By Wes Austin
In the world of sports today, college football players have become household names. Players like Leonard Fournette have been mentioned with the likes of great NFL players. These college players receive tons of glory. College football players are given top of the line equipment, state of the art locker rooms, and all of the new Nike gear you wish you had. To top it off, they don’t have to pay for any of this. In fact, they are paid thousands of dollars in scholarships. So go ahead and add a free education to the list of amenities that come with being a college football player. However, I forgot to mention that this is the lifestyle of a Division I college football player. Division III college football players face a different reality.
Christopher Newport University outside linebacker Rahland Gordon states, “DIII football is all guts, with no glory.”
Division III football does not receive the glory that Division I football receives. Gordon said, “In high school I never thought I would play in college. After my senior year I started to receive interests from smaller DI schools, you know, like ODU, Davidson, Norfolk State, schools like that… I was like oh yeah I’m about to go DI. I thought I was the man.” DI football coaches look for top of the line prospects across the country. With 83 tackles, 5 sacks, 4 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 7 blocked kicks, and 3 touchdowns, Gordon certainly had the stats that DI coaches look for in a defensive prospect.
Although Gordon had DI-prospect statistics, he also had something that could overshadow his unbelievable stat line. His size. “I remember meeting the coaches in person and they would look at me shocked and say I looked bigger on film,” Gordon mentioned. In his senior year Gordon was 5’9 and weighed 183 pounds. This would have been acceptable if Gordon was strictly a cornerback but he was a hybrid type of player. He played a little bit of cornerback in high school but according to the college scouts he talked to, he lacked the footwork and hips to play corner at the DI level. Gordon mostly played outside linebacker and this is where his size came into play. The prototypical Division I outside linebacker would be about 6’2 and weigh 220 pounds. Gordon did not have the size the DI recruiters were looking for so he fell through the cracks, to a lower division of college football. Division III coaches loved Gordon. His size did not matter to them and he was offered to play at almost every DIII college in Virginia, along with many out of state offers. Gordon stated, “After talking to DI scouts for so long I had my mind set on playing football in college so I figured I would give DIII a chance.
After receiving lots of DIII attention, Gordon decided to take his talents to Christopher Newport University, a Division III college in Newport News, Virginia. Gordon was excited about this opportunity but he began to notice the difference between DI and DIII football before he even arrived at CNU. In Division III, colleges are not allowed to offer scholarships to players. Instead of signing a letter of intent to commit to a college like DI athletes, DIII athletes have to apply and go through admissions like any other student. This is where Gordon started to notice the difference. He explained, “On National Signing Day I had to watch all my boys and teammates sign their letters… I was happy for them but I couldn’t help but to feel pissed off. They were doing what I thought I was going to do.” As his high school teammates signed their letters of intent in front of cameras, Gordon could only experience the moment from behind the cameras. Over the past couple of years National Signing Day has become a big deal in the sports world. ESPN and other sports networks have dedicated coverage to this day to see where the best high school football recruits in the nation will sign. With this being the first time high school players are in the national spotlight, you can understand Gordon’s frustration on not being a part of this day.
Gordon knew there would be a difference when he decided to play Division III football at Christopher Newport University but it was a difference he was not expecting. Gordon states, “When I got to CNU I was unaware of what I was getting myself into. It was already tough not playing with a scholarship.” When Gordon showed up to CNU for the first day of summer camp he was issued his equipment. He said,“I was given the same helmet I had in high school, which I was fine with, but then they gave me some big ole shoulder pads that were worse than the ones I wore in high school so yeah I didn’t like that… Then I went into the locker room and noticed that the lockers were no better than the ones we used in high school. I don’t know I was just expecting much more.” I can’t blame Gordon for expecting more. In the media we always see how colleges have state of the art facilities and the best equipment there is to offer. CNU was certainly a long shot from that.
College football practices and workouts are always depicted as hardnosed and tough but Gordon explained that it was tougher than it looks. He said he had to wake up at 5:30am almost every day for football workouts. “Practice and workouts were even harder because of the busy schedule I had. I remember being tired before a lot of practices and just having to turn it on as we walked out to the field,” Gordon explained. Right after he was done lifting he had to go to class and after class there was a football meeting to watch film from practice. “Right after film I had 15 minutes to grab lunch before class, and then after class I had to hurry to the locker room to go to practice… The worst part of the day was having a night class right after practice. I was so tired I just wanted to pass out after practice. I had to schedule my classes around our football meetings and practices during the day so I was stuck with a busy day from the time I woke up at 5:30am until the time I was done with class at 7:15pm and that’s not counting the nights when I was drowning in homework.” The college workload is no joke. Throughout college campuses students can be overheard complaining about their workload. Imagine having that workload on top of 30 hours of meetings, workouts, and practices a week.
Being a college football player is a huge commitment. Gordon explained, “Football at the college level is like a job.” For a DI athlete I guess college football is like a job. They are paid in scholarships for playing football and taking on everything that comes with it. For DIII players they are doing the same thing except they’re not paid in scholarships. It’s almost like going to work every day, working long hard hours, without receiving that check at the end of the week.
Players have to balance school, football, and social life. “My coach said you have to pick between football, school, and social life. You can only have two.” Gordon picked football and school. His social life suffered and he noticed that his only friends for a while were his teammates. Gordon stated, “A lot of people end up quitting because they can’t balance football and school and some of them quit because it takes away from their social life. A lot of them believe football is worth giving up. I can definitely see where they’re coming from because I thought about quitting before. I’ve had friends on the team that have quit.” According to Gordon his freshman class came in with 50 players and his senior class only had 17. It is apparent that many players did not think college football was worth it. Gordon said, “It’s funny because one of my boys from high school that plays DI football wanted to quit but he said he couldn’t because he would be giving up his scholarship. He told me other people on his team had the same thoughts but they just couldn’t throw away scholarship money.” That is plenty of reason not to quit. I don’t think many people would give up thousands of dollars in scholarship money.
But that was a DI player. I couldn’t help but think what would stop a DIII player. My first thought was it had to be the glory football players receive. Gordon couldn’t disagree more when I made that statement. Almost in disbelief, Gordon exclaimed, “Glory? We get absolutely no glory. At our home games we have around 6,000 people in the crowd. At my high school we would get 6,000 people so it’s not like it was a new thing.” 6,000 people may be a good number for a DIII crowd but it is certainly nothing to rave about. Crowd attendance averages from Ohio State are more than 17 times that number. In Division I football the top 5 teams in crowd attendance averaged over 100,000 fans. Gordon went on to mention, “More students at CNU go to the tailgate than go to the game. The students don’t really care about the game for the most part. But I will say we had it better than most teams. Although we didn’t get many fans, away trips were even worse. There were some games where there would be less than 2,000 fans. No lie. When we played the #4 team in the nation there was a surprisingly low amount of fans. I was thinking there would be a bunch of fans but there were no more than 3,000 people in the stands.” Even the top tier teams in DIII football receive little glory. There is no correlation between success and fan attendance. Christopher Newport University is the winningest college football team in Virginia over the last decade but according to Gordon students would attend the tailgate and not show up to support the football team after. That has to be a demoralizing feeling. A tailgate is supposed to be something you enjoy before the main event but to some students at CNU the tailgate was the main event. Clearly there was no glorification coming from the students of CNU. Gordon went on to say, “Not to mention how bad the facilities were when we were away. Sometimes we played at high school fields… It made me think that these guys really have to love this game to do this.”
That answered my question. What stops DIII players from quitting? What makes them play DIII football? They don’t get scholarships. They don’t get any glory. Their facilities and equipment aren’t top of the line. They have to balance schoolwork along with football. They have to make a commitment and sacrifice all of their time. They do all of this with no incentive other than the fact that they love to play football. DI football players are given scholarships, they are glorified in the media, they play in front of a national audience, they play for a chance to play in the NFL, they have the best facilities, and gear money can buy. These are all incentives to be a DI football player. The DIII player has none of these incentives. For the DIII player, college football is simply about playing football and that is it. Gordon states, “I love everything about football. I love coming out under the lights. I love getting hype after one of my teammates makes a big play. I love hitting the other team in the mouth and the trash talk that follows it… Nothing can compare to the feeling I get when I play football. I don’t play DIII football for any other reason than the fact that I love to play football. I do it for the love of the game.”