Published: Friday, June 3, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 20:07
For the two years I've been at Oregon State, parts of my life didn't even remotely resemble a Beaver athlete. Athletes played in front of thousands of people. They walked around campus - with their "OS" backpacks - with a spring in their step because they were college athletes.
But for those seniors not drafted to play in the pros, we share a common question at a crossroads in our lives.
What do I do now?
What does somebody like Keith Pankey do now that his days of bruising crossing receivers are over? Does somebody like Aaron Nichols, who caught pressure-packed receptions in huge college football games simply get a 9-to-5 job in a cubicle? Should athletes refuse to hang up their cleats or sneakers and squeeze every drop of football or basketball he can by finding a small, semi-professional league to play in?
The frustrating thing about the past is that no matter how hard you wish, you can't go back. I will soon be graduating and my time in Corvallis will be over. This will be the last column I will ever write for the Barometer. It's time to face the real world and see what in God's name I can and want to do with a history degree.
Likewise, many of these athletes - after spending their entire lives playing their sport - are now left with only their memories. Their playing days are over and they're never coming back.
I am pretty sure I'm not the only person who was not good enough to play in college that routinely thinks back to my high school playing days. To remember what used to be.
These athletes are no different. They have moments at OSU that stick in their mind. For Nichols, it was his first catch - the opening game of 2009 against Portland State University when Ryan Katz rolled out and hit him for a 56-yard gain.
I asked him how often he thinks of that moment and other memories from his tenure with the Beavers.
His response: "A lot."
Pankey told me, with a wide smile on his face, of the goal line stand he and the defense made this past year against Arizona State University. They kept the Sun Devils out of the end zone - Pankey shotgunned the A-gap when ASU quarterback Steven Threet tried to sneak his way in - and made them settle for a field goal. The Beavers eventually won by three points.
Now retired from football, Pankey can only talk and reminisce with former teammates of these little moments.
"We do that all the time," Pankey said. "It's like the glory days."
The reminders that their playing days are over seem to be everywhere. Pankey joked that he goes into his closet and doesn't have any non-Oregon State clothing. Aaron Nichols has a scrapbook of clippings and memories in his storage room that will almost certainly be scanned through sometime soon. Playing Division-I football gives a person a structured environment. There is practice at this time. You have to lift at this time. There's a meeting at this time.
Now, all of that is gone.
"Man, I have so much free time, what do I do?" said Pankey, who needs to return next season to take one class per term to graduate with his geology degree.
But for Pankey, the biggest reminder of his playing days is the same reason he decided to end them. His body felt each and every hit he gave and received. His knees hurt - they hurt really bad. So after Pro Day, he knew what he had to do.
"I don't want to sacrifice running around with my kids," he said. "It hurts going down the stairs of my house, and that sucks, you know? Because I'm 21 years old. Being a linebacker isn't an easy thing to do, it's a lot of banging on the knees and it wasn't worth it anymore."
As he grows older, Pankey will weigh whether the damage his body went through was worth the years of memories playing football. Chances are, it was. Easily.
For both Nichols and Pankey, they see themselves taking the stereotypical route of a former college athlete: coaching.
"It was difficult for me in the beginning, when I was contemplating what would happen if I never played football again. And that's why this coaching thing really changed my life," said Pankey, who helps out with Barton Football Academy, a football program for players from kindergarten to college.
"Your playing days are limited, but you can coach as long as you can and I'll probably fill that void I have with coaching," Nichols said.
Pankey has already loved coaching, saying "the coaching aspect of where you say 'Okay, this kid doesn't know as much as me, so I'm going to impart my knowledge onto him.' And once he does that, listens to me and goes out and succeeds and says 'Okay, I get it now.' That's huge. Are you kidding? There's nothing better to me than that."
It's too hard for these guys to completely give up football. I can't blame them. I'll probably live the college lifestyle for a few more years (minus having homework) before I realize I really need to grow up.
More than likely, in a few years Nichols, Pankey, and other athletes who are not going to the pros will end up like former Beaver football players Kenny Farley, Lawrence Turner, and Seth Lacey - completely forgotten about, a tiny little footnote in the history of Oregon State. In a way, that's how the majority of the graduating student body will be.
Next year, I don't see any Barometer readers thinking, "What happened to the Jesse guy who used to write sports columns?" I, too, will disappear from Oregon State's consciousness. It's time for me, my fellow soon-to-be graduates and all the athletes who must face that their playing days are over, to move on to a new stage of our lives.
Nichols is a lucky one. He's set himself up to have an excellent Plan B. My guess is some athletes don't have graduate school to fall back on. He plans to make one last surge at the NFL but more than likely will return to be a normal student in the Doctorate of Pharmacy program next year.