During a recent radio interview in Green Bay, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers recounted a moment in college that still serves to motivate his drive for success in the NFL. He told of a teacher in a food appreciation class at Cal Berkeley who scolded him for asking permission to rewrite a failing paper: “She says, ‘What do you want to do with yourself?’ I said, ‘I want to play in the NFL.’ She laughed. She laughed at me. It was a condescending laugh and she said, ‘You’ll never make it. You’ll get hurt. You’ll need your education, and you’re not gonna make it through school here.’”
The professor’s prediction proved half right in that Rodgers never finished his degree. He left school after his junior year to enter the NFL draft, where he was selected in the first round. He has since led the Packers to a Super Bowl victory and is widely considered among the elite quarterbacks in the league.
Rodgers retold his tale of woe in a near spiteful tone, his voice dripping with sarcasm as he thanked the professor for “adding to that chip on my shoulder.” Rodgers has long made it known that he plays his best football in the face of perceived slights that give him something to prove. He is far from alone in that among world-class athletes. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, for example, makes a habit of searching media reports for some criticism he can use as fuel. And coaches across all sports and age groups post criticism on locker room bulletin boards to motivate their teams.
But this particular anecdote from Rodgers represents something different. This was a challenge from an educator to face the improbability of NFL success and take seriously the development of alternatives. That Rodgers happened to be among the select few who can earn a living in athletics hardly discounts the wisdom of his professor, however derisively delivered.
Sports bloggers and radio personalities, such as ESPN’s Mike Golic, have lauded the Green Bay play-caller for proving his professor wrong. But what of all the athletes for whom the professor would prove right?
Especially in impoverished communities, where youth often grow up without successful adult role models save the ones playing ball for large paydays on television, the challenge to take education seriously is apt. In urban Chicago this past summer, I coached a basketball team made up of players who universally believed their futures would include NBA fortune. I wrestled with how to guide these young men, many of them juniors and seniors with no college basketball scholarships in sight. To laugh at their dreams would be heartless, but to avoid hard conversations about realistic expectations more heartless still.
To Rodgers’ credit, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay after a series of concussions made him consider life after football. But for most athletes, life after football begins before any paydays. Perhaps Rodgers should give a more sincere thank you to his professor, not for adding to the chip on his shoulder but for delivering a dose of reality.
Two-time Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones, who suffered disappointments in Beijing then London by failing to medal, will take another crack at Olympic glory. Jones has joined the U.S. bobsled team and will fight for a chance to compete at the 2014 games in Sochi. Fellow U.S. track star Tianna Madison, who won gold in London as part of the women’s 4x100 relay team, also has crossed over to the winter sport. The pair follows a number of male athletes who have made similar conversions from track to bobsled. For Jones, the move could offer a chance at redemption after not living up to the hype she helped manufacture. —M.B.