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Viewpoint: Leave no man behind

BY CHRIS FLOYD

Published November 20, 2012

Last week, I read Ben Estes’s article, “Life after Football: the Struggles after Playing Days Come to an End.” I spent the last five months interviewing for an inspiring story about turning challenge into opportunity, on both an individual and institutional level.

The story promised to highlight the benefits of the M-PACT program, which helps student athletes transition into life after graduation, by providing a compassionate and honest illustration of the career challenges undergone by three former University football players in the twelve years following our National Championship victory in 1997.

I hoped the story would focus on the lack of inclusiveness pervading the interaction between former football players and the program we gave so much to, and focus on suggested avenues for bridging this gap.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement — but if you want a story told right, you should tell it yourself.

My story started in 1994. I was an All-American running back from Detroit’s Cooley High School on an athletic scholarship at the University, the second youngest of seven siblings and the first of those seven to attend college. Football was my top priority; developing the life skills to supersede a career-ending injury was not. My career path would have benefited from the existence of a program like M-PACT and the passionate work of people like M-PACT director Shari Acho.

I was a starting fullback for the 118th Big Ten and National Championship football team of 1997 that finished 12-0. Those of us who were a part of that team still carry that pride deep in our souls. But another thing many of us have in common is the feeling that the athletic department we care so much about no longer cares for us.

This attitude of exclusivity hurts everyone by precluding the beneficial contributions we can make to the program as former student athletes with a wealth of experience, talent and unique insights. Our frustration over feeling excluded is exacerbated by the difficulty many of us have had transitioning into our professional careers as a result of underdeveloped life skills.

In the article, Acho referred to me as a “lost soul” and said that stories like mine fuel her passion for her work. If I was a lost soul, it’s because I was an 18-year-old kid living a dream. And, because the most persistent lesson our “leaders” ever taught me was: “Your number one mission is to win a Big Ten Championship and graduate.” So I did both.

I support the M-PACT program. But it must incorporate better support for inner-city and minority student athletes, many of whom are left feeling disillusioned by a university with seemingly no regard for how we’ll get by when they’re done with us. Transitional services should also extend to any student athlete who studied here before M-PACT’s inception.

And for God’s sake, please don’t call us names!

In 2002, I retired from the NFL and came to work for Mike Gittleson, Michigan’s first director of strength and conditioning. I never intended to be a college football trainer, but Gittleson knew I’d work hard and he hoped I’d find a second passion. In my four years under Gittleson, I applied for countless jobs in the athletic department, but was told I needed to further my education and diversify my work experience to move up in the program.

So I earned a master’s degree, worked for the NFL Players Association, the Detroit Lions, Wayne State University Athletics, the General Service Administration and the Department of Defense, before applying to be the assistant director of alumni engagement this year. The job was all but promised to me during the months in which I left my former job and moved back to Ann Arbor. Perhaps I quit my job prematurely, but I did so in good faith, only to learn they gave the job to someone else.

Finally, after 10 years of feeling rejected by the athletic department I’ve remained so loyally devoted to, my frustrations gave way to an inappropriate Twitter post that became the subject of much notoriety.

I regret my lapse in judgment, but those wounded feelings remain.

I may not have been the most qualified for this last role, but surely, in 10 years an opportunity must’ve existed for me to remain a part of the program to which I’ve given my all. Healing the disconnect many former student athletes feel with the football program begins by institutionalizing a spirit of empowerment and support for those “lost souls” who need to feel that this place is still our home.

Anyone who has played football for the University knows that if a coach or director makes you a promise, his word is his bond.