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Column: College football players need plan if dreams fall through

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My alma mater’s football team did not fare well Thanksgiving Day. Ranked 18th in the nation, the University of Texas Longhorns suffered an embarrassing home field defeat by unranked longtime rival Texas Christian University.

The loss probably dampened the day for the team’s nine scholarship seniors, who were playing their last game as Longhorns before a hometown crowd. They were honored before the game for having completed four years of football at Texas.

The Austin American-Statesman reports, “Through attrition, Texas’ senior class has shrunk drastically over the years for a variety of reasons.” Longhorn safety Kenny Vaccaro says, “A lot of guys didn’t last.” He calls himself and the eight other seniors “the proud few.”

Four years ago, the 2009 Longhorns football roster carried 121 players; 45 were freshmen, including eight of the nine remaining seniors who were honored Thanksgiving.

What happened to the other 37?

Seven were red-shirted in 2009 and are still listed on the 2012 roster as juniors.

Others fared well enough. Much-heralded high school quarterback Garrett Gilbert was a backup in 2009, but his game fell apart in the Bowl Championship Series. Under his leadership in 2010, the Longhorns were a dismal 5-7. He left the program but landed on his feet as the starting quarterback this year for Southern Methodist University.

Jamison Berryhill was a freshman walk-on in 2009, but he earned a scholarship and eventually signed a free-agent contract with the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens released him in July.

Others haven’t played much. Trey Graham missed the 2010 and 2011 seasons due to a knee injury, and Eryon Barnett missed 2011 with the same problem. He left the program, as well.

Chris Howell played a lot, but he was dismissed from the football program in February when he was charged with possession of a controlled substance.

But what happened to Marcus Davis, who was absent from the 2010 roster, and Mark Fisher and Brock Fitzhenry, who were gone by 2011? John Paul Floyd played in two games in 2011 before disappearing from the 2012 roster, as well. Dominique Jones was on the roster in 2011, but he missed the spring drills because of injury and was gone by 2012.

Tre’ Newton, son of Dallas Cowboy Pro Bowler Nate Newton, was spectacular during his sophomore year, but a concussion during the game against Kansas State, the latest of many, ended his football career.

Each of the 45 boys who signed up to play football at Texas in 2009 has his own story. In an ideal world, they all would have had scholarships — many of them were walk-ons — and nearly all would have graduated four years later, more or less uninjured.

But here’s the problem: The NFL is only the final stage in a long, winnowing process that depends on “winning-is-everything” colleges and public schools to serve as a near-endless source of players. Unfortunately, the process leaves behind a considerable human cost, a vast residue of disappointed dreams, misspent energy and, worst of all, an enormous number of injuries, many of which will have lifelong consequences.

Which reminds me of Dewey Turner. He was a student in the first freshman composition class I ever taught at Texas, in the late 1970s. Dewey was a gentle, taciturn guy whose 6-foot-5-inch stature and 220 pounds made him a good candidate to play tight end for the Longhorns. He lettered in 1979 and 1980 and then lost a year due to a shoulder injury. Unfortunately, he was killed in a car wreck in the ’80s.

Dewey’s football stardom hadn’t served him very well academically. But he had a brutally realistic, illuminating wisdom that led him to tell me one day: Oh, they give you all kinds of help here. But once they see you aren’t gonna make it on the team because of academics or injuries, they — as he put it — “cut you loose.”

John M. Crisp teaches in the English department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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