The Outcasts and Unknowns of College Football

Should We Care About Them?

When I used to be a professor at the University of Minnesota, I taught many, many college athletes from multiple sports. From football alone my best guess is that I taught between 60 and 70 players over the course of 11 years. I saw them over the course of 40 to 60 hours of classroom time and mostly in small classes. As such, I got to know them well and see behind the uniform and helmet in a way that fans don’t get to. With the exception of a handful of guys, none of these players were “stars.” I’ve only had two students who went on to the NFL and only one of these was for an extended period of time.

Instead, the college football players I had as students were the guys fans don’t hear too much about because they’re a part of one of two groups: the unknowns or the outcasts. The first group is comprised of guys who aren’t on scholarship or who are but maybe haven’t had a breakout season. Very often that breakout hasn’t happened because they’ve been injured in practice so they have simply never had the opportunity to get on the field and show their talents.

The outcasts are a different story entirely. These are players who I have had as students who leave the program after I’ve had them in the classroom. Many transfer, try to transfer, or just quit football entirely. However, I’ve also had a striking number of players who are classified as “medical retirements.” These are players who have been injured to such an extent that they must retire from the game entirely. If the outcasts that I’ve had as students were ever known to the larger fan base of Minnesota football, they are quickly forgotten once they transfer or receive the status “medically retired.” They are rarely, if ever, heard from again.

This is what made the WCCO story that I participated in, and which aired this past Monday, so striking—Minnesotans heard, probably for the first time, the story of three outcasts from college football. They heard Alex Reigelsperger and Nolan Edmonds tell their stories of what it was like to be medically retired players and they heard about my reporting of Grant Norton’s story.

Many people, both online and off, expressed normal human sympathy and care for what these three individuals went through. However, an appalling number of people, forced for the first time to confront their realities, showed they do not care about them at all. Some hardcore Minnesota football fans, as well as some current and former Minnesota players, chose instead to drag them on social media. These responses were sickening, especially when you consider the mental and physical suffering these young men have already been through.

However, one good thing did come from this social media dragging as those who participated in it unwittingly showed college football players everywhere exactly why a College Football Players Association (CFBPA) is necessary. Only an independent entity like a CFBPA will be able to ensure that the stars, the unknowns and the outcasts of college football are properly cared for when they’re playing and when their playing days are over. We see in the stories of these three players that your program, university and some fans will abandon you at a moment’s notice the second your talents have been used up and/or the second you utter a critical word about your program.

Alex Reigelsperger’s story shows this truth most glaringly. Of the three players who were profiled in the WCCO story, Alex was dragged the most on social media for being critical of the program. This was due to the fact that when he left the program after taking a medical retirement he had positive things to say about Minnesota despite his injury. I asked Alex about this positivity when we met a couple months ago. His answer was straightforward and believable – that he had too much to lose if he spoke his mind. He still needed to finish his degree (an allowance afforded to medical retirees) and he needed his extraordinarily large medical bills paid for. Better to keep on a happy face rather than rock the boat. Any medical retirement or player in the transfer portal with years of eligibility remaining will candidly tell you the same thing.

However, Alex also said that there was another reason that he didn’t utter a critical word until now—namely, he didn’t start thinking critically about Minnesota’s program and his place in it until he left. This is something I’ve heard from many players who have left the program. When you’re on the inside, you can’t really critically evaluate the program because it is your whole world. It is only when you’re removed from the world entirely that you can truly start assessing it.

For Alex, this meant thinking for the first time about how prevalent practice-related injuries were and whether this was necessary. It meant thinking about just how much your life is controlled as a college football player. Finally, it meant that he could finally think for the first time about just how peculiar Minnesota’s program was. Why did his head coach demand that everyone only feel “elite” and that they say that they feel “elite” even when they don’t? Why did everyone have to clap every time that same head coach came into a room to start any meeting? Why, as a player, was he forced to accept all of this?

As for Grant and Nolan, they seemed to get dragged much less on social media than Alex. My theory for this is that those who want to support the current Minnesota coach and coaching staff just hope that Grant’s story goes away and so they’re doing their best to ignore it. I think this is because Grant Norton’s story is a frightful outlier even for the violent world of college football. A story like Grant Norton’s simply does not happen at every program. College football freshman in other programs are not pushed, as Grant was, to practice through a throat injury that has him repeatedly vomiting. They’re not run off the team after they lose fifty pounds in five weeks. They’re not pushed to the point where they feel like they no longer want to be alive. This is Grant’s story and so it makes sense why those who want to support the current coaching staff above all else would choose to ignore it. Given that Nolan, as Grant’s former roommate, could confirm aspects of my reporting in the WCCO report means that Nolan must be ignored as well.

So where does this whole episode leave us? With more evidence, if it was needed, that a CFBPA is needed now more than ever. This episode should show every player in the country what will happen to you if you speak out individually about an exploitative system. Only a CFBPA, organized to advocate for your rights and dedicated to your health, safety and welfare, can help you push back against this exploitation. There is strength in numbers.

One would expect pro football players to understand this more than anyone given that they are represented by the NFL Players Association. You would hope that these players, who made it to the NFL, would support college football players speaking out or would at least not use their platform to denigrate these players. This is why it was so disheartening to see New York Giant and Minnesota alum Carter Coughlin come out on Twitter and participate in the dragging of Alex, Nolan and Grant. He called their accusations “laughable” and “absurd” and said that they just weren’t “cut out for college football.”

In making these comments, one wonders whether Coughlin thinks he’s immune from a career-ending injury like Reigelsperger’s? If he too had suffered a vertebrae fracture in college which ended his career, would it mean he just wasn’t “cut out for college football”? Of course not. However, Coughlin’s punching of these players while they’re down shows us a problem that is likely to arise when forming a College Football Players Association. Namely, how do you get star players to show solidarity with those who don’t make it to the NFL or are likely not going to make it to the NFL? Given that these star players like Coughlin very often get special treatment, perks and notoriety within the current arrangement of college football, how can we get them to express solidarity with the lesser among them as opposed to with athletic departments, coaches and the NCAA? In other words, how can we get the 1.6% of college football athletes who are bound for the NFL to express solidarity with the 98.4% who are not?

With last summer’s player activism, I’m tentatively hoping that star players are moving towards solidarity with the outcasts and unknowns and that attitudes like those expressed by Coughlin are slowly becoming a thing of the past. Last summer star players like Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields expressed support for a CFBPA correctly recognizing that such an organization could work for them as well. They correctly recognized that they could suffer a career-ending injury and need a strong CFBPA to advocate for them if they did—that it wouldn’t be their own fault because they just weren’t “cut out for college football.”

If you believe this too and if you’re interested in helping me with my campaign to organize a CFBPA, I urge you to click on this link and find out what you can do to help.