Yale will graduate another senior class in about a month, and in doing so, the University will say goodbye to a group of gifted student-athletes. Indeed, for most of these athletes, graduation marks the conclusion of a big career that began when he or she was small.
I saw Jeff Mroz ’06 walking across the intersection of Elm and Park the other day. The 6-foot-5-inch Mroz looked fit — for good reason. He has been trying out for NFL teams with the hope of joining former Yale standouts Eric Johnson ’01, Than Merrell ’01 and Nate Lawrie ’04, who are all now playing on Sundays. Best-case scenario for the 2005 captain who threw for 2,484 yards last season on 216 for 365 passing: He’ll be drafted on the second day, have the opportunity to learn an NFL offense, and maybe play in mop-up situations or after injuries to those above him on the depth charts (Ryan Fitzpatrick, a 2005 Harvard graduate, threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns last year for the St. Louis Rams against the Houston Texans after injuries sidelined Marc Bulger and Jamie Martin). Worst-case scenario: He doesn’t get drafted at all, and the hard work he’s put in this offseason is for naught. But whatever happens, Mroz continues playing the sport to which he has devoted the majority of his Yale career.
I also saw Joe Zappala ’06 on Elm Street Thursday on my way to section. Zappala has a recognizable canter, with thick calves and ankles. He walks like a hockey player. In fact, Zappala signed on March 23 with the Trenton Titans, the ECHL minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers. Since then, he has played in seven games with two assists. At Yale, Zappala had an excellent career (124 GP, 39 G, 44 A) that was highlighted by a 2003 campaign during which he tied for the team lead in points with 30 (18 G, 12 A) and led the NCAA with nine game-winning goals. Like Mroz, graduation from Yale will not mark the end of Zappala’s competitive athletic career.
But Mroz and Zappala are exceptions to the rule. Upon graduation, most Yale athletes effectively hang up their cleats, shoes or skates. They may play in pick-up leagues or coach their children’s teams, but their competitive careers will be over. For some, that can be a relief, but for others, it is a great disappointment.
Being an athlete at Yale consumes most of one’s time and energy. And there are examples of those who came to Yale with great expectations and left disillusioned. Most Yale athletes were the stars of their high school teams — likely in more than one sport. When they arrived in New Haven, the prospect of being a varsity college athlete provided excitement, as well as a means of forging friendships and an identity. But soon thereafter, it became very clear who would play and who would not.
Hence, there are plenty of Yale athletes who never play as much as they might have hoped. And some clash with coaches or teammates, but continue to play because they have identified themselves as athletes. For these athletes, graduation may be a relief. Finally, they can escape from a commitment that has dominated their college careers.
But for most, I would argue, graduation will be a sad day. The relationships of these athletes to their respective sports of choice stretch back far before their freshman years.They practiced as children. Sports helped them learn to compete, improve and excel — qualities that made them attractive candidates to Yale’s Admissions Office.
During their time at Yale, athletes form some of their most lasting friendships while playing sports. They bond with their sport, and vice versa. Their GPAs ebb and flow as each season comes and goes. On nights that some friends party, they stay home because of the next days’ requirements — a run, a lift or a game. The sports athletes play influence how they spend much of their four years here.
For most Yale athletes, graduation brings the culmination of a sports career as well as an undergraduate career. Most are forced into retirement. They will not have the opportunity to come back like Jordan or Lemieux. This is it. They will no longer pursue the passion that has consumed them for a large part of their lives.
This is a unique situation. If the standard student has an interest and studies it here at Yale, said student will typically have the option to work in that field and to further his or her interest. Yale provides this opportunity to its students. But it is only the rare Yale athlete, like Mroz or Zappala, who follows the passion he or she has pursued at Yale beyond graduation.
The question, then, is what athletes can take from their athletic experiences at Yale. They have continued their studies in competing, improving and excelling. They have learned to balance arduous and often contrasting workloads. These qualities will serve them well hereafter and make them attractive candidates in the professional world. They graduate as well-rounded people, and in an age of specialization, that’s an attribute that the world can use.
Nicholas Thorne is a sophomore in Pierson College. His column appears on Wednesdays.