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The plight of the college athlete

Playing major college athletics is great, but what happens to the athletes when the lights go out?

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

I don’t think college athletes should be paid a salary, but I’m not here to try and convince you either way. I do think athletes should be able to capitalize on their image and likeness during college, whatever form that takes, but I’m not here to convince you of that either.

So, what the hell am I doing here? Good question. I’m here to give you a little peak inside the life of the college athlete, and why it seems that the machine of major college athletics chews them up and spits them out.

My wife remains close to a group of friends she made while attending the University of Dayton. While they were at Dayton, one of her friends met/dated/married a guy named Ryan Perryman. Ryan was born and raised in Michigan, and played basketball for the Flyers. Back in June, all of our families got together in Tennessee for a few days of heavy drinking family fun and wholesome entertainment.

This was my first chance to spend a lot of time with Ryan, and since I rarely (ok, never) get a chance to hang out with anyone who played major college athletics, I wanted to ask him about his experience. The first thing I asked him was which schools were in his "final five." He told me they were Michigan State, USC (then coached by George Raveling), UAB, Minnesota and Dayton.

My brain practically exploded when he told me he could have played ball in Southern California, but instead chose to play in Central Ohio. Aside: To anyone and everyone of high school age reading this - if given the choice between those two, GO TO COLLEGE IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA YOU CAN THANK ME LATER. Anyway, since 1994 may as well be the Stone Age compared to today in terms of how interconnected everything is, Ryan chose to stay closer to home and go to Dayton.

But Ryan wasn't about to escape with disclosing only which schools were recruiting him the hardest. Further interrogation centered around his experience at Dayton, and how his professional life played out once he exhausted his eligibility. Ryan opened up quite a bit, and provided a good window into what I think happens to many former college athletes.

Before we get to that, let's provide a little context. Dayton sucked before Ryan got there, and fired their coach in 1994. They hired a guy named Oliver Purnell, who would go on to enough success that Clemson hired him in 2003. Ryan's first year was Purnell's first year as well. During that first season, Dayton went 7-20 overall and 0-12 in conference play. Yikes. Still, Ryan led the team in rebounding, by a lot, and was second on the team in scoring.

The next year, Dayton improved to 15-14, and Ryan led the team in scoring and rebounding. He averaged more rebounds than the conference player of the year (some guy named Camby) and earned 3rd team All-Conference honors. Dayton stayed about the same in 1997, but Ryan got better, averaging 14 points and 10 rebounds and moving up to 2nd team All-Conference.

Ryan led Dayton's complete turnaround in 1998, averaging 15.2 points and 12.5 rebounds, while earning 1st Team All-Conference honors. Oh, and those 12.5 rebounds didn't just lead the team or the conference. In 1998, Ryan Perryman LED THE NATION in rebounds. The Flyers went 21-12, won the Atlantic 10 and received an NIT bid. Not too bad for a team that didn't win a conference game three years prior.

So why is any of that important to the overall story? We'll get to that.

After he graduated from Dayton (with a double major, mind you), Ryan had a tryout with the Sacramento Kings that didn't pan out. Just another reason for me to dislike that cowtown. As a result, he had to find a job.

Before we go any further, I want to make it clear Ryan has an undying love for the University of Dayton, especially the basketball team. He goes to see the Flyers play whenever he can, and is a great ambassador for the program. I don't want to give the impression that he holds some sort of bitter grudge, because I didn't sense that at all. He loves the school and the fans, and always will.

He returned to Dayton, used what connections he had, and hit the job fair circuit in search of someone who would give him a chance. He couldn't even get an interview. Now, this isn't some slappy at the end of the bench we're talking about. This is the guy who led Dayton Basketball's turnaround, never once got in trouble, and graduated in four years. He had ideas about why employers weren't banging down the star player's door, but the bottom line was that he just couldn't seem to get any traction. So he turned to his coach for a little help.

He tried contacting Purnell, just to get a reference for his resumé. Purnell never called back.

So, after four years of giving his blood, sweat and tears to a team, a coach and a city full of diehard fans (seriously, Dayton is a great college basketball town, at least when it comes to cheering for the team on the floor), Ryan was left to fend for himself. And all I could think when I heard about Purnell was, "You've got to be kidding me." Purnell owed Ryan a lot, and he wouldn't even return a phone call just to provide a reference.

There was one question that stuck with me as Ryan was talking: "Is this what happens to a lot of guys once their college careers are over?"

We donate to the program. We buy hats and shirts. We swear our undying love to old State U. We turn out on fall Saturdays and winter weeknights to cheer on the players of the two programs (football and men's basketball) who earn revenue, and many of the non-revenue programs as well.

So what happens when those players don't have any more eligibility? Out of sight, out of mind. That isn't right, and it shouldn't happen. These are the people who are partly responsible for some of our greatest sports memories. The least we could do is help them out when they enter the real world, isn't it?

Despite the lack of help, Ryan was able to make a decent life for himself and his family. He played professionally in the CBA, and overseas in places like Argentina and Korea. He has some hilarious stories from his time in the pros, such as the way the American players were treated in Korea, as opposed to the Korean players. After eight years, Ryan hung up his basketball shoes, got himself a job and set about raising a family. He is a bit lucky in that his youngest son definitely has a future as an NFL defensive tackle.

In the end, Ryan is a success story, but only because he made his own way despite little-to-no help from the people who should have given him a hand-up when he graduated. There are probably scores of college athletes out there who could use some help to make their way in the world, yet aren't getting it. That's sad, and it needs to change.

All of those people who came to Flyers games, donated to the program and considered themselves part of the program couldn't find it within themselves to give him an interview. So next time you make your way to Pullman to watch the football team play on Saturday, or the basketball team play on Wednesday, or to cheer on the crew team or the soccer team, pay close attention to the athletes who will soon be absent from the playing field, court, pool etc.

WSU is actually making progress in this area through CougsFirst! CougsFirst! is "a business network that encourages Washington State University alumni and friends to Think CougsFirst! for products and services." Former WSU receiver Gino Simone was one of many student-athletes to benefit from this initiative. It's a great concept, not only for former players, but for all WSU alumni.

I ask you to think about how you can help these young men and women once they're done with school, and do what you can to pay them back for all of the enjoyment they work so hard to provide. Making a call, setting up an interview or sending an email on their behalf is the least we can do, and they deserve it.