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Football and Academics: Tough Balancing Act at Some Schools

NEW YORK — Football is complicated. Life is more so.

The charge for universities is to prepare students for whatever comes after they graduate. At least that is the mission statement. At places such as Northwestern and Stanford, it certainly rings true.

When those students are football players, the challenges are exacerbated. Balancing classroom obligations with the demands of big-time sports is difficult.

Doing so, though, provides substantial benefits, as those players have learned as part of the NFL’s draft crop.

“That I could get into Stanford helps with football,” says Harrison Phillips, a defensive tackle projected to go in the second round. “Anything worth doing in life is worth overdoing. The intellectual side of football has always been interesting to me.”

Teammate and linebacker Peter Kalambayi, like Phillips, is among the 39 players on the draft boards who recently made the 2018 National Football Foundation Hampshire Honor Society for having carried a grade-point average of 3.2 or better throughout college.

“It is definitely a lot, especially midterm and finals week. It’s about understanding when you get home from practice and you are really tired and you don’t want to do anything, having that discipline to do what you need. It’s learning how to say no to going to social events. People hit you up and you have to tell them, ‘It’s not right, right now.'”

Right now, Phillips, Kalambayi and the other recognized scholar-athletes — including Cardinal teammates tackle David Bright, and Dalton Schultz — all are listed as potentially going in the three-day draft. Among the traits they would bring to the pros are exceptional study habits, discipline, strong retention skills and organization.

Of course, they need to have the athletic ability, and no health or off-field issues. And just because they excel in the classroom isn’t an overriding reason to draft them.

“With some players there definitely was a carry-over, with others definitely not,” notes former NFL general manager Phil Savage, who now procures talent for the Senior Bowl and is a SiriusXM Radio football analyst.

“We’ve seen prospects come out of academically inclined schools where the classwork is especially challenging and they had no edge over prospects who came out of other type schools that were not so highly rated academically.

“You have to be careful to tie it completely together. But guys who check off the boxes in the classroom who you know have worked hard and gotten good marks, it makes you feel good about their prospects. I do think it can be a positive as a prospect. Remember what is the core philosophy for the Patriots: Be in condition, know what to do and play hard.”

College Football Hall of Fame member Pat Fitzgerald was an All-America linebacker at Northwestern and has been head coach there since 2006. He fit the category of star player and student, and he now gets to work with similar youngsters, the vast majority of whom won’t be heading to the pros.

Fitzgerald believes the habits these players create in high school construct a foundation for their college careers as athletes and students. And then the environment they experience at Northwestern solidifies that foundation for their futures — whether they become NFL participants or doctors, lawyers, businessmen, whatever.

“It begins with the expectations and standards of our program and university,” Fitzgerald says. “That is our identification, who we are, and we take great pride in that. We are recruiting a young man who is an institutional fit. We place high value in a 40- to 50-year decision. It’s not just playing football, it’s using the university to help you be successful in life. He wants to be successful in all he does.

“Typically, the goals are very high of the young man we get to coach, and we are able to drive them and push them to newer heights. It makes for a great group collectively.”

Kalambayi and Phillips stress exactly that. Performing in the classroom is as essential as doing the job on a football field — and it forms a bond with fellow athletes.

“We’re fundamentally the same — we were the smartest football player at our high school,” says Kalambayi, who majored in communications and minored in French and whose family is from Congo.

“Coming in from different socio-economic backgrounds and from different races, we have a general understanding of each other. We’re one of the closer teams because of that. Our humor is different than other teams. Our conversations range from politics to football to policy. The locker room is a phenomenal place — to be around those guys and learn so much from your teammates.”

Phillips had two majors: sociology and the science of technology and society. He minored in education and graduated in December.

He reasons that his acumen for dissecting game plans and individual plays comes not only from his love for football but from his classroom skills. Phillips keeps a notebook with him and constantly writes down things he picks up at film sessions or meetings.

“I don’t know how much carry-over there is, but from the football meeting rooms there’s a lot of carry-over to the field,” he says. “There definitely are similarities of study habits that might be the same.”

When these players do move on to the NFL, they tend to remain in contact with the coaches who helped them get there. That feeds back into the college programs, Fitzgerald says.

“The number-one thing guys (from Northwestern who make the NFL) tell me — midway through their first year I will text and ask them did we prepare you — and to a man the answer is the same: ‘I was over-prepared.’ The active learning environment and expectations academically, our guys take the path less-traveled. We hope they achieve the goal of playing on Sunday for a long time, but that is Plan B. Plan A is life.

“Hopefully,” Fitzgerald adds, “we put them in some structured opportunities here so they can figure out what they want to do after they leave our program.”

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