2017 Best Enterprise: David Ching

By David Ching
ESPN.com

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When they received word that UAB football was coming back, Lee Dufour and Nick Vogel — best friends and former roommates at the school — could not wait to share the news with each other.

Unfortunately, they heard about it at the exact same time.

“Literally the second that they announced football’s coming back, I called him and at the same time, he called me. The calls didn’t go through,” Dufour said, recalling the moment last June when UAB reversed its decision from December 2014 to drop its football program. “I was like, ‘Yes, we have to go back. Whatever we have to go through, we’re coming back.'”

Added Vogel: “We were both going nuts trying to call each other. We both missed a couple calls in a row until we got ahold of each other. We were overjoyed.”

Both players had found new college football programs after UAB’s implosion: offensive lineman Dufour at South Alabama and kicker Vogel at Southern Miss. And yet they missed the friendships and connections that formed in their short time in Birmingham.

They had promised each other they would return to UAB if it ever reinstated the football program, and this was the opportunity many thought would never come.

“That was my primary plan in life: it’s going to come back and I’m going to leave this place and go back to my home in Birmingham,” Vogel said. “I know that sounds completely insane, but when I made the deal with Lee, I was 100 percent behind it. I genuinely thought it would come back.”

Dufour and Vogel are among 16 players from the 2014 team who were back at UAB in time for its recently completed spring practice. However, many of their 2014 teammates with eligibility remaining did not return.

More…

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2016 Best Enterprise: Edward Aschoff and Adam Rittenberg 1

Comment by the judge, Michael Weinreb: An eye-opening, surprisingly frank and timely examination about how college football is affected by issues of race and identity.

By Edward Aschoff and Adam Rittenberg, ESPN.com

NORMAN, Okla. — Five months after he went viral, Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker sits in a dimly lit meeting room, more composed but just as emotional.

His head lowers when he thinks back to that spring night. His robust shoulders shrink as the pain returns.

The text message arrives the evening of March 8. A teammate asks if Striker has seen the video of a fraternity singing a racist song on a bus. “There will never be a n—– in SAE!” members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon chant. Striker’s first thought: Please don’t let this be at Oklahoma. But it is.

He grabs his phone. “Same m—–f—–s talking about racism don’t exist are the same m—–f—–s shaking our hands, giving us hugs, telling us how you really love us,” a shirtless Striker says during a 19-second Snapchat video. “F— you phony-ass, fraud-ass bitches.”

The Snapchat sent shockwaves. Striker had touched on the fundamental disconnect black college football players from across the country cite: On Saturday nights, they’re celebrated as heroes, but the rest of the week, they’re profiled in classes, at parties and in their communities.

“Like Striker said, everybody loves you on game day,” Florida defensive end Jonathan Bullard said. “Everybody loves you after you win and you go out to Midtown, but behind closed doors, who are you? What are you?”

College football locker rooms often transcend race, and universities serve as cultural melting pots for people to learn about one another and discuss important topics. But when racial flash points occur, or even subtle, everyday occurrences, black athletes must navigate the bridge between sports and society.

Since the Striker video, ESPN interviewed more than 40 players from 15 programs across the country and surveyed another 99 players anonymously about their reaction to Striker and their own encounters with racism and profiling. Many players applauded Striker for speaking out and were eager to share their own opinions and experiences that mirror his at Oklahoma.

It’s a complicated conversation — one with numerous questions and few answers — that Striker started.

“At the end of the day, this is bigger than the sport of football,” Striker said, his deep voice softening and scratching as he spoke to ESPN.com last month. “If I move on and I just continue and maybe not raise awareness and keep playing football, I wouldn’t feel good as a person.”

OU just the tipping point

Norman is like most college towns. Dive bars and dance clubs rub elbows near campus. Beer and burgers are cheap, and there’s little buzz when the students are gone. And the SAE incident, while generating national attention, isn’t unique to Oklahoma.

“I’m quite certain it has happened numerous times at predominantly white institutions across the country,” said Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California-Berkeley and one of the nation’s leading voices on race in sports. “There’s a continuing reality of racial antipathy on many, if not most, of these predominantly white campuses that is in stark contradiction to the cheering that happens on Saturday afternoon at the stadium.”

Last year Ole Miss, still trying to distance itself from its racially charged past, saw one of its students hang a noose around the statue of civil rights activist James Meredith, the university’s first black student in 1962. Also in 2014, Arizona State’s Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day by throwing an urban-themed, blackface-inducing party advertised with hashtags such as #blackoutforMLK.

In April, a University of South Carolina student was suspended after a video of her writing a racial slur on a whiteboard spread through social media.

Black players condemned the SAE incident at Oklahoma, but several said the attention it generated places a spotlight on the racial reality. “It goes on [at] every single campus,” Auburn linebacker Kris Frost said. “It’s embarrassing for the university, but at the same time, it’s good for people to understand that things like that do go on … but it’s all about evolving. It’s all about getting better.”

One reason Striker’s initial reaction resonated so strongly is he wasn’t afraid to come forward. Many athletes said they struggle with speaking out about racial issues because they’re afraid of being ostracized or a distraction to the team. Some schools have banned players from all social media.

“You kind of have to hide your opinion as an athlete,” Auburn cornerback Jonathan Jones said. “Sometimes you’re not able to be as outspoken because of the people who look up to you. When you’re in that situation, you really can’t say the right thing. Somebody’s going to get offended because of the diverse people who follow [us] on social media.”

Striker faced a similar dilemma at Oklahoma. He apologized for how he delivered the Snapchat reaction, a gesture some scholars said was unnecessary. “A double standard,” said Charles K. Ross, an associate history professor at Ole Miss and director of the school’s African-American studies program.

“What this brother did when he blew up is not just reacting to that incident,” Edwards said. “That comes from a last-straw kind of disposition. You’re constantly living under that tension. How are you going to cope with being a football player, a de facto star on campus, and at the same time being an African-American, where by definition, in certain sectors of campus outside of the athletic arena, you are the other, the alien, the unknown, the one to be feared and distrusted and avoided?”

Striker understands the consequences of voicing his views, especially about a subject many deem too controversial. But he refuses to stay silent.

“It’s a hard balance because any time I get to say something, I will, but I still love the game and I have a goal of bringing my team together and being a great leader,” he said. “I feel like I owe that to them, but I also feel like I owe my voice to black people as well when anything bad like this is happening.”

Campus life

According to a 2013 study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, black men made up 2.8 percent of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students but represented 57.1 percent of football programs in six major conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

At Notre Dame, for example, the Penn study found that black men made up 1.8 percent of the student body but 45.6 percent of the school’s basketball and football teams. “It’s almost assumed when a huge black guy walks in a room, he’s a football player,” said Notre Dame defensive lineman Isaac Rochell.

The demographic reality brings labels.

“From the time a black scholarship athlete walks on campus, he is profiled,” Edwards said. “It is assumed that he is there under special admissions. It is assumed he is there with no particular academic competitiveness. It is assumed he is someone that is going to have to be monitored in terms of citizenship. So he is not going to be automatically admitted to the parties, especially those at historically white fraternities. He is going to be profiled in the classroom as soon as the professor realizes he plays on the football team.”

Players who spoke with ESPN were predominantly happy with their social lives on campus but also described some difficulties blending in.

“I can’t pick out a white guy on our team who will be left out of parties if people don’t know him,” a black player from a Pac-12 team said. “It’s sad. In these people’s minds, they look at you — a big tall black dude, probably dressed a certain way, and they get intimidated by it. They get scared.”

Black players said they encounter assumptions based on their skin color, but their appearance often brings even more.

Notre Dame cornerback Matthias Farley said people see how he looks — “I have dreads; I usually have a long beard; I have tattoos,” he said. “They’re like, ‘What is this guy going to say?'” — and make snap judgments. Farley enjoys talking with those people and dispelling preconceived notions. “You meet people and you know they have a stigma of you, and then you break it and they don’t know what to do with themselves,” he said.

Former Florida State safety Myron Rolle, a Rhodes scholar at FSU who is in his third year of clinical rotations for pediatric neurosurgery at three hospitals in South Florida, said he could see hesitancy in white students when they saw him surrounded by teammates with “long dreads, gold teeth, long white tees … and some Air Force 1s on their feet.”

It wasn’t until Rolle approached them that their views changed.

“They’re like, ‘Oh, OK, he’s not like that. He’s a little bit different,'” Rolle said. “‘He’s a good one.'”

In addition to their size, football players are easily identified because of the team-issued clothing they often wear. Black and white players both told ESPN.com that they intentionally avoided wearing issued gear in class, especially at the start of the academic year, to avoid being profiled by professors or classmates.

But for black players, wardrobe choice might not be enough.

“He could wear khakis and a nice button-down shirt,” said Shaun Harper, a University of Pennsylvania professor who founded the school’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. “But even if these guys unsport themselves or take away their athletic representation, the black kid is still going to be the black kid. They’re still going to presume he’s a student-athlete. They’re also going to presume he came from some poor, failing public school and he only came there for his sport, and he’s not smart.

“The white athlete could much more easily blend in.”

Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said the racial isolation black football players experience on campus isn’t new. Black college football pioneers Paul Robeson and Fritz Pollard went through similar things while starring for teams at Rutgers and Brown, respectively, in the 1910s.

“Fast-forward to today,” Shropshire said. “Not only do you have racial isolation but now you have isolation that occurs with the time that is spent playing a sport and the lack of time you have being a student.”

Ross calls black football players “the most stereotyped group” on campus, especially in classes. It’s why Ross encourages black players to reach out to their professors, sit in the front of their classrooms and do anything to “not fall into that paradigm.” Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu has made headway in his classes but said, “It’s not always easy to take that jump. It’s intimidating.”

“I’m in one of the most rigorous majors in the College of Arts and Letters, maybe in the whole school,” said Notre Dame wide receiver Corey Robinson, a first-team Academic All-American last year — the first sophomore at a Division I school to earn that honor since 2008 — who majors in liberal studies and sustainability. “As a black student-athlete here, I care about my education. I work hard and I get great grades in my major.

“I try to change the stereotype a little bit.”

Ole Miss linebacker C.J. Johnson doesn’t want his classification as a black football player to limit positive experiences in classes. He’s proactive in reaching out to nonathletes and creating positive interactions. “If I’m known for just football,” Johnson said, “then I’ve failed.”

Life in the community

Black football players have seen the images from Ferguson, Missouri, and Charleston, South Carolina. They have read about Christian Taylor, a defensive back at Division II Angelo State who was shot and killed Aug. 7 by police officers responding to a burglary call at a local car dealership.

It makes football seem trivial for them.

“Every time I turn the TV on I see another black guy dying or another black person dying from a [police] officer, and it’s like I’m playing this game of football and probably winning in spots, but am I really winning when I turn on the TV and I see my people dying?” Striker said, choking up and slowly dropping his head. “It hurts — it hurts me to see that every time.”

Striker’s mother prefers he doesn’t drive, fearing what would happen if he gets pulled over. If Striker is stopped and asked to present documents, she has advised him against reaching into the glove compartment, so as not to provoke the officer. Striker said if pulled over, he “wouldn’t feel 100 percent safe with what’s been going on.”

That fear is not uncommon — a 2014 Gallup poll showed 37 percent of African-Americans nationally have confidence in police, compared with 59 percent of white citizens surveyed.

“I’ve been pulled over by police,” a black Conference USA player said. “The officer accused me of smoking and tried to search my vehicle. His excuse was that nine times out of 10 he was right, when dealing with African-American males in this area.”

But many black players say they have had positive interactions with law enforcement. This summer, former Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone tweeted about an encounter with police when he got a flat tire along Interstate 5. Malone went from “terrified” to “really grateful” when police taught him to change the tire.

“I had a certain perception, especially right now in America, about how things were going with police officers,” Malone said. “It really changed my outlook and opened my eyes that all cops aren’t the same, just like all athletes aren’t the same, just [like] all people aren’t the same.”

Wisconsin running back Corey Clement recalled an episode this summer with a white university police officer at a traffic light in Madison. They both joked about giving the other an official escort to their destination. “I dressed as a regular person, had a regular conversation with him,” said Clement, who wasn’t sure whether the officer recognized him from football. “It was a cool connection to have with things normally — people are scared of because of the shootings.”

Aside from encountering police, some players are concerned about simply entering the communities that surround their campuses. Because of his upbringing in the racially charged city of Philadelphia, Mississippi — site of the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers that the movie “Mississippi Burning” was based on — Johnson doesn’t like large crowds. He can count on both hands how often he has ventured out in Oxford, Mississippi.

“I know what’s out there, and I know what people are capable of and what people think,” Johnson said, “so I just stay away.”

University of Georgia professor Billy Hawkins, whose research centers on racial issues in the context of sports, has seen black athletes profiled and occasionally targeted in several college towns where he’s worked. “The assumption,” Hawkins said, “is black athletes have sort of this illegitimate access to the university. That causes a lot of confusion, and in some cases, it causes a lot of friction.”

Many black players said they understand the landscape when they venture out.

“If people want to approach us or don’t, it’s at their own discretion and it doesn’t bother me,” Northwestern defensive lineman Deonte Gibson said. “I’m not going to lose sleep because something insecure about you makes you not want to talk to me.”

Making sure the discussion continues

Athletes at every school described campus chasms they encounter: between people of different races, between athletes and nonathletes, between black athletes and black students, between athletes and fans. Who must construct these bridges?

“It’s not one person going the full 100 yards,” Wisconsin cornerback Darius Hillary said.

Striker is doing his part. After his Snapchat, he has taken a new approach to improving race relations on campus. Education, he said, is the solution.

When Striker met with Levi Pettit, an SAE member caught on video singing the racist chant, Striker learned that Pettit’s knowledge of lynching had been very limited, until he read a book on it after the bus incident. Pettit told Striker that if he had known lynching’s gruesome history, he wouldn’t have participated in the chanting.

Striker forgave Pettit and thinks others can learn from Pettit’s actions.

“That’s all it takes,” Striker said. “Regardless of your race or color, you should know that history, and that’s something that he lacked. He did not know. At the end of the day, what’s wrong with learning about different cultures? You just gained knowledge.”

Striker’s response to the SAE video sparked reaction around the country, but also on OU’s campus. He heard from many Oklahoma athletes, thanking him for voicing how they had felt for years. His schedule began filling with meetings, as he huddled with Greek organizations, black student organizations, other athletes and university administrators, including president David Boren.

One meeting took place with SAE leaders, who apologized to Striker and several other Oklahoma players.

“Eric’s the first one to jump out of his chair and hug them all and told them he forgives them,” coach Bob Stoops said. “Hugged every one of them.”

Freshman athletes are now required to participate in Camp Crimson, a three-day orientation during which they meet nonathlete students and learn about each other. Although the video brought negative attention to OU, the school has used the opportunity not just to initiate but also to continue a dialogue on race.

“The expression was really helpful to know how people thought,” said Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione. “Fair or unfair, right or wrong, they never had a forum to ask it. It was illuminated. It could be something as simple as, ‘Well, I had thought that. Now I feel better that I asked, and the answer, I understand and agree with. Now we move on.’

“That’s the most important thing, the follow-up to the event itself.”

Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is calling for similar forums at campuses around the country to discuss racial tolerance and issues affecting student-athletes. Stanford coach David Shaw said it’s the responsibility of universities to be proactive and ensure everyone is accepted.

“It’s something you need to handle quickly,” Notre Dame defensive lineman Romeo Okwara said. “All these kids in this frat, they go to the football games. The majority of the football players are African-American. These are the same people you’re cheering for.”

Hawkins said he thinks the NCAA should work more with university administrators to deal with episodes of racism better and ensure players have an outlet to express their frustration. The last thing the NCAA wants, he said, is black players to decide they won’t play football until changes are made.

“We are very clear on most college campuses about issues centered around alcohol,” Ross said. “We’re clear about individuals bringing firearms to campuses. On most campuses we’re very clear about plagiarism. The one area on our campuses across this country where we’re not very clear is when we have behavioral issues around racial, intolerable actions. What concerns me: Are we really committed to dealing with those kinds of behaviors?”

All groups must pitch in, but it starts with a dialogue, which, thanks to Striker, is underway.

“You got to get it out,” Vanderbilt defensive lineman Jay Woods said. “You have to have a voice and a say in this. If not, nobody’s going to know how you feel or the standpoint from African-American males. You got to speak up. Point-blank. Period.

“Eric Striker did the right thing.”

“Divide between black football players and black students a concern for both”

By Edward Aschoff and Adam Rittenberg, ESPN.com

The cultural disconnect black football players often encounter at predominantly white universities exists not only across racial groups but also within them.

Several black players who spoke to ESPN.com about their experiences with race and racism on campus described gaps with the black student population. Despite shared challenges and common causes, the two groups often struggle to come together.

The tension at Northwestern built to a point that, in the spring of 2013, former Wildcats player Jarrell Williams orchestrated a meeting between black athletes (mostly football players) and black students. Williams called the meeting One Greater Community.

The black students, who showed up en masse for football games, felt little to no support from athletes for their initiatives. The football players countered that they simply didn’t have time.

“Athletes, we’re in one area of the school for most of our four years,” Williams said. “Rarely have we gone out to join a movement and feel involved. That’s probably why you’d get those results. Non-athletes spend more time on campus. Their exposure to racism is higher. We’re at the stadium a lot of the time.

“It was frustrating for both sides. As much as we wanted to be there for them, we couldn’t.”

Shaun Harper, an associate professor at University of Pennsylvania who founded the school’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, said it’s a common issue among black student populations. Harper conducted a single-site study focused on student-athletes and found that black athletes “were not connected with other blacks and students of color on campus with larger racial justice issues because they didn’t have time.”

“The black students don’t really understand what the athlete is about, and there’s an impasse between them,” said Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California Berkeley. “They don’t understand why the athletes don’t join them in speaking out about a lack of black professors. They don’t understand why these athletes don’t stand up and say, ‘Hey, we’re with you.’”

Former Florida State safety Myron Rolle said he saw the same chasms develop on FSU’s campus. The Seminoles safety had a life consumed mostly by football and his teammates. He only branched out during his junior year, when he joined Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity.

“I wanted to find other like-minded black men, who weren’t associated with my life as a football player,” said Rolle, who became a Rhodes Scholar at FSU. “Having people like that to bounce ideas off of and having people like that to challenge you really made me round out into a very holistic, strong-minded and ready-to-take-on-the-world person when I graduated from FSU. It was big for me to meet other guys and other girls of color around campus.”

Vanderbilt defensive tackle Jay Woods felt a similar distance with the black student population, so last year he joined a panel with the school’s NAACP chapter to better discuss the black experience on campus. Other black players said they would try to at least greet other black students when they saw them on campus.

Experts say perceived privilege is a primary cause of the tension between black students and black athletes. Dr. Charles K. Ross, an associate history professor at Ole Miss and director of the school’s African-American studies program, said the dramatically different living, academic and social resources football players have enabled the divide.

It causes some black students to feel as though athletes’ on-campus experiences don’t necessarily compare to theirs.

“That is extremely problematic,” Ross said. “Just because you’re on scholarship, that doesn’t take away your opinion and, more importantly, it doesn’t mean that you’re no longer an African-American in this society.”

While there are major social differences, these groups are culturally bound and Ross said it’s important that they unify. Ross thinks that relations between the two are mostly cordial, but understands that interactions can be awkward without constant, productive communication, like what Williams initiated at Northwestern.

“It was open to anybody, and we sat in these circles and hashed it out,” Northwestern defensive lineman C.J. Robbins said. “It went back and forth. Did it work? I don’t know. But the people that were there now say hi to me a lot more. It’s a lot more friendly than just walking past us on the street like we’re not there.”

“13 voices, 13 perspectives Eric Striker, race and college football”

By Edward Aschoff and Adam Rittenberg, ESPN.com

This spring, Eric Striker’s viral reaction to a racist frat video set off a national conversation about race on college campuses across the country. The Oklahoma linebacker’s initial SnapChat made headlines inside and outside the college football world, and inspired a public show of anti-racism involving the entire Sooners team and coaching staff soon after. In dozens of interviews with players and coaches from across the country, ESPN.com found Striker’s comments have sparked an open dialogue in many places. Here are 12 quotes gathered during that reporting, on a broad range of topics around race on college campuses and its interaction with the sport.

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione

“People understood [Striker’s] initial reaction. It came within a couple hours, an hour, and it did go viral. Social media being what it is, there are times people express their immediate thoughts unvarnished. After some of the emotions settled down, [Striker] went and chose to express himself differently, but one should not lose the deeper meaning of his concern because that was what he felt. That’s what he needed to say.”

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops

“A regular student has the right to demonstrate or express their feelings. Why wouldn’t an athlete? This is America. It’s what it’s all about.”

Wisconsin cornerback Darius Hillary

“I was sitting on the fourth floor, doing my homework with one of the guys on the team [Leon Jacobs] and he was like, ‘Did you hear about Oklahoma?’ He showed me the video and the first thing that I thought was, ‘Wow, we’ve come a long way from where we have been in the past, and then here’s something that lets me know we still have a long way to go.'”

Auburn linebacker Kris Frost

“It’s important for athletes to have a voice. A lot of people just see us out there as tackling dummies. We go out there and play, work out and practice every day, and on Saturdays, they just see a helmet, they don’t see a person under it.”

Notre Dame defensive lineman Romeo Okwara

“Race is such a huge topic in America especially, and voicing your opinions, especially at that point, is very important. All these kids in this frat, they go to the football games. The majority of the football players are African-American. These are the same people you’re cheering for. As a player, how can students who watch you play and cheer for you not know they have those feelings? It’s crazy to think about.”

Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze

“When those issues occur we have to let them know again that there are people that behave poorly, that make bad choices, that are going to be on the wrong side of arguments at every university in America. And it’s wrong, in my opinion, those things at every university, but you’re not escaping this world. “We’re not going to stick our head in the sand and not battle against it and not be on the right side of things. We’ll continue to do that, but it won’t go away.”

Florida defensive end Jonathan Bullard

“Like Striker said, everybody loves you on game day. Everybody loves you after you win. … But behind closed doors, who are you, what are you?”

Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu “You’re stereotyped as a football player because you’re black. … That’s where the racism on this campus shows up. I’m a finance major, so when we’re put in groups and we have to put all these financial models together, I’m not necessarily the first one to be looked at. I’m not someone people will walk up to and say, ‘Hey, do you want to be in our group?’ I always end up in the athletes’ group. I use it somewhat as motivation. It’s like, ‘You don’t want me in the group?’ I’ll do better on the project.”

Wisconsin running back Corey Clement

“When I go out with my football guys and we all walk in at the same time, everybody knows you play a sport and they automatically think, ‘football.’ You’re big, you’re black and you’re athletic, so it’s either football or basketball on this campus. The way they would talk to us, it’s kind of indirect. ‘Oh, was that scooter given to you?’ If you go out to a bar, ‘Is that drink paid for you? I didn’t see you pay for that, so you must have the good life.’ If they understood the way we carry ourselves the way we do, it’s because we work for it.”

Auburn cornerback Jonathan Jones

“You’re wary of people’s intentions. If I wasn’t playing football, would they still want to hang around me? That always crosses your mind. You have to deal with that. This is still America, and racism isn’t that far away.”

Ole Miss linebacker C.J. Johnson

“It sickens me when I see [a Confederate flag] on people’s cars on campus. If you have the Confederate flag on your vehicle, you have a problem. And I don’t care if it’s socially what you believe in or it’s morally what you believe in or you’re just doing it for s—s and giggles. It’s just the fact of what it stands for. It’s almost like you might as well put a tag on the front of your car that says ‘n—–.’ That’s really what it boils down to. You might as well just put a big tag on the front of your car or hang a big flag on the back of your car and just say the N-word.”

Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason

“When you’re talking about African-American athletes, there have been guys who have never stepped outside of talking to black people — period. And that’s the only way they’ve made it through.”

Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker

“Let’s be honest here, when we see the regular student body we might see them as just faces in the stands and then they just see us as jersey numbers. If we stay in our corner and they stay in their corner, then it’s both of us who should build [the bridge].”

Edward Aschoff

Edward Aschoff

Edward Aschoff

Age:  30

College:  University of Florida

Background: Edward grew up in lovely Oxford, Mississippi, with two educators and cooks as parents. His father, the late Peter Aschoff, taught an array of different classes at the University of Mississippi and cooked unbelievable Asian delicacies. His mother, the late Patricia Aschoff, was the director of the Domestic Violence Center in Northeast Mississippi, before becoming a well-respected special education teacher in the Oxford School District. Her fried chicken and mac & cheese were second to none. Edward mostly grew up reading about dinosaurs and stalked around the house imitating his idol — Godzilla. He played soccer and baseball and decided he wanted to become a sports writer after being captivated by the late, great Stuart Scott in middle school. Edward attended the University of Florida from 2004 to 2008. He started covering Florida football, recruiting and UF’s Olympic sports for The Gainesville Sun in 2007. He was hired by ESPN in 2011 to cover SEC football. You can find his work both online and on television, as he continues to step out of his southern comfort zone to approach college football from a national perspective. He chooses to wear suits to every sporting event he covers, even in 95-degree southern heat. He lives in Atlanta, and while he doesn’t currently have any children, he thinks his ability to raise an over-stimulated cat for the last seven years has given him all the preparation he needs to eventually welcome a human child into his life. This is the first writing award he’s received since winning second place in the Yoknapatawpha Writing Contest for a short horror story in elementary school.

Adam Rittenberg

Adam Rittenberg

Adam Rittenberg

Age: 35

College: Northwestern University

Background:  This honor comes as a surprise, as Adam long accepted he wouldn’t win anything beyond a signed New Kids On The Block picture claimed at an elementary school raffle in 1987. Working with Edward Aschoff on a project about such an important topic — race in college football — was among the most meaningful experiences of his career. He has covered college football for ESPN.com since 2008, focusing on the Big Ten Conference from 2008 to 2013 before moving into a national role. Adam also contributes to ESPN Insider, ESPN Radio and ESPN television and is a co-host of ESPN’s Championship Drive podcast. After graduating from Northwestern in 2003, he covered college football and college basketball for the Arlington Heights Daily Herald until joining ESPN.com. Adam has been an adjunct lecturer at DePaul University’s College of Communication since 2014. He and his wife, Christina, live in Chicago with their sons Roman, 3, and Gabriel, three months. They think sleep is overrated.

2015 Best Enterprise, by Rustin Dodd

ffaw_redesignComment by the judge, Gene Duffey: Good inside look at how fast and why Kansas fell from a Top 10 program to the bottom. Excellent lead. Good quotes, particularly from the players, and everyone involved. Told exactly what started Mangino’s downfall and why Gill never got the program going again. Story turned out to be very prophetic with Weis being fired only four games into the season.

By Rustin Dodd

The Kansas City Star

Rustin Dodd of The Kansas City Star

Rustin Dodd of The Kansas City Star

LAWRENCE — On a warm evening in May, Charlie Weis pressed through a set of interior doors at Sporting Park and waited to make his case. Inside the Members Club, in the soccer stadium’s lower level, close to 150 Kansas alums, boosters and fans gathered to hear a springtime state-of-the-program update from their beleaguered football coach.

KU balloons adorned tables. Cheerleaders greeted fans at the door. A hype video played. And finally, Weis took the stage and offered his vision for the program.

Then there was one more thing.

“For the last month or so, I’ve been listening to the Kansas football fans feel like the sky is falling,” Weis said, pausing for a beat.

“Shut the hell up! I’m tired of listening to it. I really am. We’re all in this together.”

After the worst four-year stretch in school history — a 9-39 record and just two Big 12 victories — a head coach coming off a 3-9 season was telling the fans to stop being so negative.

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2014 Best Enterprise, by Kevin Armstrong

Comment by the judge: Well-crafted story about one of the top quarterback gurus in the country. Writer presents a lot of detail about a topic that is one of the new trends in college football as well as provides insight into the behind-the-scenes dealings and relationships.

By Kevin Armstrong

New York Daily News

MOBILE, Ala. — Half-hour to kickoff at St. Paul’s Episcopal School on a Friday in October, and there’s a caller on WNSP 105.5 FM claiming Mother Nature’s keeping Hurricane Karen at bay in order for a varsity football game to be played. The top-ranked Toros from Spanish Fort are in The Port City to march against the No. 8 Saints, and David Morris, the one-time Alabama state record holder for yards and touchdowns in a season, pulls his gray Yukon — the one with the smile-shaped crack across the windshield — into the packed lot, pays $4 to park and walks on past tailgaters. St. Paul’s Headmaster Marty Lester greets Morris, a tutor to St. Paul’s sophomore starting quarterback Miller Mosley.

kevin armstrong

Kevin Armstrong

“David, don’t you have the other quarterback tonight, too?” Lester asks.

Morris nods. Truth be told, Morris tinkers with the mechanics of the starters on both teams, as well as the backups. There is a pipeline at St. Paul’s for Morris to tap into and he does so regularly, having helped along the careers of past preps stars such as Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and Florida State backup Jacob Coker.  All the better to the mothers and fathers whose children he instructs. As the private teacher and not a coach, Morris is undefeated on Friday nights and decides no controversies. Saints reserve Drew Wing’s father, Andrew, double checks with Morris on the next appointment.

“Nine thirty tomorrow morning, right?” Wing asks.

“Yessir,” Morris says.

Morris holds a unique position in Mobile’s quarterback boom. Once a three-year reserve behind Eli Manning at Ole Miss, Morris left the game after graduation, burnt out from being one snap away for three seasons behind the immovable Manning. Morris fought depression, took a job at his father’s real estate agency and moonlighted as a throwing instructor with teenagers in town upon request. Now 33, Morris is all in on growing his program — “Quarterback Country” — into a year-round, nationwide business. His experiences range from pushing Manning through the paces in the offseason to working with Tim Tebow to readying now-Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Matt Barkley for the NFL draft. Top prospects — including University of Miami recruit Malik Rosier — tout Morris’ ability to boost their confidence and identify flaws.

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2013 Best Enterprise, by Matt Hayes

Comment by the judge, Alan Abrahamson: In this era of 24/7, instant-access, always-on journalism, the enterprise story offers something different. It takes us behind the curtain — tells us something we didn’t already know, couldn’t possibly have known without the diligence and the purpose of the reporters’ craft. Often, these stories rely on years of experience or a network of sources. When you finish reading such a story, a complex subject has been made simple or what was once hidden has been revealed. Even when, as was the case with Florida’s championship football team during the Urban Meyer years, it was hiding in plain sight. As the years go by, and the headlines about who was on that team continue to vie for attention, this story may prove to be even all the more illuminating.

By Matt Hayes

Sporting News

Matt Hayes

Matt Hayes

The uproar and controversy of Urban Meyer’s stunning recruiting coup at Ohio State settled in and Stefon Diggs, still on the Buckeyes’ wish list, was debating his future.

Diggs, the second-highest rated wide receiver in the country, had narrowed his list of potential schools to Maryland, Florida and Ohio State. For more than a week following National Signing Day on Feb. 1, and before Diggs eventually signed with Maryland, Meyer relentlessly pursued Diggs.
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