Loyalty seems to be the exception rather than the rule these days when it comes to collegiate athletics. With so many coaches breaking contracts in order to find greener pastures, and more and more players opting to make early departures for the professional ranks, the game has become more about big paychecks than the thrill of competition.
Of course, college football has been a big business for quite some time. It’s a billion-dollar industry with millions of rabid fans who readily shell out big bucks to help foot the cost for skyrocketing contracts and 90,000-seat stadiums. That, unfortunately, is the nature of beast.
And at this point, there is probably no turning back.
Last January, however, four University of Oklahoma players did their best to alter that perception by turning down substantial paydays in the NFL in order to further embrace the term “student-athlete.”
The collective decision of Sam Bradford, Gerald McCoy, Jermaine Gresham and Trent Williams ” each of whom was projected to be a high NFL draft pick ” was viewed as unlikely and maybe even shocking. Their loyalty and sense of team and camaraderie proved they were big-picture guys living in a small-picture society.
More than anything, it provided a much-needed breath of fresh air to the oft-too-cynical sports world.
Living the Dream
It wasn’t as if they were the first four young men to pass on the money so they could continue to live their dream of playing college football. There have been any number of individuals over the years who placed team and alma mater above the dollar signs that continually float around the rarefied air of big-time athletics.
Oklahoma fans would have been thrilled to get one or two of their precious stars back for another season. But four guys from the same team at one time? Four high draft picks who had millions dangling at their fingertips?
The likelihood of that happening was, well, not very.
They became a shining exception to the rule and quietly set out to prove critics ” mostly media types who deemed their return to campus life as foolish and inexplicable ” wrong. They wanted to grow up a little more, mature a little more and go to battle side-by-side a few more times. Quite simply, they wanted to experience one more season of college football and maybe even earn one more shot at winning a national title.
In theory, it was a glorious plan devised by four astute young men. In the sometimes harsh reality of college athletics, it did not go as hoped or expected.
Before the 2009 season even began, Gresham, OU’s All-America tight end, suffered a knee injury that left him sidelined for the entire fall. And not quite one half into the Sooners’ season-opening game against Brigham Young, Bradford, the 2008 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, suffered a shoulder injury that would ultimately cost him all but six quarters of this season.
Without those two key pieces to the puzzle, the injury-riddled Sooners were merely a shell ” at least on offense ” of the record-smashing unit that rolled to the BCS title game against Florida a season earlier. National title hopes were dashed barely four hours into the season, and as injuries mounted, finding a way to a winning record became a challenge.
It was tough to see Gresham and Bradford, arguably two of OU’s all-time great players, watching helplessly from the sidelines. And their absence, of course, meant McCoy and Williams were left to shoulder a much weightier load than they had originally expected.
Class in the face of adversity
The star-crossed circumstances didn’t stop either player from eventually earning consensus All-America honors by regular-season’s end.
Of course, the critics had a field day with their told-you-so commentaries and not-so-subtle reminders of why greed always pays and loyalty is for chumps. They jabbered on about lost seasons and lost millions, and how the world was soon coming to an end.
Certainly, Bradford and Gresham suffered through moments of frustration and maybe even self-doubt. Hindsight is always there to remind us of what might have been. But neither expressed one ounce of regret about his decision to return. They didn’t complain, didn’t wallow in self-pity or voice any ire in how they were dealt an unfair hand.
In fact, all four showed nothing but class in the face of adversity all season, and throughout their college careers.
They have served as ideal role models for other young athletes coming up through the ranks.
All four will be playing in the NFL next season and probably well into the future. They will earn their millions and eventually look back on their days at OU as the best of times, even if it didn’t work out exactly like they planned.- Jay C. Upchurch