The career of a college athlete is lined with particular predicaments: whether to dive for the ball in 2 seconds or 3, whether to schedule an exam the day before a big game, or whether the physical and mental exhaustion is worth it in the end.
Dealing with disadvantageous circumstances like injury, time taken away from family over the holidays, and other obstacles of being a student athlete, is not always easy.
Jorge Powell, a senior football player at UF, underwent treatment and therapy sessions at the UF Health Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine Institute when he tore his ACL, which he said was a major setback in his life.
“All the hard work and commitment it took me to get to where I was and then when I tore it [ACL], it’s like everything I had done just went to waste,” he said.
Powell went from being the starting kicker on the football team to being second string, and he said his end goal of going to the NFL was no longer a possibility.
“I had to begin focusing on what life is outside of football,” he said.
For others, however, being a student athlete is the fulfillment of a childhood dream and the defining aspect of one’s college career.
Cristian Garcia, a 22-year-old UF football player, tried out for the team as a junior and was awarded a scholarship this season as he gets his Master’s degree from the university. He said he always wanted to be a college athlete and is thankful every day to have reached this level, but recognizes that playing a sport in college takes up time that would have otherwise been spent with family and friends.
“Your schedule is sleep, school, football, homework, and repeat until you get a small window of free time to do what you want,” he said.
Garcia also said college athletes are widely misunderstood regarding their scholarships.
“We are working 100-hour weeks between football, school and treatment, so the idea that we are getting a free education is wrong,” he said.
Jason Zaremski specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the UF Health Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine Institute. Once a college athlete himself, he believes the overwhelming majority of college athletes play simply because they love the sport.
Speaking from his own personal experience, Zaremski said that students play college sports because they hold on to the chance that they may make it to the next level.
NCAA studies show that there are over a million high school football players in the U.S., and only about 7 percent go from high school to college. And from there, only one to two percent go on to the NFL.
“I knew the likelihood of me playing in the majors, even in the minors, was overwhelmingly low,” Zaremski said. “But did I hold out hope that I would get drafted? Yeah, of course, I did. And you’re watching folks here at UF that can play in the NFL, in the Olympics, in Minor League Baseball and even potentially the NBA, and still even for them, the odds are against them.”
The prestige of being an athlete is one to take pride in, especially at a Division 1 SEC university, Zaremski said. However, athletes recognize that their overall experience at a university differs immensely from that of a traditional student.
Jacquelyn Nuñez, an athletic trainer who worked with the UF Health Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine Institute as a student, said that through her firsthand experience treating athletes, she gained insight into their college experience.
Nuñez said she believes the college experience is shaped solely from the individual’s perspective.
“Knowing that they’re the face of the respective program or on student tickets, getting asked to take snaps and pictures of when they’re out in public and wearing a jersey with their name on it is the dream,” Nuñez said.
Haley Hicklen, a junior lacrosse player at UF, said she had to give up certain aspects of the typical college experience in order to play her sport.
When it comes to academics, Hicklen said that balancing academics and her lacrosse schedule is extremely difficult. It resulted in her having to switch her major from landscape architecture to sustainability studies.
“I found out why I was the only athlete in a design major,” Hicklen said. “I thought that I could do it but I wasn’t able to continue without losing my sanity.”
Hicklen had to change her career path and spends an extensive amount of time receiving therapy and training for arthritis in her back. She said she does not regret choosing to be a student athlete even though it changed her career choices.
“I’m learning something new every day whether it’s in the classroom, on the field, off the field or in the friendships I’ve made with other student athletes, students and staff along the way,” she said. “A big part of it for me is the culture here at UF. It’s bigger than me, or my team or even every student athlete here. It’s the Gator brand.”
Despite the athletes’ personal opinions on their college career, the impact they and their respective programs is both immense and deep-rooted.
Moss, a 47-year-old UF alumna, said the excitement of attending UF football games has not subsided over the years, especially now that two of her children go to the university.
“If anything, it’s only made me want to come back even more,” she said. “Who would ever get tired of seeing those guys play?”
Moss said her son has idolized the Gator football players ever since he started coming to games, his room always decorated in UF colors. For Christmas when he was 10 years old, Moss bought him a UF football helmet ornament for their tree.
“The amount of photos I have of them in braces holding up blue and orange foam fingers in the stands is… it’s a lot,” Moss said. “I’ve been bringing my kids to games ever since they could understand what was going on.”