College football is more than just a business

SDSU at a timeout during against Boise State in 2021. (Paul Garrison/EVT)

DL Brady Nassar signed with SDSU in December. During an interview on The SDSU Football Podcast, Nassar explained that he became an Aztec only after the University of Colorado pulled its scholarship offer following the hiring of Deion Sanders as head coach. Nassar was one of 13 commitments to the previous staff that Coach Prime did not honor.

Anecdotes like this and a host of other examples paint an ugly truth. College football is big business. Colorado signed Sanders to a five-year, $29.5 million contract. To put that in perspective, Sanders signed a seven-year, $35 million deal to play cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys in 1995. 

An average of 17.22 million people tuned in to watch the National Championship this year, the lowest total in more than a decade.

With more rumors swirling about conference realignment, it has grown increasingly clear that internally, SDSU expects to be in a different conference in 2024. The Aztecs are typically linked with the Big 12 and the Pac 12. Membership in either could add $30 million to SDSU’s athletic budget in television money alone. Add in the windfall from Snapdragon Stadium, and the Aztecs could conservatively bring in $50 million more every year than they did just a few seasons ago.

These developments, as exciting as they are, do not represent what is best about college athletics. With SDSU’s impending rise in the college football pecking order, there is a danger that it can lose what makes it great.

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Watching Daniel Bellinger compete in the playoffs against fellow Aztec alum Kevin O’Connell was a terrific storyline, but more important than anything these or other Aztec greats do on the field is the impact the thousands of former players have off of it.

Bellinger was one of nine players from SDSU in 2021 to make it to an NFL camp and the most successful of five who were on active NFL rosters this season. The rest of the 27 players who left the program following the Frisco Bowl in 2021 are working at finding success away from football.

Catching up with two of them, Connor McBride and Jordon Brookshire, offers insight into the effect being an Aztec has for so many young men. Their stories are a reminder that college football is more than just a business.

Jordon Brookshire started at QB when SDSU went 12-2 in 2021. (Paul Garrison/EVT)

Jordon Brookshire

Brookshire’s journey at SDSU is well-documented. On January 9, 2019, seven days before the start of the spring semester, SDSU QB coach Blane Morgan called Brookshire out of the blue and set up an official visit for the upcoming weekend.

He and his dad came to San Diego, Brookshire committed, and then flew home to the Bay Area. Two days later, he was back in America’s Finest City to start his SDSU career.  

A three-star prospect from Laney Community College, Brookshire, redshirted his first season. In 2020, he sank to fourth on the depth chart. He had a remarkable reason for grinding his way out of his low standing.

Brookshire enjoys a moment with Norv Turner after his heroics against Boise State in 2021. (Paul Garrison/EVT)

“I was down in the dumps,” Brookshire admitted. “I was frustrated partially because, like any competitor, I didn’t feel like I was four, but I was, and there is nothing I can do about that. … you still have to do good and perform in practice because otherwise, I’m not just letting myself down; I’m hurting the receivers, I’m hurting the running backs.”

“They’re out there. They’re trying to get better, so who am I to say, ‘screw this. I don’t want to do this’ and throw bad balls and just not care because that hurts their development, their growth, and that’s just incredibly selfish.”

With roommate and current Pittsburgh Steelers guard William Dunkle among his greatest advocates on the team, Brookshire worked his way back to start the final two games of the year. Over the offseason, he vaulted to the top of the depth chart, leading the Aztecs into the 2021 season.

SDSU went 6-2 in games that he started. His most memorable moment came as a reserve against Boise State his senior year. Down 16-3 with 3:04 left in the first half, Brookshire entered the game and sparked the offense, leading them to four straight scoring drives and 24 unanswered points.

Following the year, he had offers from multiple FCS schools, but the universities did not line up with his Master’s program, so he chose to transition to life after football.

“I’ve been working,” Brookshire said. “I got a job for medical sales up in San Francisco. I deal with rotator cuffs, ACLs, meniscus, hips, all that stuff, so I’m not too far out of the sports world. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s something I never really thought of. One of my buddies got me the job. I didn’t know how much I would like it, but it turns out I love it.”

Brady Hoke greets Brookshire on Senior Day in 2021. (Paul Garrison/EVT)

“I’ll go around to various hospitals and surgery centers. We’re in the operating room. If the surgeons have any questions about our product or how it’s properly used, we’re there for that. We’re there to make sure the case goes smoothly. If they need anything, we can step out of the room and go grab that, make nurses’ lives easier, just make it a seamless process.”

From waking up at 6 am to start his day to staying calm under pressure to building a team from a myriad of personalities he encounters, Brookshire’s time at SDSU has helped shape the person that he is. The well-being of the doctors and nurses and by extension, their patients are all improved by SDSU’s former signal-caller. This unseen impact away from the field is what’s best about college sports.

“It’s interesting ‘cause I’ve never been a big LinkedIn guy,” Brookshire explained. “There’s been a lot of people from San Diego State, alumni following me on there. They’ll message me, ‘Hey, we loved watching you play. What are you up to now?’”

“It’s a great community feeling where they supported me back then, and they are still supporting me now. There’s no better word. It’s just awesome that regardless of what I’m doing and what aspect of life I’m in, these people will support me.”

Connor McBride as he enters the field on Senior Day. (Paul Garrison/EVT)

Connor McBride

The next chapter in McBride’s life took him from the Mesa to the classroom. After graduating from SDSU, he enrolled in a teaching credential program at the University of California Irvine. He is studying to be a history teacher.

McBride was a walk-on at SDSU. Arriving on campus to compete in the backfield as a fullback, he was positionless after the Aztecs moved to the spread following the 2018 season. Among the non-scholarship players at the position before the switch, McBride was the only one who stuck it out and walked out of the tunnel on senior day.

“It is definitely a big transition,” McBride explained. “However, it’s not too different for me because a lot is like football. It’s a lot of time constraints and busy work and being somewhere at a certain time, having things done mentally and physically. I have a very packed schedule, but it’s similar to how it was with football.”

“I still work out. In order for me to work out, I have to wake up at six, something I had to do all the time in football. Mentally preparing yourself for the next day. It’s very similar to the mindset I had in football. A lot of my classmates, they’re becoming teachers as well, they struggle with time management, trying to get everything done, and being stressed out about living two lives of being a student-teacher and being a student as well, which is like football as well. You live two lives as a student and as an athlete.”

Connor McBride blocks for Will Haskell against Towson in 2021. (Paul Garrison/EVT)

A typical week involves student-teaching at Northwood High School in his hometown of Irvine, CA, and taking classes four nights a week. In a twist of fate, Northwood is the rival of the high school he attended, Woodbridge. Though McBride tried to return and give back to his alma mater, landing at Northwood has let him relive the glory days.

McBride scored 45 touchdowns and racked up nearly 5,000 yards of offense in high school. He was so dominant a few of his new colleagues remember him from his playing days.    

Like Brookshire, McBride has stayed connected to the world of athletics. He competed in an intermural football league at UCI. A ringer less than a year removed from Division I, his team went undefeated. While his schedule prevented it this semester, he had multiple offers to coach and plans to invest in young people in the classroom and through the sport he loves.

McBride is bringing with him the tutelage of the people who invested in him at SDSU. Jeff Horton recently retired, but his legacy is still active. Having helped shape McBride, Horton continues to work.  

Brady Hoke greets Connor McBride on Senior Day 2021. (Paul Garrison/EVT)

“Aztec football, we talk about adversity all the time and how to get past that, which makes you mentally and physically tough,” McBride explained.”That kind of stuff is what I want my students to know and also what I want my players to know. In the classroom, if you make a mistake, you need to focus on growing and becoming the type of student and type of athlete you want to be.”

“I feel like in a lot of athletic programs, you only focus on failures rather than on growth and becoming who you want to be. But Aztec football is focused on getting past adversity. It’s a gradual process.”           

Among the many lessons Brookshire and McBride learned at SDSU was the invaluable experience of the bond people can form. Both pointed to the moments in the margin with their teammates, the 5 am physical therapy sessions or the walk back to the locker room after practice, as the time they missed most.

In an increasingly isolated world, they have a lived experience of the closeness humans can have when they are focused on the same endeavor. Brookshire and McBride bring that possibility and that hope to every community they are part of.

Judging from the headlines in the media and the astronomical television deals conferences are signing, it is easy to become cynical and lump the collegiate game in with the NFL.

But, if you take the time to look away from the limelight, there are still stories to remind us that college football is more than just a business.

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