When your athletic career comes to a crossroads, realizing that your dreams may not be achievable is a tough pill to swallow
The life of a varsity athlete at a Canadian university is complex and compelling, especially when it comes time to graduate.
Of course, most people aren’t naïve enough to think that every player to touch down on a university court or field will have an illustrious professional career afterwards. But while most players know that their chances for a pro career are slim, how prepared are they for this scenario?
The lifestyle of a student-athlete is just like the name bears—these people are supposed to be students first and athletes second. They are enrolled in a post-secondary institution to learn, and hopefully to take another step in their athletic careers.
In theory, this setup seems to provide everything the athlete needs for success in both facets of their life. But what happens when it doesn’t go as planned?
Spending weekends riding a bus from city-to-city for an out-of-town game, for instance, is something regular students never really have to deal with. Practices and meetings throughout the week are also part of the price one has to pay to play a varsity sport, but they may also be forfeiting time to study and prepare for their post-athletic careers.
And considering the fact that less than 10 per cent of all Division I players in the United States successfully turn their post-secondary athletic aspirations into a career, that concern is more than legitimate. This is worse in Canada, where even fewer athletes will make it as a pro.
But the few that turn a professional career out of Canadian collegiate athletics are in a far different spot than their teammates and friends alongside them on the court.
Every year, there are a handful of players that trade their cleats, shoes, or skates in for books or a ticket back home.
The majority of players accepted onto the varsity teams at the University of Ottawa are no exception. This year, like most other years, these teams will likely see a turnover in players that decide to end their athletic careers for various reasons.
Moe Ismail played for the Gee-Gees men’s basketball team from 2012 to 2015 before deciding not to return to the team this season.
“The main reason was off-the-court issues with finances,” said Ismail. “I figured I should get a job to help myself out, and for the team I felt like the input I was giving wasn’t equal to the output I was getting out of it.”
Ismail (centre) thanking the crowd after winning OUA bronze last season, his final game at Montpetit Hall. Photo: Rémi Yuan.
A case like Ismail’s is a common one in Canada, as many athletes rely on student loans and sparse scholarship money to get through school. If the money goes away, the player faces the choice of either suiting up for their team, or having food in the fridge.
“It was time to call it quits and start working on getting myself out of the financial state I was in,” he said.
Today, Ismail works at a clothing store and does videography for Sports Services, while also working towards his goals of graduating cum laude with an A average.
But needless to say, after you’ve thrown away the chance to play a sport that you’ve known and prioritized for a lifetime, the transition to “a normal life” isn’t always easy.
“The hardest part is staying disciplined and organized,” said the former Gee-Gee. “You have to schedule your classes and everything else around your ball schedule. When you don’t have basketball anymore, no one is there to tell you what to do and you have the freedom to sleep in and not go to class.”
Realizing that there isn’t a strong possibility for an athletic career post-university is a difficult, but sometimes it is the necessary thing to do.
Before Gee-Gees men’s basketball head coach James Derouin was recognized as the top coach in the nation last year, he was just like every one of his players.
From 2000-02, Derouin could be seen on the court at Montpetit Hall, running the point in a garnet and grey Gee-Gees uniform.
Fourteen years later, he’s made a professional career out of his passion, without ever touching the floor as a player again.
Like many young coaches, the start to Derouin’s career was rather modest.
“We had taken our licks during my two years here in terms of playing and I’m like ‘you know what, it’s heading in the right direction, I want to be a part of it,’” said Derouin.
Derouin during the 2000-01 season with the Gee-Gees and manning the sidelines 15 years later. Photos: Drue Perkins and Richard A. Whittaker.
Being a student-athlete, graduating was not easy and coaching was the one profession that carved its way out in his life.
“At first it was just part-time, and I struggled like every young person to find jobs and make money and pay off loans. It just became more and more my career path as other things weren’t leading anywhere. All of a sudden my resume was just filled with coaching.”
After spending six years as an assistant coach for the Gee-Gees men’s basketball team under Dave DeAveiro, Derouin decided he needed to pack his bags and head west to be an assistant at the University of British Columbia under his former college coach, Kevin Hanson.
The chips fell into place for Derouin after DeAveiro decided to accept the head coaching job at McGill.
With eight years of coaching experience, the former Gee-Gees point guard had landed his dream job at the U of O. Soon he would learn that coaching at a Canadian university and being on the inside of the operation isn’t always the easiest thing to stomach.
“A Canadian university athlete is not rewarded for their extracurricular activities,” said Derouin. “Realistically what are we doing for these guys after they graduate when they’ve sacrificed so much and we’re like sorry, can’t get in (to a post-bachelor program) you don’t have the grades.”
Derouin says that his biggest fear is that athletes are going to start figuring everything out and realizing that the system is fragmented. The grim realization that there is no chance at getting a master’s degree, going to teacher’s college or law school may eventually click for the next generation of players, which could put their athletic performance in jeopardy.
“As a coach it puts me in a really tough spot,” said Derouin.
“We have to be successful, that’s my job and yet these guys are sacrificing so much and other than the fact they get their face in the paper and their names. But what at the end of the day are we doing to help and thank them? We wait a couple of years and ask you for some money.”
For the vast majority of graduates, the scenario Derouin laid out is exactly the case.
For the players that are talented, determined, and lucky enough, becoming a professional athlete is still an option, though it’s definitely not an easy road.
Gee-Gees point guard Mike L’Africain is having perhaps the best season of his five-year career at the U of O. L’Africain looks to follow in the footsteps of former teammates Warren Ward, Terry Thomas, and Johnny Berhanemeskel in pursuing a professional basketball career.
“I want to be a pro and that’s pretty much it,” said L’Africain. “I have to be around basketball, it’s my passion, it’s my love, it’s everything I think about.”
L’Africain works the floor against York during a 31-point scoring performance on Jan. 30. Photo: Rémi Yuan.
When I asked the fifth-year communication student if he had a backup plan, the answer was a simple “nope”. L’Africain intends to expend all of his energy after this season striving to become a pro.
He notes that his various connections in the professional basketball world, including Philadelphia 76ers guard Nik Stauskas will come in handy. However, making the jump to becoming a pro will be slightly more difficult for this Gee-Gee due to his lack of size.
“I think the reason why I’m still playing at my size is because I’m never complacent,” said L’Africain. “I’m not happy with just maybe having an opportunity, I want more and more and more. I don’t want to just be a pro, I want to be a lock and go to the highest level I can possibly get to.”
“Michael will go pro, there’s no question about it,” said Derouin. “What level he goes will depend on what he does while he is there, not while he is here.”
Luckily for L’Africain, he has been able to remain in the same system for his university career and is at a level where playing professionally is an option.
For his new teammate Jean Emmanuel Pierre-Charles, who will suit up for the Gees next season after transferring from Carleton, finding a road to the pros has been much more complex.
Pierre-Charles played his final year of high school basketball an hour outside of Boston and received a handful of offers to attend mid-level Division I schools in the United States, but decided to return to Canada instead.
Pierre-Charles trades his red and black for garnet and grey in hopes of a better professional outlook. Photo courtesy of Jen Elliott.
After winning three national championships with Carleton, Pierre-Charles decided to move on and look for a place where his talents could be better utilized.
“The reason I came (to the U of O) is to maximize my chances at playing pro ball,” said Pierre-Charles. “I had to look at my environment and ask if this is the right environment in my three years (at Carleton) and the answer was ‘no’.”
Unlike L’Africain, Pierre-Charles has more time to consider his next step, but if all goes according to plan he will graduate in two years with an engineering degree to fall back on.
The careful consideration it took to realize the path in front of him cost him a year of playing time, but it may have given him a better shot at a pro career.
“You start to cherish the time a little bit more. You’re like ‘damn, three years just went by and I only have two left’. You want to maximize your two years, and that’s the reason I left.”
As much as being a varsity athlete seems like an illustrious time where all of your peers have reverence for your endeavours on the field of play, sometimes it really isn’t that way.
At the U of O, as well as the hundreds of other post-secondary institutions across the country, varsity athletes sacrifice up to five years of their lives to represent the school, with no real promise of being able to continue their passion for competitive sports afterwards.
“In Canada, this is the purest form of sports,” said Derouin. “You have to be passionate about the sport to sacrifice all the stuff. It cost me $70,000 to play basketball because I didn’t work and I trained… that’s what we’re asking our athletes to do in Canada and we get 250 people to a game. They deserve more respect.”
Sure, the lucky few will go pro, a smaller number will become coaches or something of the nature, and the vast majority will fade away, settling for something less than their dream.
Perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong with the system, but it is doubtful that change is going to come anytime in the near future.
For now we’ll all keep watching our favourite sports, trying to understand the lifestyles of the pros and slowly forgetting about the ones who never make the cut.