Collegiate athletes, TCU, & the US Army

Wingate Afghanistan

As a former 5-year football player at Texas Christian University from 1999-2003, this Ed O’Bannon Case and Northwestern Unionization case absolutely dumbfounds me. These lawsuits are a ploy and cry for attention by has-beens, never-was, and greedy, money-hungry attorneys searching for their next payday.

As a walk-on at TCU in 1999, I worked my way up the depth chart, lettering my last two seasons in 2002 and 2003.  I was not a star on the team by any means. I was a role-player. I fought hard on the scout team for three years before finally making an appearance on kick off in a nationally televised upset of then-19th ranked Louisville.

The kick-backs and perks I received from TCU were minimal at best. I did not receive money from TCU other than $10 per diem after every game. I was not able to eat at training table for my meals unless I paid out of my own pocket. I did not receive financial aid for tuition at an amazing private institution, support for room or board, a stipend for books, or money amounting up to $70,000 annually for some schools. For all that, I thank Uncle Sam and the US Army.

As a walk-on, I received uniforms, workout gear, and access to state of the art facilities, tutoring, and academic advising. When injured during practice, I received appropriate treatment from the excellent athletic management team. As a letterman and member of the travel squad, I received free travel to the games, food and regular access to the winningest coach in TCU history and arguably one of the greatest defensive minds in the game today. I received bowl gifts for all five of the bowls we went to during my five years. I received five bowl rings that include three Conference Championship rings. I played on national TV more times than I can remember.

I am more than grateful to TCU for five of the greatest years of my life. The lessons I learned, the perks I did receive, did not have a price tag. I was not and am not a person who was worried about EA Sports taking his likeness and putting it on a football game. In fact, in five years, I don’t believe my number or likeness was ever on NCAA Football, even as a starter.

As a season ticket holder, I return to TCU with fondness and joy every fall I am in the country. I reach out to Coach Patterson, Williamson, Anderson, and Sharpe on a regular basis because I am still grateful for the small piece I played in the foundation of winning our five teams established at TCU during my tenure with the Horned Frogs and the excellent memories they helped me build.

I did not receive a full ride and tuition to play TCU football or earning an education for free through an athletic scholarship.  For that, I thank the US Army. As an active duty Army Officer for 11 years, I learned the value of each season of life. I learned to value lessons I learned at TCU. I did not receive many monetary gains while at TCU. I did however learn a level of focus, determination, and perseverance that has helped me immensely in my Army career. You can’t put a price on those lessons.

Despite five of the most physically challenging years of my life, I chose to walk-on to the TCU football team. I chose to remain with the team for five years on top of my academic and Army ROTC requirements.  I chose to go through two-a-days for 5 years straight in the Texas heat. I chose to go through Oklahoma drill and get pounded by eventual starting defensive end for the Buffalo Bills, Aaron Schobel. I chose to run play after play on the scout team against some the top defensive teams in the nation while running multiple dig routes with a salivating Safety waiting for me to catch the ball from Sean Stilley across the middle, only to be de-cleatted time and time again. (I did catch and hold on to that ball.) I chose to keep trying season after season to make the starting squad, year after falling short until finally, I played during my third season.

At no point did I have grand illusions of making a professional football team. I am a professional Soldier, Officer, and aviator. Through three deployments, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, I’ve learned to value my life and the seasons this life brings for memories and lessons that are priceless. I’ve learned the value of my contribution to something great like saving a life. As a MEDEVAC pilot, I’ve evacuated hundreds and hundreds of wounded Soldiers in the most austere environments imaginable. I’ve landed my aircraft on the side of the road after an IED went off and the Soldiers loaded their buddy onto my helicopter with his separated leg lying beside his body on a litter. I’ve landed my aircraft on a road after a dump-truck VBIED exploded in a US barracks, wounding 31 US Soldiers while they slept. That mission took 6 different aircraft and multiple trips to the hospital and my flight medics and crew chiefs fighting to save every single one of their lives while we evacuated them off the battlefield to the hospital.

I understand the value of a season of life. I look back with fondness at my time at TCU and do not begrudge TCU whatsoever.  What these Northwestern players are doing is equivalent to me suing TCU Army ROTC for using me as a poster child for being a division athlete and an Army ROTC cadet.  I did not receive any benefits. I did not receive any attention for being committed to two very time-consuming organizations. In fact, Army ROTC benefited from my sacrifice of time and drive to compete in football at the highest levels and recruited additional cadets successfully. Maybe I should team up with some greedy, money-hungry attorneys to make myself feel better about not earning any money for them and using me to recruit other cadets. What about the West Point Cadets? I bet I could get them to jump on the band wagon too. Oh wait…that’s right, we CHOSE to be a member of the US Army, just as I chose to walk-on to the TCU football team, just as every single scholarship player in the NCAA chose to play whatever college sport they play.

Why are these individuals trying to ask for even more than they already receive? Have they lost sight of how blessed they are to play sports at that level and receive a top-notch education free of charge? Nine out of 10 college football players will not make it at the professional level…maybe it’s 9.5 out of 10…it does not matter. Most will not even get an opportunity.

Instead of focusing on getting compensated financially for an intercollegiate sport they volunteered for, student-athletes should focus on REAL reform that matters. Earlier I mentioned my head being rung by a safety. I can think of at least three or four times in my 5 year career I had helmet to helmet contact or helmet to ground contact and blacked out momentarily or was dizzy.  These times were few and far between but they happened. Those hits affect me today.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) in football players is just as prevalent as in Soldiers who sustain concussions as the result of an improvised explosive device on the streets of Iraq or Afghanistan. How many of these incidents are not only going undiagnosed but untreated? My memory is nowhere what it was when I was in college prior to football. My back and neck pain is substantial enough that I have to go to the chiropractor on a weekly basis just to ensure a bearable level of comfort as I go throughout my day.  Have I sued TCU? Have I even entertained the thought?  No.  I volunteered to put my body at risk every day just as I volunteered to fly a helicopter in the most austere environments in the world in support of our nation’s freedom. I would not change my time at TCU for anything nor would I do anything different much like I would not trade my 11 years in the Army and three years in support of combat operations for any amount of money in the world.

The individuals unifying in support of the Ed O’Bannon case and the student athletes from Northwestern University, and every intercollegiate athlete need to enjoy the season of becoming a student-athlete because once that season ends, it’s over and real life begins. You are not professional athletes and should not be paid as such. Part of what has led to the popularity and growth of the college game in the past decade is the fact that the players play for the passion of the game not for money. What’s next? Are we going to turn back the clock and give USC their championship back? Are we going to retract all previous injunctions on Miami? Are we going to take back the death penalty imposed on the SMU Ponies? Some of today’s student athletes get a scholarship to play college football on the biggest national stage while earning a top-notch education in the process.  Some, like me, play simply for the love of the game and competition. They play out of loyalty and honor to their organization not for a paycheck and would do it again in a heart beat. Be careful what you wish for because at the end of the day, you may not like what college football looks like if all the NCAA becomes is nothing more than the minor leagues of the NFL.

M. Christopher Wingate
MAJ (OF-3)
Chief of Operations
MEDEVAC OPS
TF Thunder, RC-E
Bagram, Afghanistan

@mcwingate / mcwingate@me.com

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its Components.

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