By Kenneth Foxworth
The hardest time of the year for senior student-athletes is the last game of their college career. This, after the five years of investing their hearts, souls, minds and countless hours into the University of Minnesota through its football program.
Yesterday, when these matriculating seniors ran out onto the field amid smiling parents, faculty and fans, cheering for them for the last time at TCF Stadium, they did so with full knowledge that they would never again don the Gophers’ maroon and gold against an opponent.
This past Saturday, nine African Americans — Gary Tinsley, Da’Jon McKnight, Troy Stoudermire, Shady Salamon, Kim Royston, Eric Lair, Johnny Johnson, Anthony Jacobs and Duane Bennett — completed their journey through the University of Minnesota, one of the most elite universities in the Midwest region.
“It was a great feeling winning our last game,” Brandon Kirkesey said in reference to the Gophers’ 27-7 win over Illinois.
“I think the big thing for me is that I couldn’t be happier for the senior group that’s walking out of here,” said Coach Jerry Kill. “They’ve been through so many things through the years here at the University of Minnesota. They’ve been great hanging in there through this year and just working to get better.
“I’m so happy for them, and they’ve set the tone for us going forward. They’ll always be a part of the start we’ve had with our coaching tenure. I’m so glad they get to go out like this, because you always remember your last game.
“I am so happy for them, their families, and our program.”
Still, the hardest comeback for a player is not to be able to triumph after a loss; it is in fact to return to the football stadium as alumnae, as observers, knowing their access to the bowls and other team-centric events is over.
No more are the accolades and the glory as one emblazoned in the Gophers’ uniform, a challenging reality to reconcile once they are no longer a part of that team. Groomed as athletes since childhood, the only thing these players have envisioned or strived for is the game of football.
Unfortunately, only one percent will reach the ultimate goal of becoming professional football players.
It should be recognized by all observers of college football that it may take years for a student-athlete to deprogram themselves to becoming “normal” people who are able to undertake the old adage that “a game is a game” and utilize their experiences as leaders, team players, and their honed, tireless cooperative work ethic to create new environments for business, for family, for community, for self.
We wish these strong, capable, freshly degreed young men the very best, as now it is time for them to grant guidance to those who will continue to leave it on the field next fall.
Kenneth Foxworth welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.