To excel at both big-time college football and big-time college academics is a daunting challenge. Cynics say that even to attempt the two simultaneously is laughable. And in a depressing number of cases, the cynics are right. Witness the TV interviews with many athletes in which the English language is sacked within the span of one prepositional phrase.
At the University of Wisconsin, junior defensive end Don Davey, 20, from Manitowoc, Wis., admits that football and academics are an odd couple. "You have to make them mix, because it sure doesn't happen naturally," he says. Davey knows. He figures football consumes 51 hours a week, classes 20 hours, studying a minimum of 25 hours. That's two full-time jobs, with plenty of overtime in both. "I wish I had time to screw around," he says, "but I don't." Davey is a 3.83 student majoring in mechanical engineering, heading for a masters in biomedical engineering (he hopes to design artificial limbs, surgical instruments and heart and lung machines) and thinking Rhodes scholarship; he's also a 6'5", 237-pound lineman thinking all-Big Ten. What is a typical week like for a major college football player as he competes in serious academics and serious football, both extremely jealous mistresses?
The afternoon of Nov. 15 is a gray one in Madison, made even grayer by the 22-19 Wisconsin loss to Minnesota the day before. With only one game left in the season the Badgers are 3-7, four of their losses having come by a total of 11 points. Don Davey is climbing the steps in Camp Randall Stadium to the Athletic Therapy and Rehabilitation room. The sign at the top of the stairs says, IT'S GREAT TO BE A WISCONSIN BADGER.
Davey's back hurts. "I woke up at 10:30," he says. "First I remembered my back hurt. Then I remembered how disappointed I was. The disappointment hurt more." A trainer puts an ice pack on his lower back, and Davey sighs. "I've got to put Minnesota out of my mind and get after Michigan State," he says. "It's funny. We weren't expected to do well before the season started, but now we look back at all the chances we had to do well. We could be going to a bowl instead of being in the basement of the Big Ten." He shifts his position and winces. He is down and aching.
After an hour of treatment, Davey goes to a team meeting. It's very quiet. Still, head coach Don Morton refuses to wallow in the loss. "Look, it was a dead-even game," he tells his players. "We are getting better, but that doesn't make it any easier. This is part of living. We will work our way through it. I feel very good about coming to the office every day. Can you think of a better time to play the conference champions?" There is no response, but the look on more than a hundred depressed faces says that, all things considered, they would rather play Ball State again (a 30-13 victory). Alas, next Saturday's game is against Rose Bowl-bound Michigan State (7-2-1).
Davey and the rest of the defense then face defensive coordinator Mike Daly. He's not so charitable. "We got them into second-and-long only six times in 25 tries," says Daly. "And in our last two games, we've forced only one punt. Most important, we didn't find a way to win. We're like a pool player who can run seven balls, but then scratches on the eight."
The team meetings break up, and Davey, silent, trudges across campus in the November cold to a drafting lab where he works until he is kicked out at 9:30 p.m., closing time. He washes his clothes in the basement of Swenson House and studies, distracted and disconsolate, until 1 a.m. It has been a horrid day.
Davey walks toward his 8:50 a.m. materials science class. His back still hurts. A bike rider narrowly misses him and snarls, "Open your eyes." Football players don't get a lot of respect at Wisconsin. Davey chooses a seat as close as possible to the front of the lecture room—he always does—then reviews his notes on the electron probe X-ray microanalysis of an Al-Si alloy, the subject of today's lecture.