On the first weekend of May, Kenny Major, 23, sat down with his wife, Stephanie, to discuss the choice that lay ahead. Pro football or business? The Miami Dolphins or Aetna Life & Casualty?
Major, a 6'4", 240-pound tight end, had been invited to Miami for a free-agent tryout: The Dolphins would offer him a two-year contract starting at $65,000—if he made the team. Major had just two days to report to camp.
The New Orleans Saints had made a similar offer, but there were other opportunities to consider. An economics and managerial studies major with a 3.4 grade point average, Major had been interviewed by more than 50 companies and had received 12 offers, including the two in football. "Steph and I drew up plus-minus charts," Major says. "We considered pro football by the same criteria we used with the other businesses, factoring in salary, location, long- and short-term goals, job security and gut instinct. When we added up the pros and cons, Aetna was the choice by far."
Insurance? Over the snazzy, big-bucks world of professional pigskin? "It's not just a job I chose," says Major, one of only 10 college graduates hired by Aetna's employee-benefits division out of some 3,000 applicants. "It's a career."
Five years ago, Major wanted nothing more out of life than to play in the NFL. A star quarterback and top student at Edison High School in his hometown of Huntington Beach, Calif., Major chose Kansas over some 20 other schools so he could work under John Hadl, the former NFL quarterback, who recruited him. However, shortly after Major accepted the KU scholarship, Hadl took a job with the L.A. Rams.
That was Major's first lesson in reality. The second came when he separated his right shoulder and broke his collarbone as a freshman. After the injury healed, Major discovered his arm no longer had the whip in it. "I'd picked up and moved 2,000 miles to play college and, eventually, pro football, and then—bang!—I couldn't throw the ball like I used to. I was forced to grow up quick."
He left KU ("I was unhappy with the education I was getting") and enrolled at Golden West Junior College in Huntington Beach. He had gained weight while rehabilitating his shoulder, and he decided to switch positions—to tight end. "I wanted a fresh start," he says. "All quarterbacks think they have good hands. And I was big and pretty quick [he ran a 4.65 40 at Rice]. All I really had to work on was my blocking." Major mastered his new role quickly, and became a J.C. All-America.
Georgia, LSU, Michigan and other powerhouses came knocking. "Without naming names, I had some illegal offers—to fly my parents to games, spending money for me, a place to stay. As soon as I heard them, I crossed the schools off my list. I wanted a lot of avenues to choose from, not just football. I'd learned from my mistakes the first time around. I was looking pure academics."
Though Rice did have that, it certainly didn't offer a chance at a national title. With 2,600 undergraduates, it is one of the smallest schools playing Division I-A football and among the minority of Southwest Conference members that are above suspicion when it comes to recruiting violations and under-the-table payments. "At Rice they're looking for the student-athlete, not just the athlete," says Major. "I never felt like a piece of beef with a meat hook in my side."