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Getting a scholarship to play a sport at Division I college can be extremely tough. According to the NCAA, only about three percent of high school senior athletes get all or part of their tuition paid for. However, the most difficult part for scholarship athletes comes when they step on campus and compete for playing time in their respective sport.
"You learn pretty quickly that you're not in high school anymore," said Matt Kelley, a football star at who went on to play at Boston College from 1986-1990. "It's strictly business and like a full-time job. As a freshman, I skipped a 6:30 a.m. physical therapy session and the trainer said, 'That doesn't happen here. You are a paid scholarship athlete and you need to be here when we tell you.' I heard the message loud and clear."
Big-time college sports is not for the faint of heart. Competition is fierce and the demands on a young student-athlete can be difficult, "When I came in a freshman, I didn't know if I could play at that level," said , a former star who played at Villanova during the mid-1980's. "Everybody just wasn't the best player in their high school conference, but they were All-Americans. The talent level was unbelievable."
There is jaw-dropping talent at the Division I level and plenty of it. Coaches often over recruit, especially in non-revenue sports like lacrosse and baseball. That can make for greater competition and more pressure on athletes trying to earn playing time.
"There can be such a small window for a player to produce," said a Ridgefield native who played baseball at UNC before embarking on a six-year Major League career. "If you don't produce, there is another guy waiting to take your job. It's a results-oriented business. My college career seemed like such a blur because I could never get relaxed and settle in to what I wanted to do. Playing professional baseball was much easier."
Many student-athletes arrive on campus with big dreams and high expectations, but those are often tempered by a dose of reality, "We always found out in the first 48 hours who could play and who couldn't," said Kelley, who was a three-year starter at linebacker and finished his career as the third-leading tackler in school history. "Everybody is big, strong, and fast. But you have to have the intangibles. You have to put 110 percent of your heart, body, mind, and soul into it."
Added Jensen, who was on Villanova's national championship team in 1985, "I think a lot of kids fizzle out or decide to transfer because they don't have that mental toughness to deal with the adversity and challenges that go with playing at the Division I level."
Some of those challenges are getting up before dawn to lift weights and go through brutal running workouts. Then there is school work, film study, more practice, and examinations.
"You cannot take any plays or days off," said , a former New Canaan High School football star who plays at Georgetown, a Division I-AA program. "When we don't have practice scheduled, there are always guys in the facility doing extra work and trying to get ahead. If you don't do it, then you'll get passed by someone who is."
Big-time college sports is big business. Schools make millions of dollars from television, gate receipts, and merchandise. There is a lot of pressure on everyone from the athletic director, coaches, and most of all, the student-athletes.
"I'd say be prepared," said Jensen. "Playing Division I sports is not easy and there are a lot of athletes who quit or decide to transfer. You have to be really committed. Nothing is ever given. You have to earn everything. But when you make that commitment and give everything you have, it can be a very rewarding experience."
Jensen has a national championship ring to remind him of that every day.