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Lessons learned playing football can create a foundation for success in life

 By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider

There are approximately 1,100,000 high school football players in the United States Fewer than two percent will make it all the way to the NFL. The reality is that while the odds of making it in the NFL are infinitesimal, with the right preparation, the rewards from playing football can be enormous and last a lifetime.

Abe Elimimian is one of those whose NFL aspirations were not realized. Injuries to the former cornerback in both high school and then at the University of Hawaii, truncated his efforts. He was supremely disappointed when his name wasn’t called during the 2004 NFL Draft. Eventually he was signed by the San Diego Chargers and then the Chicago Bears, but was released during their training camps. He spent two years in NFL Europe with the Amsterdam Admirals (2006 and 2007), but then watched his playing career come to an end.

He struggled with the transition because his entire focus had always been on the NFL. “My spirit was knocked out because everything you worked for was just gone,” he said. It took a couple of years to recover from that. I think the work ethic and determination and my family was what got me out of it.”

Now the secondary coach at his college alma mater, Elimimian does his best to encourage his players’ dreams, while ensuring they build a foundation for life beyond football so as not to be faced with the great disappointment that he was. His first coaching job was at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, from which he had graduated. The moment he was hired he instantly felt it was the job he was meant to do.

“I tell players that everything’s not going to go as planned,” he said. “You have to have fallback plan. You have to have an education. One day you’re not going to be playing. You need to envision a place where you can actually live and have a nine to five job.”

Keith Goganious did make it to the NFL, although his only original goal was simply to get a college scholarship. Drafted in 1994 out of Penn State University by the Buffalo Bills, Goganious had a five-year career in the league (also playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens) but he is now making what is arguably a bigger impact. Following coaching stints at North Point High School in Maryland and Hampton University in Virginia, he is currently assistant athletic director and head coach at Bishop McNamara High School in Washington, DC.

In addition to teaching his players the X’s and O’s of the game, he makes sure to fold in a significant number of life lessons as well, seeing a big part of his job as helping to prepare them for their lives ahead – with or without football. He works to instill a sense of adult responsibility, even recommending to parents that players be responsible for washing their own gear.

“[It’s about] preparing yourself to win in life,” Goganious said.  “Making sure all the stuff is in place to put yourself in position to win at everything you do. Football instilled a competitive edge in me to do my best.”

Larry Black had put all of that in place. The Cincinnati native’s parents had always made a college education a priority, so throughout all of his years in football, including at Indiana University, his approach to his future had been a balanced one.

When the Cincinnati Bengals signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2013, Black was living the dream of thousands of football players. But, it was a dream that came to an abrupt end. In the first week of training camp, with HBO’s Hard Knocks cameras rolling, Black suffered a severely broken leg and a dislocated ankle. In those first moments, Black’s concerns were not whether he would play football again; it was whether or not he would walk again.

The Bengals put Black on injured reserve and he drew on the skills, focus and stamina that years of football had provided and was ready for training camp in 2014.  However his ankle became a chronic issue and Cincinnati released him. But, Black kept moving forward. After a brief foray into the corporate world, Black still felt the calling of football. He also decided to go back to school. While he earns his Masters in Education from Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he is also a graduate assistant with the Carthage football team, laying the foundation for a new career.

“Football set the foundation for who I am, period,” Black said. “Just the discipline, the structure of the game that brightens your character all around. I was a team leader at Indiana and once you see how you impact people you realize how you’re a role model. I have two little brothers and I always wanted to set a good example.”

Lonnie Marts is teaching that message to his players at the Harvest Community School in Jacksonville, Florida. After graduating from Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, Marts played in the NFL for a decade, first being signed as an undrafted free agent in 1991 by the Kansas City Chiefs and subsequently playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Marts impresses on his players that while playing college or professional football would be a nice accomplishment; overall success in life is more important.

“Football is beneficial in training them to be tougher, to learn to be a winner,” Marts said. “There aren’t things that are insurmountable; you just have to put your mind to it. You can’t accept failure or take the road of least resistance. It’s a good way to learn how to overcome obstacles.”

While the odds of making it in the NFL are small, the odds of football contributing to making it in life are huge.

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