Remarkable, isn’t it? One ACL tear and a dislocated knee later, and arguably the top cornerback in all of college football barely squeaks by in the seventh round of the NFL Draft. It’s sad, but it’s a reality. One play can ruin everything. For Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, all it took was one unlucky play while practicing for the 2015 Rose Bowl.
It wasn’t all bad for the senior all-American and Jim Thorpe Award finalist. As Ekpre-Olomu continued to watch his name drop lower and lower down draft boards, he continued to collect money. The University of Oregon took out an insurance policy that stated if he slipped past the 12th draft spot he’d be paid, and if he made it past the third round he’d collect the full value of the policy: a whopping $3 million.
Ekpre-Olomu was finally taken by the Cleveland Browns with the 241st pick of the 2015 Draft, just 15 picks away from the infamous “Mr. Irrelevant” pick.
Of course, where he’s drafted will have no effect on his future in the NFL. Arguably the greatest QB in NFL History, Tom Brady, was taken in the sixth round of the 2000 Draft. In fact, if anything, this only serves as motivation for Ekpre-Olomu to prove to the 31 other teams that passed on him for 240 picks, that they made a mistake.
I don’t doubt Ekpre-Olomu will have a long and prosperous career as one of the league’s top DB’s, especially considering his remarkable intangibles and immeasurable work ethic.
None of those are concerns, but there still is one glaring issue from this ordeal that desperately needs attention: What if he hadn’t been able to play again?
What if his knee injury was worse than doctors thought, and he’d been banned from playing football for the rest of his life? Are college athletes ever prepared for a life without football?
Comedian John Oliver attempted to answer these questions in a segment for his popular TV Show Last Week Tonight. Oliver notes how student athletes struggle to find a balance between school and football, often prioritizing their sport over their school work. In the show, Oliver uses the below clip from Richard Sherman, a former Stanford student, to help make his point.
Sherman hammers home a point that, as student athletes, “You wake up in the morning and you have weights at this time and then, after weights, you go to class and, after class, you try to get a quick bite to eat. After that, you go to meetings and, after meetings, you have practice. And, after practice, you try to get all the work done you had throughout the day you got from your lectures. You’re there to play football. You’re not on scholarship for school.”
Remarkably, he’s right. These athletes are paid a full ride to help them receive one of the top educations in the world, but there’s always going to be that one asterisk: football. Football comes first for a large majority of these athletes, making school work hard to keep up with. Oh, and forget about free time. You’re either practicing, working, or sleeping to let your body recover from the extremely strenuous levels of energy/output it must maintain day in and day out.
That’s not to say football is a bad thing. It’s these guys’ passion, and the opportunity to play every day with some of the best athletes in the world is a blessing in and of itself to many of them.
But, in terms of the scholarship, football does raise one question: which part of the term “student-athlete” carries more weight? Often times, it’s one or the other for these guys, and that’s fine. But, for many, it’s a nearly impossible decision to make. For some, though, the education is essential.
Redshirt senior Koa Ka’ai, a tight end, received a double Bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology, and is currently working his way toward a Master’s degree in business.
Consequently, though, the former 4-star recruit wasn’t able to dedicate as much time to football. Ka’ai caught only two passes during his career, both during a blowout against Tennessee Tech in 2012. It was difficult for Ka’ai to be successful both as a student and an athlete, so he made his choice based on his priorities.
Going back to the case of Ekpre-Olomu, the issue still stands. There were a lot of things calling Ekpre-Olomu back to Oregon even after he was graded as a 1st-round prospect for last year’s draft. He felt he had unfinished business both in the classroom and on the field, and many fans urged his return.
When asked about why he returned, specifically, Ekpre-Olomu said, “I should be able to finish my degree by next fall, possibly by the end of the summer. Football is only one phase of who I am; my degree will be forever. Secondly, was my ability to make an impact and become a top (draft) pick, and I felt staying one more year would only help me.”
And now here he is, exactly one year later, roughly $7.5 million short of where he would’ve been had he declared after his junior season. That’s a lot of Voodoo Doughnuts, and it’s all based on this same decision Ka’ai struggled with, as well. Is the degree more important, or is football?
Of course, there’s no way Ekpre-Olomu could have foreseen an injury like the one he sustained. However, if the injury does ultimately affect his career, he will certainly miss those extra $millions.
I respect his desire to return to school and tie up those loose ends he felt he had, but at the same time, it pains me to think about how much better his life may have been had he left just one year earlier.
Players come and go and, as Oregon continues its dominance, players such as Ifo won’t be special any more, they’ll be the standard.
As fans, we reserve the right to always wish they’d return to school and play one more year, but if one truly considers oneself a fan, it’ll be equally satisfying to see that same player succeed at the next level.
With that said, I wish my very best to Marcus Mariota, Arik Armstead, Jake Fisher, Hroniss Grasu and, of course, Ekpre-Olomu as they continue to live out their lifelong dreams.
Top photo from Kevin Cline