Prepare for the journey ahead. Tomorrow starts today.

Both are thematic messages heard by 18 college football players during last week’s NCAA Elite Student-Athlete Symposium for Football. The annual event, held by the NCAA’s leadership development and enforcement staff during the NFL Combine’s stay in Indianapolis, aims to prepare high-caliber college players with remaining eligibility for this trip. Specifically, participants spent three days gaining insight into the transition to the NFL, managing life as a pro, and reflecting on life beyond football.

This year’s attendees, representing 13 schools, met with several prominent speakers with NFL experience on the field and in the front office, as well as NCAA leaders and various subject matter experts. Speakers covered topics such as the scouting process, agents, financial management, film criticism, social media, NFL draft rules and academic aptitude, and career development strategies beyond football.

Raheim Sanders, an Arkansas running back, works on an activity during the 2023 Elite Student-Athlete Symposium for Football.
Raheim Sanders, a running back in Arkansas, works on an activity during the 2023 Elite Student-Athlete Symposium for Football. Sanders and 17 other high-profile student-athletes attended the event in Indianapolis, where they met with several prominent speakers with NFL experience field and front office, as well as NCAA leaders and various experts.

“I’m hoping this program just prepares me for when I have to go through the drafting process, the combine and everything, just so I don’t get caught off guard and not learn on the fly,” said Zion Tupuola-Fetui, a senior defenseman at Edge players in Washington. “Having that background information already stored is pretty ideal.”

The NCAA has held the Elite Symposium on Soccer annually since 2017 — it was canceled in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic — and hosts a similar symposium on basketball draft prospects each fall. Student athletes will be invited to the symposium after NCAA staff consulted with coaches, track administrators, professional sports officials and other experts closely associated with draft prospect lists. Many past contestants have enjoyed success in the NFL, including standouts like Saquon Barkley and Bradley Chubb, and 2021 Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year winners Ja’Marr Chase and Micah Parsons, respectively.

“When I read about (the program) and saw all the great people who had come on it, I felt like a blessing,” said Raheim Sanders, who ran back in Arkansas. “This is just the beginning, the beginning of the next journey.”

“It means a lot to me to be picked to come here to be with all these young men,” added Florida State defensive end Jared Verse. “Everyone has the same goal as me, the same aspirations, but not only as athletes, but also as businessmen, as men, as fathers, brothers, just to become better people.”

While the symposium included several football-specific sessions, participants also spent significant time on their personal development, identifying core values ​​and starting to think about life after football.

“One way I’m going to benefit from this program is that it wasn’t so much about the athletic part of it all,” Verse said. “It’s more the mental part of everything and what happens after football, how we can prepare now to put ourselves in a good position in the future.”

One session included a panel discussion with four current or former NFL players discussing their moves in and out of the NFL. The panelists were Darrell Stuckey, a former Kansas standout who played six seasons in the NFL; Aaron Jones, former UTEP star and current Green Bay Packers running back; Alvin Jones, twin brother of UTEP linebacker Aaron, signed as an undrafted free agent with the Baltimore Ravens in 2018 and has played the past two seasons in the Canadian Football League; and Shawn Barber, who played at Richmond before spending 10 years in the NFL. Tre Stallings, current Assistant Commissioner at Conference USA, who played with Ole Miss and four seasons in the NFL, moderated the discussion.

“We learned about all aspects of what it’s going to be like when you get to that level. It could be the financial side. It might just be the football side,” Michael Penix Jr., senior quarterback for Washington, said of the symposium. “We were able to talk to some former players, some current players as well, and just hearing how they saw entering the NFL and their process, the change they were going through and allowing us to get feedback was great My focus now is on being able to return home, making sure I study what I’ve learned here and making sure I apply it.”

Other speakers at the symposium included representatives from the NFL Players Association, an expert in crisis and strategic communications, a former NFL general manager and current scouting advisor, director of athlete development and financial advisor.

NCAA Elite Student-Athlete Symposium for Football participant
Attendees at the annual symposium stand in front of Lucas Oil Stadium where they watched part of the NFL Combine last week.

Roman Oben, Vice President of Football Development for the NFL, who has played in the league for more than 10 years, was the keynote speaker at the symposium. Oben spoke to attendees about how to stay focused during their transition into the NFL and the importance of taking care of their mental health during this time.

Oben’s message bowed to the symposium’s overall goal of preparing these student-athletes for the journey ahead.

“I think it teaches you what experiences you’re going to face … so you can educate yourself beforehand,” Notre Dame offensive lineman Joe Alt said of the symposium. “You won’t get hit by it. You kind of have a good sense of what to expect.”

2023 Elite Student-Athlete Symposium for Football Roster

  • Raheim Sanders, Arkansas
  • Barret Carter, Clemson
  • Jared Vers, State of Florida
  • Jer’Zhan Newton, Illinois
  • Connor Colby, Iowa
  • Mason Smith, LSU
  • Javion Cohen, Miami (Florida)
  • Joe Alt, Notre Dame
  • Blake Fisher, Notre Dame
  • Denzel Burke, Ohio State
  • Michael Hall Jr., Ohio State
  • JT Tuimoloau, Ohio State
  • Tyleik Williams, Ohio State
  • Troy Franklin, Oregon
  • Cole Bishop, Utah
  • Michael Penix Jr., Washington
  • Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Washington
  • Braelon Allen, Wisconsin

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