Making The Grade(S) Success For Football Players In The Classroom Comes With Sacrifices
Editor’s note: In this third installment in a fivepart series examining the recruiting class of 1990 at Florida, Florida State and Miami, the focus is on those players who have had academic success.
As the Florida Gators prepared for their biggest football game of the season, starting free safety Michael Gilmore found himself stuck in a zoology laboratory.
Eighteen months later, the memory of the stressful experience makes Gilmore smile.
During the week of the 1993 Southeastern Conference championship game between Florida and Alabama, Gilmore missed the first two days of practice because of mandatory lab sessions that couldn’t be rescheduled.
The zoology-premed major spent the next three days in Atlanta as the state’s lone finalist for a Rhodes scholarship. Then he flew to Birmingham, just in time to play one of the best games of his career.
Gilmore’s two interceptions helped the Gators win the SEC title and defied the conventional wisdom that a player can’t play well if he doesn’t practice.
Despite the stakes on the field, Gilmore’s coaches didn’t force him to choose between being an athlete and a student.
“I think they understood football’s important to me, but there’s a lot of other things that are just as important or more important than that,” Gilmore said. “I think they respected that I was able to think that way.”
Gilmore, who graduated in December and plans to start medical school at Florida this fall, was hardly a typical student in a big-time football program. But his views mirror those of a growing number of college players who realize that getting a college degree is a more realistic goal than an NFL career.
Florida quarterback Terry Dean went undrafted despite throwing 20 touchdown passes and ranking second in the nation in passing efficiency as a senior.
Dean also was an outstanding student, who graduated in December with a 3.9 grade-point average in business marketing.
Miami’s Frank Costa was another passer with pro aspirations. He became the first senior starting quarterback at Miami to go undrafted since Mark Richt in 1982, and UM fans probably would grade his career as a failure. Yet he has prepared for life after football and may return to his hometown of Philadelphia to open a sports bar.
Costa started 17 games for the Hurricanes and estimated he devoted 40 hours per week to football during the season. He also maintained a B average while earning a degree in business management.
“It’s very difficult to manage your time,” Costa said. “I found the best thing was to always go to class. I tried to take the harder classes during the spring semester, and I’d take the easier classes in the fall semester, just because during the season it becomes really brutal.”
At Florida State, Tiger McMillon’s dreams of football stardom were shattered when he suffered a serious knee injury at practice in August 1993. He watched from the sidelines as his teammates rolled to the school’s first national title.
McMillon recovered from the injury and completed school on time. He came back to play last year and began work on a graduate degree in social work.
“Tiger takes (school) real seriously and works hard,” said Roger Grooters, the academic support supervisor at Florida State. “He’s a great example of a student-athlete.”
McMillon has kept alive his pro dreams, signing a free-agent contract with Tampa Bay.
“Everyone has ups and downs and times they don’t know if they’re going to be able to accomplish things they want to get accomplished,” Gilmore said. “It happens in football. It happens in school.”
Gilmore’s career illustrates what college athletics should be about, said Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.
“He exemplifies everything you want in a program,” Foley said. “He was part of a team that won championships and is also getting it done in the classroom.”
An honor student and local hero from the Florida Panhandle town of Chipley, population 3,488, Gilmore passed up an opportunity to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy for a chance to wear the orange and blue of the Gators.
He was one of 17 players in coach Steve Spurrier’s first recruiting class, and one of only five who have earned a degree at Florida. Gilmore remembers the concerns he had about the future when he first stepped on the sprawling Gainesville campus.
“It was quite a bit of pressure,” he said. “You could tell it was an atmosphere of, ‘You better do well and get the most out of yourself or this is not the place for you.”’
The transition is easier for some than for others. Eddie Lake, another Spurrier recruit in 1990, arrived at Florida unsure of what to expect academically.
A self-proclaimed “lazy guy” in high school, Lake didn’t begin studying hard until he had a chance to earn an athletic scholarship, but had to pull up his grades.
He credits his parents and girlfriend - now his wife - with helping him rearrange his priorities. A part-time starter as a junior and senior, he is one of six recruits from Spurrier’s first class who could graduate this summer.
“You have to really push yourself to do some of the things that have to be done because there are times you just sit around the room and say, ‘Hey, I’m tired and don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to study. I don’t want to look at the playbook. I just want to rest,”’ Lake said. “It takes hard work and being dedicated to yourself and dedicated to providing a future for yourself.”
Gilmore and Lake weren’t taken in this spring’s NFL draft, a development they found easier to accept because of their academic success.
“Watching the draft, there wasn’t a lot of pressure on me because I consider it all a bonus,” Gilmore said. “I feel scared for some people who rely totally on ball to get them where they want.”
While the Gators’ graduation rates for the recruiting classes in 1987, 1988 and 1990 are all below 40 percent, they did set a single-season school and SEC record last fall with 19 players named to the league’s academic honor roll, which requires a grade-point average of at least 3.0. The program’s 54 selections since 1991 represent the best four-year total in school history.
Gilmore is annoyed by the perception that athletes who are good students probably aren’t good football players.
“One of the reasons you don’t see too many football players in premed is not necessarily because it’s the hardest material,” Gilmore said. “It may sound funny, but one of the biggest reasons is stamina. No one wants to stand or sit in labs for three or four straight hours and then on top of that go to (football) meetings and practice.”
The typical day for a Florida player begins with a class at 7:30 or 8 a.m, and schedules usually are arranged so he is available for taping and treatment of injuries by 2 p.m. Practice follows afternoon meetings and usually keeps the team occupied until nearly 7 p.m.
After dinner, players face a difficult decision.
Do they push themselves and study? Or do they rest, knowing the same routine awaits the following day?
“That may be the toughest choice you have to make,” Gilmore said. “And because you’re faced with that choice; it’s very easy to just focus on one and not the other.”
Gilmore was driven by an intense desire to achieve at the same level as students outside the athletic department. Although he didn’t win the Rhodes scholarship, Gilmore said competing for it and the SEC title in the same week taught him a lot about his capabilities.
“Looking back on it, you realize what kind of accomplishment it was to do all that and then go out, get two picks and play one of your better games,” Gilmore said. “At the time, it just seemed like a lot of stress. I didn’t get the scholarship, but that week showed me what you can do if the effort is there.”