Matt Leinart learns it the hard way

If you play football or basketball and happen to have an amazing junior year of college athletics, especially if you have achieved every possible accolade for this amazing junior year, then do yourself a favor and GO PRO! Just skip that senior year and start making some real money with your athletic gifts.

The degree can wait, and you will easily afford to complete your education with your millions of dollars after your retirement.

Professional athletics is a very fickle industry. Job security is non-existent and an employee’s livelihood is completely reliant on the health and optimal performance of his or her fragile physical body. However, the rewards for good health and optimal performance are beyond many people’s ideas of opulence and grandeur. An exceptional athlete has a limited window to profit from their physical gifts, and delaying entry into an insanely profitable career while at physical prime seems a great risk. While remaining in college, entering a professional career can be completely contingent upon the strength of a knee ligament, and injury is a great scarlet letter that glows with prejudice in the eyes of a professional scout.

Plus, and maybe most important, an athlete’s timing upon entering the professional ranks can be the difference between lucrative contracts or crushing disappointment.

A year ago, Matt Leinart walked on water. His USC Trojans were college football’s national champions, and he was Heisman’s favorite son. Coquettish sports pundits were smitten with Leinart’s field leadership, football ability and rugged masculinity accented with hypnotizing azure eyes. Lauded football’s next great quarterback his junior season, Saturday I watched Matt Leinart drop to the 10th spot in the NFL draft. Leinart decided, while at the pinnacle of his college career and NFL interests, to pursue his senior season. Why? To win another championship? To win another Heisman trophy? To avoid playing for the dismal San Francisco 49ers?

Leinart did have an exceptional senior season, yet his spotlight dimmed significantly. He was overshadowed by his talented teammate Reggie Bush, and fell short of winning a third consecutive championship, being overshadowed by another quarterback, Vince Young. Instead of being the bar none first overall pick after his junior year, playing for the dismal San Francisco 49ers yet garnering what would no doubt be a monstrous salary, his waning interest could only net him the 10th spot in Saturday’s draft, losing millions in potential salary from a year ago, and being picked by the perennial nadir of the NFL, Arizona Cardinals.

But in Leinart’s defense, this decision caused merely a stumble; he did not completely fall from grace. Indiana’s 1999 Mr. Basketball, Jason Gardner, was a starting point guard and prominent fixture on a dominate Arizona Wildcats basketball team that went deep into the NCAA tournament each year he attended. Gardner could have decided to go pro after either his sophomore or junior years and been easily drafted like the rest of his Wildcat teammates. Unfortunately, after he finished all four years of his college career at Arizona, the NBA did not draft him.

But perhaps I am being short-sighted, basing my observations on my own personal experiences. I too went all four years of college, finishing with my bachelor’s degree, and am now a mercenary temp desperately trying to make ends meet while searching for a foothold to even begin climbing the career ladder. If at any point in my college career a company were to offer me a guaranteed six-figure salary for three years at least, I would have all my belongings in a Ryder truck by the morning, especially if that job were playing basketball for three-fourths of the year.

The Almighty provides us all with unique gifts and talents, but it is our duty to discover, hone and exploit these talents for our own maximum benefit. In the case of superior athleticism the window for peak performance is narrow, and the rewards are incredible. Professional athletics is a dream only rivaled by music superstardom and political superiority, and watching deserving athletes miss their opportunities to maximize their dreams is crushing.

To all exceptional college athletes pondering professional ambitions that seem readily obtainable, take no heed in the biased negative words of negative coaches and athletic directors fearful of their own job security seeing their great player venture on to professional stardom. Listen not to irrational fans and boosters that will deem you greedy and selfish, seeing their “hope for next season” leave to profit from his or her athletic gifts. Please, go forth and make that money. If you are careful, managing your money wisely, it will be the greatest decision in your life.

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