What happens when the dream of leaving college early to play professional football doesn't pan out? Carina Garcia talks with former Michigan State football players Taiwan Jones, Isaiah Lewis, Arjen Colquhoun, and DeAnthony Arnett about life after East Lansing.
Many people fail to look deeper into the dynamic of being an athlete. Most athletes play for the love of the game, but this also comes with free education, free meal plans, free room and board, and free bus transportation if they wish to take it. These are major benefits that most students wish they had.
The goal of most athletes is to make it professionally in hopes of escaping a rough upbringing. They hope to make it for not only themselves, but for their families and communities as well. Some athletes are so driven to play professionally, that they spend every waking day on a college campus training to get better, hoping to turn heads and improve their draft stock. Yet, some come to realize that the pros are a business, and it’s so hard to make it.
Often times athletes coming from a major, well-known football program are worked to the maximum limit, and once they make it to the pros their bodies are prone to injury. Other times, athletes face the harsh reality that there are many players around the country that are just as good, or even better. Therefore, standing-out becomes so challenging to the point that a ticket back home becomes inevitable.
Athletes in this predicament are then forced to return to their roots to finish a degree, or find a regular job that does not require a college education.. Sometimes they are stuck in a “limbo” stage in which they are just working out trying to stay in shape in hopes of playing again.
Taiwan Jones, former Michigan State outside linebacker who left his senior year in 2015 said, “I left early because I felt like it would’ve been a great experience. I also wanted to get a jump on training for the combine and the all-star game.”
Jones signed with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2015. He was released this past fall season, but has never lost hope.
“I’ve been training. I headed to other mini camps for NFL teams,” Jones said. “Just because one team releases you doesn’t mean your career didn’t pan out. One team released me, but I’m speaking to other teams. Everyone doesn’t have the same path. There is always going to be ups and downs,”
Since Jones left early to train, he never received his college degree from Michigan State University. However, he doesn’t feel that is of the most importance to him at the moment. Jones is focused on what he loves to do, which is playing.
Jones said, “I didn’t go back to get my degree because the seasons are much longer than college. Playing professionally is more exhausting and harder on the body. On the offseason you just want to relax and rest your body, take trips, and enjoy being away from the game for a minute.”
Jones had some advice for current players saying, “I would tell younger guys currently playing to do whatever is beneficial for them. Keep grinding because as long as you’re working hard and you produce, you’re going to be okay.”
Isaiah Lewis, former Michigan State safety, played his full four years of eligibility at MSU, but left academically early in 2014. “I left early because I saw I had an opportunity and I wanted to take advantage of it as soon as possible.”
Lewis signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2014, but was released. He went back home and worked at UPS until the Steelers signed him in 2015. After getting injured, he was cut.
“I was upset when I left the last team. After I got injured, they cut me. At the same time I know that the process for me playing again in the NFL is not over. I could get back. I never give up and I think that is why I’ve made it this far,” said Lewis.
“I’m not new to the concept of resilience. I am very blessed to be able to do what I love as a career and I do not take that for granted. That was just a small setback for a major comeback. I’ve never stopped training so I can stay in shape for whenever a team calls. I just finished a mini camp with a Canadian team, but the contract I was given didn’t go through. I still tried out for another Canadian team who had interest in me as well as training while I’m back home. I have faith that more doors will open for me. It’s all about patience, perseverance, and positivity.”
While Lewis was not on a team, he traveled back to Michigan State to train and to get his degree. He promised his mother that he would finish school and he plans to stay true to that promise. He hopes to walk across that stage next year and his mom will be front and center.
“I went back to get my degree, but I just haven’t gotten it yet. This past year I was actually taking an online math class as well as training. I have three classes left until I can graduate. I had to change my major twice, I never redshirted so I didn’t get an extra year, and I left early. Not everyone will take the same path as me, but I will get my degree when I was meant to get it in due time,” said Lewis. “I would advise current players to be prepared for adjustments and to always have a plan.”
Arjen Colquhoun, former Michigan State cornerback, left academically early in 2016 and signed with the Dallas Cowboys in 2016. He tore his labrum and had to get surgery. Subsequently, he was cut.
“I left early because with football and sports in general, there is a certain time period to play. Your body takes a hit eventually, so I didn’t want to wait. I felt it was my opportunity. It was my chance and I took it. I think making a lot of money and playing at the highest level was more important than an extra year of school for me at the time. Exploring other options is not a bad idea.”
Colquhoun said that he plans on going back to school this fall. He has only one class left until he can graduate from MSU. “I always finish the things that I start.”
Colquhoun visited with teams in the Canadian Football League and just signed with the Edmonton Eskimos which is why he plans to finish school in the fall, but he was ready for the new opportunity.
“I got hurt while I was with the Cowboys. I messed up my shoulder and had to get surgery. During the offseason I trained and I’m still trying to play. I’ve also been doing physical therapy since I got hurt. I’ve been keeping in touch with coaches just trying to keep my name relevant,” said Colquhoun.
“The Cowboys cut me after I got injured. I was hurt because I worked so hard to get somewhere like that and play. To see it all get taken away hurt and broke my spirit a bit, but I grew and learned a lot from that experience. I used it as a stepping stone. Success feels better when you’ve lost before. I’ve learned that there will be trials and tribulations. Anything can be taken away at any moment,” Colquhoun said.
Colquhoun also had some advice for younger, current players. “Unless they’re going first round, I would tell younger players to stay in school. Get your education. Take more classes so you won’t have to stay longer. Take school seriously because football is not forever, but having a degree is. Education is really important and they should take school seriously. As I said, anything can happen at any moment.”
DeAnthony Arnett, former Michigan State wide receiver, was one of the players that did not leave early and got his degree. However, most of his friends made the decision to leave early.
Arnett said, “Some people after three years will leave early if they are in a good enough position to move forward in their career and provide for their family. Why stay in school if you were struggling and can now leave early to the NFL to get tons of money?”
“Some people coming out of high school only have a three-year plan for college. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I would tell younger players to make sure they have everything together before making that big decision and to have a plan,” said Arnett.
Arnett said, “On the other hand, some players also feel that if they made their money already and are taking care of their family, why should they go back to school? They lose sight of it if they’ve already experienced success. However, some will stay true to the promise they made to their family and friends about graduating.”
Arnett signed with the Seattle Seahawks in 2016, but was cut after not making the team’s roster. However, he wasn’t too upset considering he had earned his degree from a university like MSU.
“I didn’t at all feel discouraged when I left Seattle. When you play sports growing up, you realize a lot of things are political. I continued to grind because there’s more to life than playing football. But, I’m still pursuing that dream. Still doing what I love and trying to play again. I’ve just been training, eating right and staying healthy. Currently, I’ve been trying out for NFL and CFL teams,” said Arnett.
Arnett concluded, “I’ve seen people leave early and be successful. I’ve also seen people leave early and come straight back home, left to pick up the pieces. That’s just the way the game is and everyone should be prepared for that reality. No matter what though, no one should ever give up.”