShort@realstorypublishing.com.

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