By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 29, 2012
“Can one wonder that under the circumstances the relative importance of work and sport is sometimes lost in the mind of a twenty-year-old undergraduate?” — Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 12, 1892
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The crowds of students huddled impatiently outside the Blue Leprechaun bar last spring, just as they do outside any bar in any season here.
The first thing on their minds was the bouncer — getting past him. If they looked at him, it was only with a fleeting glance, maybe one moment of eye contact while their ID was in his hands.
It wouldn’t be enough time to recognize that this bouncer started on Michigan’s last national championship-winning team 15 years ago, the only team to do so in the last 64 years.
“They have no idea (who I am),” said Chris Floyd, an NFL fullback-turned-bouncer. “If anything, they will mistake me for a current player.”
It’s about a mile and a quarter from Michigan Stadium to the Blue Lep, as the bar is affectionately known. It’s a trek that takes about 20 minutes on foot, a little faster by car.
For Floyd, it was a journey that lasted 15 years, one that took him through at least six jobs, three internships and a successful stint at grad school. All of those occupations represented the 37-year-old’s attempts to find a career once his football days finally expired.
It’s a journey that is still very much ongoing — this latest job at the Blue Lep is a mere placeholder. It keeps income flowing while Floyd awaits the opportunity that brought him back to Ann Arbor, the place where he made his name as a football star.
He is not the only one to go through such travails. Countless other former athletes, at Michigan and everywhere else around the country, find themselves unsure of what to do when they are told once and for all that they can no longer play football — the only thing they’ve known for most of their lives.
These aren’t the true stars — the Tom Bradys, the Charles Woodsons, the LaMarr Woodleys — the men who enjoy 10-to-15-year careers in the NFL, and can live off their spoils the rest of their lives.
These are the more forgotten players, men like Floyd. The ones who last a few years in the NFL, perhaps, but no longer.
Fifteen years after that national championship, Chris Floyd is back in the town he still loves. It’s the town where he once soaked in the cheers of 100,000 fans every Saturday, back when the future seemed limitless and the present was free of worry. He’s holding a job so close to the Big House — the place where he made so many memories — that he’s practically in its shadow.
Yet that stadium never felt so far away.
Floyd was drafted by the New England Patriots in the third round of the 1998 NFL draft, 81st overall, after helping lead the Wolverines to their 1997 national championship as the starting fullback.
Third rounders have a decent shot at playing for a long time in the league. While they aren’t expected to be stars, third rounders have more than a puncher’ s chance at carving out a role for themselves, and many end up as solid veterans.
This wasn’t the case for Floyd. He never made it past special teams in his two-plus years with the Patriots, and first-year coach Bill Belchick cut him after a penalty-filled game in front of Floyd’s family and friends in Detroit on Thanksgiving in 2000.
Floyd couldn’t find a permanent home in 2001, either. From there, he spent the next two years as a football vagabond, training and trying to make teams. But workouts with Detroit, Atlanta and Buffalo didn’t amount to anything. He also tried out with the Chicago Rush of the Arena Football League and spent some time with the La Crosse Night Train of the National Indoor Football League, buoyed by former Michigan teammate Diallo Johnson.
It was after Floyd’s last NFL tryout in 2003 that the trying times, the carousel of short-term jobs lacking long-term prospects, began.
“I think my lowest point was being turned down for jobs,” Floyd said. “I’m talking about odd jobs. There’s been so many jobs I’ve applied for.”
So many, in fact, that Floyd used to keep a notebook of all the rejection letters he received. But it’s spring 2012, and he thinks he’s finally found his calling. For Floyd, it’s long been an aspiration to come back to Michigan and work in the Athletic Department. The past five years have seen many applications turned in, but nothing substantial has come of them.
This time, though, Floyd feels like he’s made for the assistant director for alumni engagement position that is now open.
From talking to his former teammates, he says that some ex-Wolverines feel “used” by the program since they feel unwelcome to come back.
Floyd points to one incident to illustrate this sentiment. At the 2003 home game against Ohio State, he, former safety Eric Mays and former running back Chris Howard were watching on the sidelines despite not having tickets. They were eventually escorted off the field by police, while former quarterback Drew Henson and Yankees star shortstop Derek Jeter — also ticketless but a constant target of ABC’s cameras — remained on the field for the whole game.
Having experienced frustrations like this, Floyd feels he’s the perfect person to help reach out to fellow alumni.
“I don’t feel like there’s anybody (more) qualified,” Floyd says.
He became aware of the open position during a visit to Ann Arbor in March; by April, he decided to leave the job he had in Washington, D.C. working for the Department of Defense, fully confident he would land this one in the Athletic Department.
Floyd went to Ann Arbor to go through the interview process but he had no income, so he picked up the security work at the Blue Lep. In the daytime, he also worked for the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreations department, doing field maintenance for the city’s parks.
By early June, Floyd’s resolve hadn’t weakened.
“I think that the job is mine, it’s only a matter of time before I get the call to start,” Floyd said then. “But until that happens, I have to keep grinding it out every day for the city of Ann Arbor, and that’s what I’m doing.”
He hadn’t considered the possibility that he wouldn’t be hired.
“I’m telling you, I don’t even think that way. I’m so positive that this is going to work out. I just don’t see it not working out.”
Not every former Division-I football player struggles to find his way once his playing days conclude. But Floyd isn’t alone, either.
Marcus Ray, a safety at Michigan from 1994-98, is forever immortalized in Wolverine lore for his vicious hit on Ohio State wide receiver David Boston in the 1997 edition of the rivalry game, which was captured by Sports Illustrated and used as the magazine’s cover the week after the game.
Many Michigan fans no doubt saved that cover, a reminder of the glorious year that was 1997.
Those fans never saw the “life depression” that Ray fell in to when his short-lived NFL career came to an end after a groin injury in 2001. They didn’t see how Ray struggled through a doomed marriage, how the former defensive back ballooned by more than 100 pounds and how he went through the motions as a high school coach and graduate assistant at Michigan and Central Michigan for the next 10 years.
He compared his high-school coaching experience to that of a drug addict — the few hours he got of it a day were a high, but the rest of his life was the painful come-down.
“I think my outside appearance was a reflection of what was going on with Marcus Ray on the inside,” he says. “I didn’t like myself anymore. I didn’t know how to like myself without athletics or without being in shape.
“I didn’t have anything to hang my hat on, so I spent a lot of time in my own mind, living in 1997, because that’s where I felt comfortable. That was the last real taste of success that I experienced.”
Sam Sword, a classmate of Ray’s, is the third all-time leading tackler in Michigan history, with 265 stops. But he, too, emerged from his brief NFL career in 2002 unsure of himself, and was behind his peers who had already worked professionally for several years.
Sword, too, gave coaching a try, but found it wasn’t for him; by then, he was 30 years old and even further behind. A job working as a recreation supervisor for the city of Palm Coast in Florida wasn’t the answer either.
Both Ray and Sword eventually did find their paths. The former battled through his depression thanks to counseling and has written an inspirational book partially based on his experiences, titled “Rays of Light: Volume 1, ‘Let There Be Light.’ ” Ray is now trying to get into broadcasting after enjoying an appearance on WTKA, a Detroit sports radio station, before the Michigan State game last year.
After the recreation supervisor job, Sword realized that he has a passion working with disadvantaged kids, and he has been teaching for the last four or five years, currently at a juvenile detention center.
“But it was hard now, I’m not saying it was easy, just trying to figure out what I wanted,” Sword said. “People were telling me all that I did (at Michigan), but I said, this doesn’t define who I am.”
It’s July 11, and Chris Floyd has learned that he didn’t get the job — the job that he came back to Ann Arbor for, that he thought was definitely his, based on how he viewed certain conversations he had with the interviewer. Instead, it went to a more qualified candidate, former Michigan track captain and Olympian Jeff Porter.
The department thought he would be too football-focused, he says, and that his references weren’t strong enough. One of them, Floyd is told, even hung up on the interviewer. (According to Floyd, when he followed up with the reference, it turned out there was miscommunication, and the reference apparently tried to call the interviewer back several times to no avail.)
“It doesn’t make sense,” Floyd said. “I’m disappointed. I’m really disappointed, because it seems like when I left D.C. to come here, I was a shoo-in for the position.”
The rejection is nothing new.
“I’ve been in this boat before,” Floyd said. “I’ve been turned down for several jobs here at the University. I’ve never made it this far. I’ve never been interviewed for any job at the University and I’ve applied for a number of jobs.
“It’s disappointing, but I’m not going to hold any bad feelings or anything, because this is still my University. I still love Michigan athletics, football is still my family. It’s one of them things that is going to make me I guess tougher, because it does — you get kind of numb toward the rejection.”
But in the days after he found out that he didn’t get the job, Floyd took to Twitter and voiced his frustrations. His series of tweets read like this:
“Moved back from Ann Arbor three months ago because I was promised a job in the Athletic Department…I am a former student-athlete and national champion. After a promise and 3 months of waiting and interviewing and waiting more, they go and hire someone else…Leaders and Best? SMH. Still, my loyalty is with Michigan. I’ll always support one of my favorite people, Coach Hoke, any way I can. There is serious disconnect between the athletic department and the athletic alumni and they wonder why we don’t come or give back!”
Still, despite the setback, Floyd remained resolute and confident that he will find the job and career he desires. He insists that he’s at the point where he won’t be settling for anything.
“It’s just one of those things where somebody’s going to have to give you a chance, and if they take a chance on me, I won’t disappoint them,” Floyd said. “I’ve never had a job or left a job where, regardless of what it was, they felt like I didn’t do a good job.”
When cases like these emerge, it’s only natural to search for someone to point the finger at. But it seems too complex an issue for any one entity to shoulder the blame.
Should the Athletic Department or football program have done more to help the men when they were still playing? Floyd and Ray stop short of saying that.
Floyd says that he had to fight past some negative feelings about his football mentors while struggling in his post-football days.
“When my career ended, I couldn’t put together a resume,” Floyd said. “I didn’t have anything to put on a resume but football. When I was applying for these jobs thinking Michigan should look out (for me), that was me thinking selfishly, but at the same time, I was very disappointed in myself because I didn’t prepare myself for what I was going through.”
Floyd also admits he wasn’t the most diligent student, doing just enough to stay eligible but failing to push himself academically and for internship opportunities.
It’s the same story for Ray, who says he “ostracized himself from education.” He doesn’t blame any of his coaches or support staff because he says it wasn’t their duty to make sure he was preparing himself for a career. That doesn’t mean the staff was ignorant — former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr told his star safety directly that he was an academic underachiever.
Sword also says “the only person he blames is himself,” since he didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that the University provided him. But he goes farther than his former teammates.
“I’m not pointing the finger,” Sword says. “I’m not trying to play the blame game, because the University of Michigan gave me opportunities, took me places I would’ve never imagined going … but come on man, you’re talking about 18-19-year-old kids.
“I don’t mean to be contradicting myself, but there’s got to be something that could’ve been done to open our eyes about X-Y-Z.”
If there’s one thing the three men agree on, it’s that part of the problem was their mentality. It’s one likely shared by those following in their footsteps across the country today.
To earn a scholarship to a Division-I program, with rare exceptions, a player has to be not only talented but intensely dedicated to the sport of football. And if one has that combination, it’s inevitable that the game consumes most of their lives.
When they finally do get to college, the necessary time and commitment required only intensifies. College football has developed into a high-stakes, high-money sport, with intense pressure on coaches and players alike to be successful. That means the latter group must dedicate almost their entire lives to the sport.
And when you are that good and have spent that much time, why would you think about doing anything else after you leave school? All three men say that all they really thought about doing was moving on to the next level and playing for a long time in the NFL. They considered nothing else — they were football players. It was already their job.
The sport has only gotten bigger in recent years thanks to the influence of TV and other financial interests. When asked at Michigan media day about whether it was hard to imagine his future beyond the daily grind of his sport, fifth-year senior offensive guard Patrick Omameh, a communications and sociology double major, said that it’s “very, very difficult to think past football,” and agreed that it felt like a full-time job.
The lack-of-time argument is one that Shari Acho refuses to consider.
Acho worked as an academic counselor for the Michigan State football team and then the Michigan football team for 10 years, and in her time at both universities, she saw cases like Floyd —“lost souls,” as she termed them. Acho said that hearing those stories “drives me every day (to) be passionate about what I do (in) helping these kids.”
That passion has manifested itself in a relatively new program in the Michigan athletic department called the Michigan Career and Professional Transition Program, or M-PACT. Essentially the brainchild of Acho that formed after she noticed these issues developing, the program received extensive support from then-new Athletic Director Dave Brandon and others in the Athletic Department.
M-PACT is now in its third year. It’s designed to help athletes discover their passions outside of their sport, so that they will have more of a plan and direction when their playing days are over.
It’s open to athletes in all sports — Michigan football coach Brady Hoke has made it mandatory for his team — and has been very well received by those who have participated.
Should M-PACT continue to gain strength, perhaps those “souls” won’t ever lose their way.
“Then, when the success of the game has been assured, and the college course is finished, the man who has been dined and feted has to commence his life in the world ... The new clerk, who knows nothing of business principle, finds himself far below men who seemed to look up to him but a short time before.” — Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 12, 1892
It’s Sept. 26, and Chris Floyd is still in Ann Arbor.
He’s still working days for Ann Arbor Parks and Rec, and he’s also now an assistant football coach for Skyline High School. He still returns to work at the Blue Lep occasionally, but the grind of football season has made those shifts less frequent.
Floyd isn’t sure of exactly what he’ll do next — again — but he’s confident something will emerge. He turned down an offer to return to his old job in D.C., with better pay, even, because he doesn’t want to concede a perfect fit elsewhere.
The former Michigan fullback also still isn’t thrilled with the way the hiring process for the Athletic Department position happened. He attributed his decision to send the combustive tweets, which have since been deleted, to his lack of knowledge about social media, but stood by the sentiment behind them.
“I don’t take none of it back,” Floyd said. “It is what it is. I support the football program and Coach Hoke until the day I don’t support them no more. It’s nothing directed at him or football, but at the same time, I feel like people within the Athletic Department did me wrong.”
Floyd may be unsure of his next move, but he remains resolute.
“I feel like as long as I continue to network and put myself out there, volunteer, or whatever the case may be, I feel like something will come in place … I’m taking it as it comes.”
Now, once more, Chris Floyd must search for a path that’s more permanent. As many have discovered, football isn’t.