If indeed a picture is worth a thousand words, the following image may sufficiently replace all of the positive descriptors and superlatives that come to mind when describing University of Michigan football player Devin Gardner. Words like gifted, dedicated, resilient, humble, and genuine to start with.
When Buckeye quarterback J.T. Barrett suffered a fractured ankle during the 4th quarter of the November 29th Michigan/OSU game, Devin Gardner quickly came to the side of the injured rival. As a University of Michigan student and fan, I could not have been prouder to be represented by a student-athlete who shows such sportsmanship. Few who know anything about Gardner were surprised by his actions and even die-hard OSU fans praised his empathetic reaction. Dave Claborn, Director of Development and Community Relations for OSU sent this letter of gratitude.
Sportswriter Heywood Hale Broun is attributed with saying, “Sports do not build character. They reveal it”. For the past five years, Michigan football has time and again revealed the incredible character of player Devin Gardner.
The life of a student-athlete is a demanding one. To remain eligible, they must constantly work to balance the requirements of college classes with team practices, training, travel and games. The pressure to succeed in the competitive academic environment at The University of Michigan must be overwhelming to student-athletes who may not have the same academic experiences or credentials as other admitted students. In an early November speech given to a faculty governance group, recently-appointed University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel discussed how too often the University admits athletes (specifically football players) who are not capable of handling the academic rigor of the university. “We admit students who aren’t as qualified, and it’s probably the kids that we admit that can’t honestly, even with lots of help, do the amount of work and the quality of work it takes to make progression from year to year,” he said. President Schlissel’s comments (read more here) sparked controversy, but the core message of his address is basically irrefutable. Graduation rates for Michigan football players is 24% lower (66% after 6 years) than non-athletes (90% after 6 years).
Then there is Devin Gardner. Gardner graduated early (in 3 years) with a bachelor’s degree in Afro-American and American studies and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in social work. He accomplished this while starting at quarterback for a Big 10 school and regularly working as an unpaid volunteer for Peace Neighborhood community enrichment programs and C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital (among others). Gardner was also central in making a wish of a lifetime come true for Stephan Loszewski, a young man with cancer who wanted to experience the life of a Michigan football recruit.
There has been a long-standing controversy over whether amateur football players should have to go to college at all. The truth of the matter is that they don’t have to. In his article “Why do Football and Basketball Players Have to go to College?” Fox Sports journalist Clay Travis laments about how the “years out of high school” clauses in the NFL and NBA Collective Bargaining Agreements (not NCAA rules) have made colleges the “de facto minor leagues” for these sports. Travis opines that the “value of a college education” is perhaps “just a backhanded justification for the existing system in football and basketball”. He points out that other sports without these clauses, such as baseball and hockey have adequate systems for preparing players via minor and junior leagues that do not require athletes to take college classes. Of course there are athletes that agree. A member (and the current starting quarterback) of the Ohio State football team, Cardale Jones, famously tweeted last year:
His statement leaves no doubt where he stands on the issue. Devin Gardner, on the other hand, is thankful for the opportunity stating, “When you come to college, it’s not just to play football. You come to college to become a better man. I know I’m a better man because of it.”
This is a man worthy of his role-model status. We all know that children and young adults are very much influenced by sports figures and celebrities. In his article “The Dynamics of Modern Sport: Notes on Achievement-Striving and the Social Significance of Sport”, Sociologist and author Eric Dunning points out “Top level sports men and women form a media-promoted reference group who set standards which others try to follow.” Devin Gardner understands his influence and takes the responsibility seriously. In Big Ten Network’s short documentary “The Journey”, Gardner talks about how his upbringing shaped his values and how he hopes to be an inspiration to others.
His last year in a Wolverine uniform may not have gone exactly as Devin Gardner would have hoped, and unfortunately, there will be those who choose to focus on Gardner’s role in a disappointing football season. But the legacy that this man of character leaves on our campus, and more importantly in our community, is rich. In recognition of his impressive accomplishments in the classroom, community and on the field, Gardner has been named a finalist in the NCAA’s Senior CLASS Award. The acronym stands for Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School. This accolade is the premier award for a student-athlete. Devin Gardner deserves this honor and you can help make it happen. Click on the logo below to vote (daily) now through December 15th.