The ideal end to career in football at Michigan is a career in the NFL, but what happens to the vast majority who don’t make the cut?

Scott Bell
Scott Bell
Scott Bell
Scott Bell

Excited fans lined the hallway. Some wore the jerseys of their favorite players. Others clasped paper, pictures or footballs hoping to have them signed.

They all wanted, at the very least, to catch a glimpse of the former college football stars walking into the RCA Dome for the NFL Scouting Combine.

As the players made their way through the crowd to the media room, the tension was palpable. Roughly 300 frenzied reporters shouted out questions to the NFL hopefuls before they filed into the combine for mass tryouts.

They found it a somewhat uncomfortable limbo between college stardom and NFL glory. The players no longer had names. Southern Cal’s star wideout Dwayne Jarrett was simply WR 22, Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn was QB 11 Michigan defensive tackle Alan Branch’s sweatshirt identified him as DL 11. For the college athletes, accustomed to being unparalleled on the field, the combine held a simple message – this was the big leagues.

After it’s all over, the great ones, the best football players in the country and by extension, the world, will go on to a promised land countless little boys dream about. The photographers will snap their picture and their girlfriends will swoon, and they’ll go on to fortune and glory.

And then there are the players who don’t make it out of limbo. The vast majority of college athletes, the ones the NFL recruiters saw flinch on the bench press or hesitate during the sprint, the ones who walk out of the RCA dome defeated.

What happens to those Michigan players who sprinted out from the tunnel at Michigan Stadium for four years, enjoyed VIP status at Rick’s and Alpha Epsilon Pi and spent endless hours in practice, the weight room and film sessions?

Do they enjoy their lives after football? Does a Michigan degree mean as much as recruiters here say it does?

It’s reality that only a fraction of the athletes who grace the field at the Big House actually make a career out of sports. The majority of football players use the skills they learn in the classroom, not on the field, to make ends meet later in life. And that can be a challenge if the classroom is an afterthought.

Tasting the Dream

Looking back, Bob Bergeron wouldn’t say the classroom was an afterthought, but at least for a while, it looked like the former walk on kicker for the Michigan football team wouldn’t be needing his education degree after all.

Bergeron was invited to the Dallas Cowboys camp just after he graduated in 1984. And there, the Fort Wayne, Ind. native found himself standing on the same field as NFL legends.

“It was awesome to see football played at the highest level,” Bergeron said.

Bergeron had a good chance to make the team. But team officials pitted him against Rafael Septein for a spot. Septein was a brilliant kicker, and he sent every ball he touched through the goal. Bergeron was good, but he only sunk about 87 percent.

He was cut.

“I knew it was going to happen,” he said. “The other guy was definitely better than me.”

But the disappointment didn’t long. He already had another job lined up – one that used his University degree.

He got a job as a high school teacher, and after a couple moves, he eventually ended up in his home town of Fort Wayne at R. Nelson Snyder High School where he’s a math teacher. Most people will agree that NFL is more glamorous than teaching high school math, it’s the real world though, and as Bergeron will tell you, not everyone can be a football player. Someone has to teach them math.

He hasn’t lost the Wolverine fighting spirit though, and he imparts what he can of it to the Snider Panthers as an assistant coach for the school’s football team.

Lots of football players walk onto the team imagining a future in the NFL, but Bergeron came closer than most. There are others though, who take longer to understand that they didn’t have a future in the NFL. Maybe they toil in the minor leagues indefinitely or slide through school with a communications major and a low GPA, only to find they have to go back to training – or to school. The University’s team isn’t without people who put academics first, though. Every once in a while you run across someone who laid it all down for something that doesn’t seem as exciting, like say, dentistry.

Giving up the Balancing Act

In 1985, Norm Betts approached then-Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler to inform him of his intentions to forgo his final year of eligibility to enter dental school. Schembechler had never had a player pass on his final year of eligibility before.

“I decided I wasn’t going to either one of them very well doing it that way,” Betts said. “So I went to Bo and decided I was just going to go to dental school and do a good job at that because that was I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”

The tight end had already been to two Rose Bowls (including the phantom touchdown game against Southern California in 1979). The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys had told Betts that he was on their draft boards.

Betts decided he couldn’t put his best effort into both football and dental school.

He chose dental school and never looked back.

“I wasn’t really interested in playing in the NFL,” Betts said. “I really didn’t know what else I was going to (do to) get out of (the sport).”

Betts had sat down with his father and received the support of his teammates in his decision pursue a future outside of the stadium.

“I’d go watch the games and wish I was out there,” Betts said. It was hard, he said, though the dental profession has served him well. “I’m glad I did it and wouldn’t change it for anything.”

He ventures back every year as a season ticket holder. After graduating, Betts finished his residency at the University and left for the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to Ann Arbor in 1999 as the chairman of the University of Michigan dental school.

Betts was an anomaly though. Most students would be slow to sacrifice an illustrious run in the Big House to focus on someone else’s molars. The really good players might be slow to focus on school rather than their athletics, and as they sit in class, quite a few probably don’t realize they don’t have a football.

The Other Coach

“They all still believe they’re going to go to the NFL, at least for a little while,” said Shari Acho, an associate athletic director at the Universitiy.

Acho says one of her challenges is making some of the football players realize that their future may not rest on the gridiron. Instead, her job is to ensure that those who can’t cut it in the NFL find success elsewhere.

From the moment a recruit steps on campus, Acho said she tries to engrain the Michigan culture in him. She makes a point to meet with the student and his family, show them the academic facilities and reiterate her emphasis on his eventual graduation.

“When they get here, they understand what’s expected,” Acho said. “You’re not going to just come here and play football. This is Michigan; it just doesn’t work that way here.”

Acho heads the University’s Athletic Academic Success Program, which is designed to keep athletes on pace to graduate and find success once their eligibility expires. In her seven years at the University, Acho has been instrumental in the academic success of football players.

From her office in the Ross Center, Acho moderates the academic side of a football player’s time at Michigan. She works directly with the campus’s larger academic advising program and coordinates the athlete’s schedule if there is a conflict or change of interest.

Acho has networked with various programs on campus to ensure the best possible learning environment. Through various advising meetings, activities and appointments with the Career Center, Acho does what she can so that the players to have every possible opportunity to succeed.

“Ultimately, in terms of achieving their goals and graduating, we’re doing that,” she said.

Acho has also put in place the 3.5 and 4.5-year graduation program so that the players can get their degree in line with the end of the season.

Working in constant communication with Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, Acho takes on the responsibility of the players’ success.

She meets with the coaching staff every Monday to give a full report on the players’ academic progress.

“I’ve been working with coach Carr for a long time, and he’s extremely supportive if I’m having any issues with players to follow up right away with them,” Acho said. “I’m very lucky that way. I don’t know if everyone in the country has that kind of support.”

After College

Even with specialized career counseling, many students flounder when they’re thrust into the real world.

A year after John Becker walked onto the Michigan football team, he walked off.

“I knew I wasn’t going to have a career in professional football no matter what, so I needed to walk out of there with my degree,” Becker said. “My parents were paying my way, so I had to make sure I wasn’t throwing their money away.”

But even though he put his studies first and graduated a semester early in 1991 with an aerospace engineering degree, the real world turned out to be a harder than Becker thought.

He tried to get a job in his field, but he only met failure. Becker recalls interviewing for a position at Ford Motor Company and the Senior plc Group on a Friday. He received rejection letters in the mail the following Monday.

With few prospects, he became a truck driver.

“I always wanted to drive a truck as a kid,” Becker said. “Being unable at the time to get a job in my field, I thought, ‘Well, I can get a job doing this, get paid to see the country.’ “

Most kids don’t dream of being a trucker. If you told the football team they’d end up hauling frozen food across the country for the rest of their lives, you might stand a chance of being tackled.

Becker drove trucks out of Denver for about a year. And then the engineering offers started rolling in.

He worked doing automotive and weapons research for the University of Denver for the next seven years before returning to trucking.

“I didn’t necessarily love the driving aspect of it so much,” Becker said. “I always thought I could give it a shot to run it as a business.”

His business, White Rider Trucking based out of Denver, has about five trucks. They haul building material, mostly through Colorado and the rest of the mountain states.

Looking back, he made a reasonable compromise. After all, it’s ultimately only the very lucky few that don’t end up adjusting their dreams until they fit reality. When Becker was searching for a job after college he went through the same search most graduates do, though it was probably a little easier with an engineering degree than it is for many liberal arts majors. Other football players are at a comparative disadvantage compared with the other University graduates, just because the players might not have had the time to make their degree their top priority. Becker was a walk-on, which meant it might have been less emotionally taxing for him to walk off at the end of the day and focus on engineering. It couldn’t have been as easy though, for the star players.

Seeing Off The Victors

Today, if an athlete is falling behind in class, Acho and Carr will do what they can to nudge him along. But in bygone days, the nudge toward academic success was more like a shove. Bo Schembechler, who coached all three players, pushed his players toward good grades in a way that might make Carr look lax.

“If you didn’t go to class, you didn’t play,” Bergeron said. “And he had the graduate assistant coaches make sure that we went to class.”

Betts can remember occasions when his old coach would pull players aside to discuss their classroom performance. If one of his players struggled with academics, Schembechler would take an active role in getting that player to succeed in the classroom, Bergeron said.

After all, Schembechler had to make his players realize that a Michigan education was just as important as a victory on the field – one is ultimately fleeting and one makes the difference between earning millions on Wall Street and hoping for the managerial promotion at McDonalds.

For those who leave the football field behind, like Norm Betts, Bob Bergeron and John Becker, the gridiron memories never leave – but neither does their college degrees. And the combination itself, they say, is invaluable.

“The discipline I learned being on the football team and going to school at the same time are things that I’ve carried with me throughout my career,” Betts said. “It taught me the life skills that taught me to be successful.”

The NFL provides a dream life, which Bergeron, Betts and Becker never reached. But the three found success off the field.

And to them, that makes it all the more satisfying.

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