SB Nation

Evin Demirel | October 1, 2013

The D-III revolution

How America's most violent game may be saving liberal arts colleges

Casey Caton never figured he'd play a starring role in securing college football's longest two-game winning streak.

An all-conference wide receiver coming out of Rogers High School (Ark.), Caton imagined he would help Harding University in Arkansas vie for the NCAA Division II championship. Instead, in his three seasons at Harding, the playing time he envisioned never materialized in its triple-option offense, frustration mounted and last fall he quit the team. With just a few classes left before graduation, his football dreams - it seemed - were over.

Then Caton learned that Hendrix College, widely perceived to be the most liberal college in Arkansas, was resurrecting its football program this fall after dropping the sport in 1960. Caton, who describes himself as "definitely on the conservative side," would have never considered attending Hendrix before the news.

The more he learned, however, the more he could see himself on campus and playing football for the Warriors. He met and liked Hendrix's coaches and the prospect of getting plenty playing time. Although Division III competition would be a step down, and the tuition price tag a couple steps up, he would also be getting a degree from one of the most academically prestigious small colleges in the South.

"I didn't want to end a game I had played my whole life on such a bad note," said Caton, who learned the fundamentals from his father, a high school coach. "I really wanted to finish on a positive, actually getting to do what I felt like I could do." Caton transferred this summer.

The Hendrix squad is full of young men like Caton, guys who otherwise might have never considered attending the Conway, Ark. school, a place that celebrates the fact there are no sororities and fraternities on campus and where you are as likely to see students fighting with foam swords as chucking footballs.

It’s a trend. Smaller colleges are starting football programs or restarting those shuttered long ago.

Hendrix_medium(Photo courtesy Evin Demirel)

It's a trend. In recent years, more and smaller colleges and universities are starting football programs or restarting those shuttered long ago. In an era when many major colleges are grappling with increasingly bloated athletic budgets, between 2008 and 2012, 29 smaller colleges started lower-level football programs. And in 2013, despite the fact that mounting medical evidence concerning brain damage has placed the future of an entire sport at risk, 12 more colleges started football programs this fall. In Division III alone, 10 schools have started football programs in the past five years.

Why?

To understand the reason so many small college administrators find football to be a lucrative proposition, take a visit to Hendrix's season opener on Sept. 7 against Westminster University. Pay no mind to the "Undefeated since 1960" orange T-shirts worn by Warrior fans filling the metal bleachers of the brand new Young-Wise Memorial Stadium, or the concession table covered by Hendrix Warrior seat cushions, pennants, umbrellas and replica jerseys. Note that not a single ticket stub litters the ground. At Hendrix, all games are free. Ticket sales and merchandising are insignificant to the financial benefits of fielding a football team.

Instead, look to the alumni in the stands, and the players in their brand new uniforms. In the stadium are about 30 representatives of the old guard - players from the 1950s and the 1960 team who have come to cheer on the torchbearers they never expected to see. During a pregame ceremony, an announcer said, "After a 53-year timeout, we'll now start the clock over on Hendrix football," and the captains of Hendrix's 1960 team took the field and handed a ball used in their last game to Caton and Hunter Lawler - captains of the 2013 edition. Many from the 1960 team are on the Hendrix booster club, which recently raised more than $50,000 for athletic facilities and equipment.

But the real money is on the field. Focus on the 6'2 Caton, who strides onto the field for the first game with authority, one of only a handful of Warriors who have actually played in a college game before. Then look at his 53 teammates, mostly true freshmen, as they take the field on this blistering hot afternoon.

Only a couple hundred feet to the north sits a glistening new field house, including a locker room with 93 player lockers. Long before they were stuffed with mouth guards and sweaty helmets, each of these climate-controlled spaces held a promise. Every new player gives future Hendrix teams the depth to one day be a serious contender on the field. At the same time, each of those players also provides Hendrix College an influx of the cash it needs to remain relevant in a world where pure liberal arts education is increasingly becoming an endangered species.

As students of the Classics discover, ancient Greeks and Romans prized the principle captured in the Latin phrase mens sana in corpore sano ("A sound mind in a healthy body"), and considered sports and exercise important parts of a well-rounded education. In some ways, the future viability of the traditional liberal arts education is rooted in this ethos. Today, without the influx of sports like football, certain schools in coming decades may otherwise be forced to cut back on courses such as ancient history and language.

+++++

The first thing to know about Division III football is its student-athletes aren't paid to sweat. Scholarships can't be awarded based on athletic leadership, ability or performance. This separates Division III from Division I football, which provides full athletic scholarships, and from Division II or the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics football, where partial scholarships are standard.

At this level, football pays.

Hendrix3_mediumWide receiver Casey Caton. (Courtesy of Hendrix College)

This is not to say most Division III players go it alone. The average Hendrix student gets about $24,000 in financial aid to defray the school's annual $48,000 price tag. Almost all Hendrix football players are on some mix of academic, service and leadership scholarships.

But many of its football players - or their families - still pay the sizeable difference. That's money the school banks, and can count on banking, no matter how many losses it suffers, no matter how many people show up to its games or buy its merchandise. Tuition and room and board will just keep rolling in, eventually from as many as 80 players or more. In fact, although a few leagues impose their own restrictions, there is no regular-season roster limit in DIII.

Division I programs are only allowed 85 total football scholarships, and most limit the number of walk-ons. Hendrix, however, has enough space in its new field house to expand to as many as 117 lockers and one day hopes to use them all. Were the parents of each of those students to pay half the annual cost to attend Hendrix, the school would take in nearly an extra $3 million. At this level, football pays. The University of Mount Union, a northeast Ohio Division III powerhouse that produced Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garçon, entered the 2008 season with an astounding 215 players at all levels, including junior varsity. According to Vance Strange, a longtime member of Hendrix's booster club, and Amy Weaver, Hendrix's athletic director, once start-up costs such as equipment (only $900 per player) are covered, a projected  roster of only 65-70 players would still net the school $1.8-$1.9 million a year. Players and their families are more than willing to pay the price, and Hendrix is happy to take the money.

Decades ago, generating revenue from football wasn't really necessary for small colleges; many parents could pay the tuition and were happy to do so. For much of the early 20th century, a college education was for the privileged few and usually entailed a well-rounded curriculum that included literature, Latin, philosophy, history, math and science. But after World War II, returning soldiers flooded the market, swelling enrollments at many state universities as they sought job skills and credentials. Many of these former G.I.s saw the role of higher education as less a way to become culturally refined as a way to secure one of the well-paying career tracks in a rapidly expanding American economy.

NCAA Football Programs Added Each Year
20088
20095
20106
20119
20125
201312
201411
2008-1656
New Schools By Division (2008-16)
USCAA - 2
FBS5
FCS9
Division II8
Division III12
NAIA20
Statistics via National Football Foundation

Many small colleges couldn't adapt, and rapidly escalating costs put many schools at risk. Between 1967 and 1990, according to Vincent Ferrall Jr's, "Liberal Arts at the Brink," 167 private four-year colleges closed. Only those with extensive networks of well-heeled alumni donors and ample endowments survived. Yet in recent years, economic pressures due to the recession and a relative scarcity of top-notch high school students have increased and even put some of these schools at risk. Colleges like Hendrix have to ratchet up enrollment and recruit nationwide in an increasingly competitive environment to remain financially viable. Their challenge, writes Ferrall, "has become not how to choose which applicants to admit but how to attract enough students to fill their dormitories and provide sufficient tuition income to continue operating at current levels."

As a result, football programs have suddenly become attractive to many small colleges as a significant part of more comprehensive campus expansion campaigns.

Hendrix's decision in 2008 to resurrect the sport came on the heels of a long-term decision to push for rapid growth. From 2001 to 2013, the school's enrollment increased by 40 percent, to more than 1,400 students, while the college completed a $100 million comprehensive capital campaign that included the new Student Life and Technology Center, two new student apartment complexes and the Wellness & Athletic Center.

Hendrix's new football stadium, finished this summer, is part of a roughly $6 million expenditure that also included an indoor tennis center with three courts and an 18,000-square-foot training facility that includes the football team's locker room.

Much of that building is state of the art. The bottom of each locker has a computer that operates a fan, sending in air to dry out uniforms and equipment. A nearby equipment room includes vaulted storage units operating on a track. Former NFL Pro Bowler Keith Jackson, who won a Super Bowl with Green Bay in 1997 and is a native of nearby Little Rock, checked out the facility late this summer. He told the Log Cabin Democrat that the Packers didn't have an equipment room that nice when he played for them.

++++++

Hendrixcoaches_mediumHendrix coaches gather with players during their first game. (Courtesy of Evin Demirel)

Hendrix football coach Justin "Buck" Buchanan knows profit motives come into play even at this level of college football. But he doesn't dwell on them. "I don't ever want this job to be a business," he said in July. "And I don't ever want our coaches to think it's about business, because it's not - it's about people."

Early in his high school days in the northeast Texas town of Denison, a coach taped "Buckanan" across the top of his football helmet. He made a hard tackle, all the lettering except "Buck" fell off, and the barrel-chested 5'11 nose guard has been called Buck ever since. He strongly believes in the value of the enduring camaraderie that can form through playing football.

Buchanan played with plenty of passion, but at his size he realized there wouldn't be much demand for him from Division I schools. Nine of his teammates, however, did go the DI route.

"I was probably the only one who had a positive experience playing college football."

Their experiences were instructive. Buchanan said time commitments and the high stakes pressure to perform for stressed-out coaches caused burnout among many of his former teammates. Meanwhile, he thrived as a two-time All-American at Division III Austin College in Texas and graduated cum laude in 1998. "I was probably the only one who had a positive experience playing college football," he said. As an example, he mentions the wedding of a friend who spent four years at a DI school in Texas before playing for the Buffalo Bills. When Buchanan attended his buddy's wedding, not one of his friend's college teammates showed up.

Buchanan wants to make sure his players feel close enough to ensure they never experience something similar. "I tell my guys ‘If you don't leave here with the best friends of your life, the guys who are gonna be standing at your wedding or the support group for you for the next 50 years, then we will have failed you miserably.'"

In 1999, Buchanan started coaching at Division III Louisiana College, joining the first staff of another resurrected football program. From 2006 to 2011, he served as associate head coach, helping lead the program to consecutive 7-3 seasons and a Top-25 ranking. Along the way, he coached Matt Miller, who would sign with the Kansas City Chiefs, and Darnell Williams, who briefly played for the Philadelphia Eagles. But Buchanan doesn't focus on their achievements when recruiting. One of his main selling points is the prospect of attending a school where the term "student-athlete" actually rings true.

"We're not selling out to any larger entity," he said. "If you go out and look at our field, you're not seeing sponsorship ads everywhere. We're not piggybacking our guys. We're trying to give them the tools it takes to be successful."

Even the NCAA itself, which insists the ideal of a "student-athlete" still accurately depicts the best players at the most lucrative big colleges - reports of $300 handshakes and sham jobs be damned - appears to tacitly acknowledge the phrase means different things in different contexts. For evidence, look no further than the second tenant of the NCAA's official "Division III Philosophy Statement." It reads that Division III schools "place special importance on the impact of athletics on the participants rather than on the spectators and place greater emphasis on the internal consistency (e.g. students, alumni, institutional personnel) than on the general public and its entertainment needs." The goal is to "Primarily focus on intercollegiate athletics as a four-year, undergraduate experience." In other words, it's about the players.

You won't find that statement in the official "Division I Manual."

"Our sport will be in its purest form," Buchanan told Conway's Log Cabin Democrat this summer. "Our guys will be playing for the love of the game and each other." That, and Hendrix's financial health.

+++++

During the season opener against Westminster, a private school in central Missouri, Buchanan's players competed before an overflow crowd almost twice the stadium's 1,500-person capacity. Before and during the game groups of fans ambled on the grass outside a fence south of the field, going between the bleachers and a parking lot on the opposite side where a swarm of tailgaters had set up camp. Some sat or stood on the grass circling the field, shading themselves from the sweltering sun while sipping from water bottles. The arrangement evoked the spectators at Virginia's Manassas junction, the first major conflict of the Civil War, who observed the battle from a nearby hill with picnic baskets, parasols and opera glasses. They saw the Northerners win the early part of the battle before the Southerners turned the tide.

This game followed suit. The Blue Jays sacked Hendrix quarterback Seth Peters for a 9-yard loss on the first play of the game, then intercepted his pass and returned it to the Hendrix 28-yard line. Two plays later, just one minute and 15 seconds into the game, Westminster led 7-0. It appeared Hendrix's youth and inexperience would prove too much to overcome.

But the Warriors struck back starting with the first play of their next possession when Peters passed to Caton for an 8-yard gain. Caton caught another 8-yard pass a few plays later, and freshman running back Dayton Winn started racking up yards on the ground. With 9:43 on the clock, Peters threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Travus McMahon. Hendrix football was back, and the crowd cheered the first Warrior touchdown in more than half a century.

Hendrix2_mediumHendrix scores its first touchdown since 1960. (Courtesy of Evin Demirel)

Hendrix last fielded a team in 1960, and although the Warriors had struggled in the previous decade, in the fall of that year they won their final game and finished with a 4-4-2 record. Nevertheless, in December the school president announced that Hendrix could no longer afford to play football.

"It was tough on everyone. It caught us by surprise," former player Gene Wilbourn told Sporting Life Arkansas in August 2013. "After reflecting on it for 10 years or so ... our buildings were falling down. He had a lot of building to do, and it's hard to go and ask for money when you're spending money on the program. If he hadn't been able to do that, I don't think we would be where we are today." Charles Tadlock, a captain of the 1960 team, added, "We didn't understand that the college didn't have the money to carry on the program. Some of my teammates never forgave the college, and have never been back on campus."

Even though the shuttering of the football program was initially divisive, Hendrix students rapidly acclimated to the lack of pep rallies and quiet fall Saturdays. In fact, they came to prefer it. In 2007-08, former Hendrix president Tim Cloyd appointed a committee of faculty, staff, students, alumni and trustees to examine whether the revival of intercollegiate football would be in the college's best long-term interest and the resulting feasibility report revealed significant opposition. Seventy-one percent of the students reacted negatively to the question and faculty and staff were only slightly more positive. Support for the return of football came primarily from the administration and, to a lesser extent, alumni. In spring 2008, the question was put before the board of trustees. According to board member Bill Wilson, all but one voted for football. The financial benefits outweighed all other concerns.

Hendrixmerch_medium(Courtesy of Evin Demirel)

Still, resistance remained among students, faculty and staff. According to the feasibility report, many believed "that the current academic and social culture at Hendrix is not compatible with football. Respondents also indicated misperceptions about Division III football." According to other athletic directors, this kind of feedback is common in the surveys and feasibility reports of other liberal arts colleges that have brought back football. "There's no way you're gonna have football and it not change who you are," said Glada Munt, the athletic director of Texas' Southwestern University, which also brought back football this fall. "What we want to control," she said, "is to make sure that change is good."

The diversity of an institution like Hendrix College makes it difficult to define its culture. Still, when people take stabs at the question, certain words often emerge: "liberal," "tolerant," "egalitarian," - and admission reps and students sometimes refer to the college as a "blue dot in a red state." As former president Timothy Cloyd wrote in a promotional brochure, compared to more traditional college campuses, "Hendrix students are more open, emo, earnest and a bit more granola and crunchy. They are politically active and interested in liberty and justice issues and ... critiquing the accepted social order. They don't accept orthodoxy in any form." In the flier, published by a consortium of 16 liberal arts colleges in the South, Cloyd also noted, "the social dynamic at Hendrix is largely open. The college's size, absence of members-only Greek organizations and disdain for unnecessary hierarchy discourage fragmentation of the campus into impermeable subcultures."

In short, at Hendrix the scrub on the Quidditch club, the backup center, and the school president alike have equal dibs on each of the campus' unreserved parking spots.

Yet even as the initial season got under way, there were still people around the school who felt the new football team threatened Hendrix's ethos of egalitarianism, and social and gender equality. "I think a lot of faculty fear that this will be the first step toward implementing sororities and fraternities, which I don't think will happen. But that's a fear - a real fear," said Britt Anne Murphy, the director of the school's library. Murphy, a self-proclaimed feminist, added she doesn't object to football itself, "but there are elements of the culture that surrounds football that I don't care for, including gender issues." When asked for specifics, she cited reports about violence inflicted on women by Division I and NFL players.

Murphy realizes such problems are likely not as pervasive in Division III football programs, where athletes are far less entitled than their Division I counterparts. But some concern may be warranted. There is sound data that indicates competitive sports can hurt their participants' moral reasoning. According to a 20-year study of 72,000 college, professional and high school athletes conducted by the University of Idaho's Center for ETHICS*,(Ethical Theory and Honor In Competition and Sport), athletes scored worse on tests of moral reasoning than non-athletes. And the longer an athlete - male or female - stayed immersed in a competitive culture, the more he or she tended to agree that winning is more important than fair play.

"In America we have a tendency when we do something nasty to say, ‘I'm just competitive,'" the study's creator, Dr. Sharon Stoll, told Sports Illustrated in 2007. "And in sports, gaining an advantage is what we do. But gaining that advantage has become an excuse to do what is morally wrong." Stoll found that athletes from team sports, especially male contact sports like football and lacrosse, scored lower in moral reasoning than those from individual sports.

"They're worried it's going to change a lot and it's not going to be an alternative, liberal hippie college without football."

Football is only the largest and most visible part of an influx of student-athletes that is changing the complexion of Hendrix's population. Over the last 20 years, the school has added other men's sports like baseball, soccer and lacrosse, and softball, soccer and field hockey for women - and lacrosse debuts next spring. The percentage of student-athletes on campus has steadily crept upward and this year's freshman class is comprised of an all-time high 45 percent NCAA student-athletes. Yet some who were initially drawn to Hendrix because they wanted to escape the football-centric culture of their high schools have been slow to embrace a more sports-oriented campus. "They're just worried it's going to change a lot and it's not going to be that Hendrix they remember as, like, an alternative, liberal hippie college without football," junior Charley Ford said.

Others worried whether football players would be able to maintain Hendrix's lofty academic standing. Bill Wilson, a member of the 1960 team, recalled visiting the student senate around 2007 and finding all but one of the members to be against football. "They had the idea that they were gonna bring a busload of wild men to campus and let them loose. They didn't really see them as bona fide student scholars." Those fears have largely been alleviated by an inaugural class of football players who were as academically accomplished in high school as their non-athlete Hendrix peers, athletic director Amy Weaver said. Their average ACT score of 27 is only slightly lower than that of the freshman class overall. In August, the student senate even helped organize the first Hendrix pep rally (for all sports) anybody could remember happening in recent decades.

While the student body has become more supportive of football, some alumni are frustrated with school leaders for bringing it on board. While many claim not to have a problem with the sport per se, they are disappointed by the way school leaders pushed the decision through despite resistance and question whether the school funds are being used in the best way. "Rather than paying to have a football team (which was not a student, faculty, or alumni driven initiative), why don't you give the faculty a raise?" wrote alumna Jennifer Prewitt-Freilino in an email to a reporter. As graduate students, she and her husband had donated $600 to Hendrix, but since the board decided to bring back football, they have not done so again. By the end of this year, Hendrix leaders hope to name a new president and Prewitt-Freilino said that if the right candidate is picked she and her husband would resume donating to the school. "We would just need to feel that the new president was interested in including the faculty in governance again," she wrote. She added the new president should also have "a clear understanding of the unique and special quality of the education going on both inside and outside the classrooms at Hendrix." Moving forward, at least for now, that includes football.

++++

Hendrix4_mediumRunning back Dayton Winn. (Courtesy of Hendrix College)

According to Casey Caton, he and his teammates have fit in well at Hendrix. Many of them made a point early on to help their classmates move into dorms and chat up strangers around campus. "The typical football player gets a bad rap, but I feel like we're going the extra mile to be really friendly to everyone," he said. Caton is considering becoming a missionary with the Church of Christ - a career path few other Hendrix students share. "I'm pretty solid in what I believe and how I'm gonna choose to live my life," he said. But the fact so many Hendrix students have belief systems and political leanings so different from his own doesn't faze him. Caton and his fiancée even checked out the school's annual outdoor dance ceremony, in which many students wore only a dress shirt, a bow tie and boxers, yet they weren't interested in joining in. "I'm not gonna change their traditions," he said. "It's their school and I'm a part of it now."

If there are people on campus still passionately against football, Caton said he hasn't noticed; he had received mostly positive feedback. "I've already heard that football has brought a new feel to campus," he said. "They wanted a balance here in the student body and I feel like that's what they've done so far."

Significantly, that balance is showing up in the school's ratio of female and male students, which, like most colleges, has tilted female in recent decades as women pursue college degrees at a higher rate than men. Nationally, the student population in college is 58 percent female, and even higher in private schools At Hendrix, the gap isn't as wide, as the overall student population is about 54 percent women. However, thanks to football, this year's freshman class is only 50.5 percent female.

As hard as it may be for some male students to believe, an overwhelming majority of female students makes overall student recruitment difficult. Diversity is a crucial selling point to attract the brightest high school students, and the wider variety of clubs and teams that appeal to a broader range of students, the better. Hendrix has a club dedicated to tending a small flock of egg-laying chickens on campus, a sword club in which members fight with fake weapons made out of foam and duct tape at the campus' Pecan Court, and an organization for gay and lesbian students and their allies. These groups aren't going anywhere because there's a football team on campus. Nor will recent female grads stop returning to skinny dip in the school fountain across from the chapel entrance. However, inclusion and diversity means there is room for football, too. As Coach Buck Buchanan puts it, football joins the party as "an extra enhancement" to campus life.

By most accounts, the school's social life got a boost at the combination tailgating party/reunion/grand unveiling marked by the Hendrix-Westminster football game. People of all ages and students of all orientations mingled and celebrated Hendrix's scores as the both teams marched up and down the field, primarily utilizing spread passing sets. Despite a 44-yard touchdown catch by Caton in the second quarter, the Warriors went into halftime down, 28-21. In the second half, the teams continued to trade scores until Hendrix kicker Steve Crenshaw knocked in a 25-yard field goal with a second left to lift Hendrix to a 46-44 win. Caton led all receivers in the game with eight catches for 146 yards.

the drama gave Hendrix unprecedented exposure in new markets.

The game, the storybook finish and resulting hoopla was everything Hendrix administrators could have hoped for. For certain, the drama gave Hendrix unprecedented exposure in new markets. ESPN's college football Twitter feed, for instance, blasted news of the win to more than 360,000 followers, most of whom had probably never heard of Hendrix College in any capacity. To this point, the rebirth of football at Hendrix and many other schools seems to be a growing trend. Thirteen programs - including two more Division III schools - have already announced plans to launch football programs over the next three years. As one success story after another marches out of these camps of the reborn, and small-time football again and again proves a winner in terms of revenue and publicity, what could possibly stop it?

Medical concerns, for one. In the midst of the resurgence is anxiety over concussions and TBI, traumatic brain injury. Although nobody yet knows what will come of ongoing studies that link unavoidable football collisions to long-term cognitive damage, it's enough to spook the NFL into agreeing to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit on the issue brought by more than 4,500 players and their families rather than face the chance of billions of dollars in liability payments later. A similar issue is emerging on the collegiate front, where a couple lawsuits are brewing against the NCAA, claiming the institution failed to educate and disclose risks of concussions. The plaintiffs in one suit, filed in Illinois, are seeking unspecified monetary damages, stricter concussion guidelines as well as long-term medical monitoring by the NCAA in 18 states for all present and former athletes who played NCAA football, basketball and a handful of other team sports since 2004. Attorneys in the case are seeking class-action certification, meaning thousands of players could be affected by a possible settlement. The plaintiffs in the other suit, filed in Tennessee, are seeking medical monitoring in all states for all football players regardless of when they played.

It's unclear how mounting concern in this realm may affect Division III athletic departments like that at Hendrix and whether extra insurance costs and liability concerns may eventually prove to be an impediment for those with football programs. According to Hendrix athletic director Amy Weaver, the addition of a football program has already bumped up the insurance premium paid by the athletic department by more than $15,000. Brett Adams, athletic director of Maryland's Stevenson University, which started its football program in 2011, cited similar numbers. Adams said the sport caused his department's premium to rise from $25,000 to $40,000. Although such bumps aren't much of a concern today, these schools are certain to closely monitor costs as they evolve in the coming years. While medical repercussions may deflate football's popularity in some parts of the country, Hendrix interim president Ellis Arnold believes it will endure as the South's most popular sport.

+++++

After the cheers following Hendrix's win had finally quieted, and the last of the tailgating canopies taken down, football hero Casey Caton returned to his rental house. He lives off campus with two teammates - Hunter Lawler and Caleb Shannon. Like Caton, they too had harbored dreams of playing college football at higher levels - Lawler left a closet full of Northwestern State University gear in his Shreveport, La., home. In high school, he sought to play for the nearby Division I program, but a season-ending injury at the start of his senior campaign slammed the door shut on the all-city linebacker's hopes. Shannon, a safety from the Houston area, redshirted last year for Henderson State University, a regional Division II power in southwestern Arkansas. He didn't get along with the coaches, though, and quit football altogether. Shannon had lost 17 pounds of muscle when he first heard in late July this year about Hendrix's program from a Henderson State teammate transferring to the Warriors. Shannon decided to join, too. Sixteen thousand dollars' worth of student loans later, he's having the time of his life.

Caton, Lawler and Shannon share more than a home and team. Each of these young men have had ample opportunity to quit competitive football forever and move on with their lives. But in a place they never expected, they found the promise of new life and a way to stay in the game a little while longer.

It's a promise Hendrix and other small colleges nationwide are banking on.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler

About the Author

Evin_head_shot

An award-winning obituary writer, Evin Demirel left that field to focus on sports and society. The North Little Rock resident has written for Sporting Life Arkansas, Arkansas Life, SLAM, Slate, The Classical, the New York Times and his own Twitter account at @evindemirel. He takes pointers from his extremely hard-working wife, Susan, and their extremely hard-playing toddler daughter Eden.

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.