As yet another 21st-century feature absent in the 20th, college football programs have established programs within their programs such as “P.A.W. Journey” at Clemson and “Real Life Wednesdays” at Ohio State. These inner programs involve career guidance, advisory speakers, community service, even humanitarian trips abroad. They operate within athletic departments, geared toward bolstering the whole human being of the player. They might even enhance team cohesion, which might even enhance team victory totals.
“None of that was done,” Mattison said of his beginnings at Illinois in 1976, “because the players weren’t being distracted or tempted with things that today’s society has. Then, you were a football player and you went to class, and that was all that you did. There wasn’t social media and all this stuff as now” — all things to navigate and handle.
As they bring in speakers from bygone rosters or corporate boardrooms to provide advice for players, these programs can sound like serial career days. Nyles Pinckney, a Clemson defensive tackle, said he gained greatly near the outset of his college days from listening to former Clemson defensive tackle Rod Byers and hearing something players of last century might not have heard: “He told us his NFL career lasted all of two days. All that preparation for two days, and he was telling us how it worked out for him. That really motivated me. It was like: ‘You know, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. You’ve got to know football ends at some point in time.’ ”
Yet these programs have blossomed expansively beyond that, to incorporate aspects that would have seemed far-fetched in days of Woody (Hayes) and Bo (Schembechler) and Bear (Bryant) and John (McKay). That’s how all-American Clemson guard John Simpson can reflect upon Haiti, and Ohio State defensive tackle Robert Landers can reflect upon a revelation.
At Clemson, so often at the vanguard these days, P.A.W. Journey traces almost to the moment in 2008 when Dabo Swinney became the head coach. Swinney brought in former Clemson and NFL player Jeff Davis, an assistant athletic director who has envisioned and shepherded the program in the heady years since. Nowadays, one can peruse the bios of the Clemson roster and find some 30 players who serve as a “P.A.W. Journey ambassador” in a little purple banner headline, mentioned above all football exploits and signifying leadership within the program-within-the-program.
“It’s a great honor to be a P.A.W. Journey ambassador,” Pinckney said, and there’s an entrenched system for becoming same. Prospective ambassadors seek out three recommendations, from coaches or other staff, and then the current ambassadors vote on the ensuing set of ambassadors.
In the case of Ambassador Simpson, a senior from North Charleston, S.C., the program has lent some eye-widening, none bigger than 2017 and community service in Haiti.
He left Haiti, but it didn’t leave him.
“Oh, man, when we were there, we were riding across the bridges, and seeing people in the water, showering in the water,” he said. “Now, I can’t just like throw away any water.”
He said: “Anything they could get their hands on, they were so grateful for it. It opened my eyes. We’ve got some ungrateful people [in this country]. And just seeing those people that would take anything. Some of us, we took our shirts off and gave it to them. It was crazy, just knowing we were helping people out.”
He said, “That’s all I want to do in my whole life — just help people.”
He thinks all college students should go abroad, and not just to see the Eiffel Tower.
In the case of Landers, a senior defensive tackle from Dayton, Ohio, Ohio State’s program lent a crucial clarification.
“I can’t remember exactly the date behind it,” Landers said, “but we had a guy come in by the name of Dr. [Derek] Greenfield, and Dr. Greenfield specializes in mental health. And throughout the time in Real Life Wednesday, he was actually touching on these taboo topics. But the way that he does it, it makes it easy for guys to kind of address those issues. He is the best at doing that. I’ve yet to meet a guy, another person, that does it the way he does, to make such a taboo topic comfortable for a group, especially a group of young men who play football, and there’s a stigma behind it of, you’ve got to be a tough guy outside.”
He said he felt he had been struggling but ignoring the issue, telling himself, “Suck it up.”
“Now, I’ve realized it,” he said, “and I’ve done my homework, and I’ve learned different ways to deal with it, cope with it, because it’s an ongoing battle. It’s not something that it happens, you recognize it, okay, you deal with it, it’s done. It’s in and out, up and down. It’s like a roller-coaster ride, you know what I mean? Sometimes it’s new. Sometimes you’re going up. Sometimes you’re going down. . . . You never know what’s going to happen. But once it comes, you’ve got to deal with it.”
His position coach, Larry Johnson, 68, can look back across a four-decade-plus coaching career that began at Lackey High and McDonough in Maryland and T.C. Williams in Virginia and has coursed all the way through Penn State and Ohio State to 2020, an era with a pile of demands and a wealth of good time managers: the players.
“It’s a major change, the fact there’s more attention paid to not just a player’s playing ability but to just know the state of where he is as a student-athlete,” Johnson said. “I think that’s huge. I think the direction it’s going right now, it’s a big change in college football, and I think it’s needed.”