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Robert Coughlan
October 01, 1956
A remarkable Notre Dame survey of ex-football stars is checked with surprising results against experiences of players from four other schools
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October 01, 1956

What Happens To Football Players?

A remarkable Notre Dame survey of ex-football stars is checked with surprising results against experiences of players from four other schools

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Last week SPORTS ILLUSTRATED analyzed the results of a Notre Dame poll of ex-football stars that apparently exploded the popular notion that stardom on the gridiron is followed by failure in life. As a check on these conclusions, the editors interviewed several ex-players who had not responded to the Notre Dame questionnaire, as well as graduates of several other schools. Herewith the findings.

There once was a poor but honest lad called Bill Wightkin. He was a Catholic boy of Lithuanian descent and lived in Detroit, where his father had a bicycle repair shop. He loved sports, especially football, and when he grew at last to be a big boy and a star lineman on his high school football team, the doors to higher education sprang open for him, poor as he was.

"Some of the offers were pretty good," he remembers. " Michigan State offered to help my father in business. It was hard for him to get materials for his shop—the war was on. They said they would help Dad get scarce items. Don't ask me where, I don't know."

But Michigan State didn't appeal to Bill. He was thinking of college almost wholly in terms of athletics, and decided that the team he would most like to play on was Purdue's. He took Purdue's offer—a job that would pay for his board, room and tuition.

Then: "This old Irish priest [Father James E. Martin O.S.B., former athletic director at Detroit Catholic Central] told me that I would do all right at Purdue. Play all four years, probably 60 minutes a game, and be a hero. But he said that all that wouldn't equal one minute in a Notre Dame game. One minute as a Notre Dame player would be more thrilling and would mean more, he told me. I got to thinking, and I went to Notre Dame." There he received a standard Notre Dame athletic B-R-T—board, room and tuition—working scholarship. His job was as a dormitory prefect.

Bill won his monogram on the Notre Dame line in '47, '48 and '49. He was not a great star: the only "All—" team he ever made was the Lithuanian All-America. He broke a foot once and an elbow another time but had no "serious" injuries. These were minor penalties, he felt—he loved the game.

Soon after coming to Notre Dame, the serious purpose of the university was borne in on him in all sorts of ways: in the semimonasticism of the campus life, the pointed lack among the faculty of any favoritism toward athletes and, not least, the reminders from Coach Frank Leahy that class work came first. Bill graduated from the College of Engineering in 1950 with a respectable 84.7 average and got a good job as a sales engineer.

However, his name had been drawn by the Chicago Bears in the annual draft of graduating college players. The Bears wanted him, the pay was good, so Bill made arrangements with his employer to go on a part-time schedule during the football months. This worked out well, and last month Bill started his seventh season with the Bears. With the two salaries, his yearly income runs into five figures.

Bill was married soon after college. He and his wife, daughter and son live in a nice house in a pleasant suburb of Chicago. Bill is a member of the Knights of Columbus, a faithful churchgoer and has done his share, as a Little League official and member of the city recreation commission, in community affairs. He is a responsible, prosperous, happy and grateful man, and all his gratitude flows back to Notre Dame. He lapses into a tone of reverence when he speaks of the school: "I appreciate the opportunity I had.... It was a good education.... It opened doors for me.... It gave me business opportunities...." And does he want his son to go there and play football? You bet he does.

Last week SPORTS ILLUSTRATED reported on a survey that Notre Dame had made of the postcollege careers of its football players. According to those findings they had done exceptionally well: their income level was above that of college graduates in general, their jobs were mostly in the professional, managerial and owner categories, domestic tranquillity and civic virtue were rife, and nostalgia and loyalty toward Notre Dame overflowed on all sides. These conclusions, however, had been based on questionnaires sent to all living football monogram winners, of whom only about half replied. What about the other half? What were they hiding? SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's reporters set out to find them, and did find and interview 122 of them, or 56%, certainly a broad sample.

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