When the Clock Hits Zero

How former college athletes can find purpose in their career after sports

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Backstory

You arrive on campus in June 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’re “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. It’s May of your senior year, and 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 stick around for one more season 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. 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 you can’t stop thinking about the future. “What am I going to do after football?”

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 chewed 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 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?

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.

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?

Now What?

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.

How do you figure out what to do with your life? To find your “calling”? You do two things:

  1. Make the next best choice. Do that over and over again.

  2. Try different things. Lean in to what interests you, cut out the rest.

You can’t map out the rest of your life at 22. But 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. Then you decide that you don’t like that job, and you want to work for a new department/company. Figure out the steps you need to get to that point, and execute. Or maybe you love your company and role, and want to grow where you are. Build relationships with your coworkers and mentors, figure out the steps needed to advance, and execute. Then you’ll come to another cross roads. Determine which way you want to go, how to get there, and keep it rolling.

If you continue making the next best choice, regardless of what that choice is, you will forge a path that mirrors your desires.

You can’t think your way to figuring out what to do. You have to do. It’s really easy to sink into the mundane routines of life. Wake up, work, go home, eat, sleep, repeat. This cycle gets dull, boring, and hard to snap out of.

Trying new things is the best way we can experiment on ourselves. Take dance lessons. Double down on fitness and working out. Pick up a guitar. Learn a foreign language. Build a side hustle. Start writing. Do anything. Lean in to the things that you enjoy, cut out the things that you don’t.

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.

Make the next best choice, and maintain novelty in your life by trying new things. If you can consistently do both of these, satisfaction is a byproduct of your process. The key to both steps? Being intentional.

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 piss 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 physically or mentally tougher 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.

I was getting paid $55k to work on a computer a few hours a day, and any errors that I made were met with incredibly nice feedback.

I was playing football for free for two years (and even on scholarship I wasn’t getting “paid”), and I endured the toughest environment of my life.

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 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 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. 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 journey from bottom-tier freshman to starting defensive end was full of ups and downs. 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.

Wrapping Up

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.

Before I go, shout out to the Mercer Bears. Undefeated in conference and rolling right now. Keep it up boys 🤝