Freshmen football players balance stresses of college life

(Ryan Stone/ For The Washington Post ) - Terrence Travis, left, talks to teammate Mike Wandey, right, after class in Lane Stadium on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Wandey, a red shirt freshman, is sitting behind the sideline this year, hoping to play next year.

(Ryan Stone/ For The Washington Post ) - Terrence Travis, left, talks to teammate Mike Wandey, right, after class in Lane Stadium on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Wandey, a red shirt freshman, is sitting behind the sideline this year, hoping to play next year.

Mike Wandey’s life revolves around Virginia Tech football.

The freshman tailback wakes up at about 7 each morning. First there’s breakfast check, then study hall in the stadium followed by a few classes. Afternoons are spent eating, resting, lifting weights and practicing, then another study hall. Wandey often stays up late with his five roommates, who also are members of the Hokies team.

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He has an academic counselor who monitors his grades, strength coaches who pushed his bench press from 285 pounds to 320, and a nutritionist who taught him how to bulk up. (Breakfast one recent morning consisted of four biscuits sopping with gravy, two plates packed with scrambled eggs, a couple fistfuls of bacon, a bowl of sausage patties and a glass of water.)

Everything builds to Saturday’s game — at which point Wandey sits in the stands and watches his teammates play. If it’s an away game, he watches on television, like any other student.

“You go from high school, from being that guy, the quote ‘star’ on the team, to here,” said Wandey, 19, who graduated from Oakton earlier this year and walked on to Tech’s football team. He redshirted this season but hopes to be on the field next year.

“In college, they take all of those guys and put them on one team. There are no bad players. Here, you’re back on the bottom,” he said. “I’m just glad I am here, and I know what I need to do to get there. There are so many people who would die to be where you are, and you have to remember that.”

First-year players face the same challenges as other college freshmen, like adjusting to newfound freedom, missing home, building friendships, dealing with roommates, grappling with more difficult classes and navigating a culture of parties and alcohol.

But top-flight athletes have added stresses, like allowing coaches to tightly schedule their lives, consuming thousands of calories, making it through practice, staying eligible, establishing a reputation on the team, coping with public criticism and being good enough to play — or to play eventually.

Of the more than one million boys who play football in high school, fewer than 71,000 continue in college. Only a fraction of those will play in nationally televised bowl games that continue this week, including Virginia Tech’s matchup with UCLA in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31. Of those players who make it through college, less than 2 percent will be drafted onto a professional team.

Yet the odds seem much better each winter when high school seniors commit to colleges, wooed by praise, promises and the dream of winning a championship ring, going pro and earning millions of dollars.

Just before Thanksgiving, Da’Shawn Hand — a senior at Woodbridge High in Prince William County and one of the nation’s top recruits — announced that he would play for the University of Alabama. It’s the next step in a football career that he hopes will someday earn him fame and fortune.

In committing, there is always talk of academics. But for thousands of bright-eyed college freshmen, their life is football. And anything seems possible.

“I always knew I wanted to go to a school with a great football program and a great academic program,” said Ryan Burns, a first-team All-Met from Stone Bridge who is redshirting at Stanford. “The goal of everyone here is to get to the NFL. Other than that, I have no idea what I’m going to do. I have to figure that out.”

Many freshmen have yet to learn or realize the limits of their talents, and they are surrounded by a massive support system that’s unmatched in higher education. And then there’s the free stuff: sweatshirts, T-shirts, jackets, sneakers, and all the energy bars and Gatorade they can consume.

“It’s like Christmas every day and it never stops,” said Adam H. Naylor, a sports psychologist at Boston University who works closely with Division I athletes. “There’s initially a halo effect. It’s almost comical. Everything is wonderful.”

But first-year players have to learn to advocate for themselves when problems arise, Naylor said.

They can’t rely too heavily on tutors and academic minders. They have to challenge themselves, not just sign up for easy courses or drop classes after one bad quiz.

They have to take responsibility for mistakes and not allow fame to empower disrespectful, arrogant or illegal behavior. They have to ignore critical tweets and online comments, and not obsessively compare their performance to that of others.

They have to understand the reality, Naylor said: On graduation day, they likely will be looking for a job, not getting ready to play football on Sundays.

“Football doesn’t last forever for anyone,” said Wandey, who can rattle off the names of Virginia Tech walk-ons who became NFL draftees. “I still have pros as a goal, and I’m going to keep working. Once you get here, it’s all on you.”

* * *

During a lull in Wandey’s honors English class on a Tuesday morning, a classmate shared a story he had heard from a friend who claimed to have recently partied with football players.

“I heard that two football players were taking shots in Harper,” the guy said, referring to a Tech residence hall.

“That’s not true,” Wandey said.

But the guy had heard that one player had drunkenly mocked another for not playing in that weekend’s game.

“That’s not true either,” Wandey said, uncomfortably shaking his head.

In Blacksburg, football players are some of the most well-known students on campus. They are gossiped about and crushed on. Even some professors fawn.

“People look up to you, they follow you around,” Wandey said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re playing or not. People here just love football.”

No matter how popular football players were in high school, it’s nothing like the attention heaped on them in college. The media shows up, not only to games but also to practice. So do NFL scouts. Before the season even begins, there are public predictions for how teenagers and 20-somethings will perform on the field. A simple search on Google, Twitter or football forums can easily pull up full — and often harsh — critiques.

“There’s no escaping it when you get to college — it’s everywhere,” said Matthew Harris, a freshman at Northwestern University who logged 36 tackles as a cornerback this year. “But the fans are supportive, even when we’re not winning.”

Jake Butt, 18, mostly avoids online discussion of his first year at the University of Michigan, where he’s a tight end. Butt finished high school in Ohio early and moved to Ann Arbor to start training, missing his senior prom.

“People were saying that I should have been redshirted, that I was too small and slow,” Butt said. “I’m motivated by people telling me that. . . . My dad gets really into it. He’ll read everything and send me stuff.”

Butt feels he proved those fans wrong. He packed on more than 40 pounds. He was “thrown into the fire” during games against Notre Dame and Central Michigan in early September, and he started eight games and scored two touchdowns.

When fans got a little juvenile, Butt tweeted in late September: “Yes I’m a tight end. Yes my last name is butt. Hhahaha.”

Several bowl-bound programs declined to make freshman players available for interviews, often citing policies against allowing the team’s youngest members to speak to the media.

Some young players are quickly thrust into college football’s most intense spotlight. The past two winners of the Heisman Trophy, college football’s top honor, have been “freshmen” known as much for their on-the-field success as their off-the-field troubles.

In 2012, there was Johnny Manziel, the Texas A&M redshirt freshman quarterback known as “Johnny Football” who was arrested following a fight before he had even played in a game. His shirtless police mug shot went viral. Manziel has remained in the headlines for partying, slamming his college town in a tweet and being investigated by the NCAA for questionable autographs.

This year the award went to redshirt freshman Jameis Winston, Florida State’s starting quarterback known as “Famous Jameis,” who was accused of raping a 19-year-old woman in his apartment in December 2012.

Authorities dropped the case a few days before the Heisman was announced. Winston is a large reason the undefeated Seminoles are favored to beat Auburn in the upcoming BCS national championship game on Jan. 6.

College recruiters try to spot problems ahead of time, seeking to build a team that will win while avoiding an academic, legal or ethical scandal.

“Nowadays you can’t afford to bring a cancer into your program,” said Shane Beamer, Virginia Tech’s associate head coach. “They’ve got to be a good player and a good person.”

* * *

Three mornings a week, Wandey and a dozen other Virginia Tech athletes — mostly freshmen on the football and men’s basketball teams — gather in a classroom in Lane Stadium for a “College Success Strategies” course. As winter break drew near, the instructor split the class into three teams for the “Semester Review Trivia Challenge.”

Questions included: “Which personality assessment was named for Isabella Myers and her mother Katharine Briggs?” (One team got that right). “What are three parts of an e-mail message?” (Everyone got that one).

The fourth question: “List three common study distractions for college athletes.” Answers from the players: Social media. Smart phones. Dorms. Television. Girls. Food. Internet. Friends. Games.

All three teams were awarded points, but the instructor gently reminded them of the athlete-specific distractions they had discussed earlier: Practice. A tightly filled schedule. Teammates. Physical and mental fatigue. Injury. Hunger. Unresolved problems or things on their mind.

Though the course aims to teach athletes the skills they need to survive academically, most of the time was spent haggling over scorekeeping and swapping cheating accusations.

In addition to that class and honors English, Wandey is also taking introductory chemistry and an online hospitality and tourism management course.

Wandey’s parents — Marie-Helene and Frederic Wandey — are originally from Congo and work at the World Bank. Wandey was born in Belgium and moved to Minnesota when he was 5, entering kindergarten not knowing any English. The family of six still speaks French at home.

As a kid, Wandey went to a Minnesota Vikings game and was mesmerized by wide receiver Randy Moss. Wandey joined his first football team in fourth grade — and was so horrible the coach hardly played him. Wandey set up cones in the backyard and ran drills, just like he saw players on television do.

“I was a weird kid,” he said.

He slowly became “awesome,” and kept drilling and practicing. In 2007, the family moved to Northern Virginia. Wandey played through high school and was soon being recruited. He eventually decided to walk on to Tech’s team.

Wandey moved to Blacksburg on July 5 — a date that he recites with reverence and pride. The summer was intense. The game was suddenly faster. But it was exhilarating to stand on the field just before the first game was to begin, as the stadium pulsed with adrenaline, excitement and potential.

As kickoff approached, Wandey retreated to the stands, joining more than 61,300 fans.

“At first it’s kind of cool, because you are there,” Wandey said. “After a while, you just want to be out there and playing.”

 
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