The players called it “Bloody Tuesday.” A tradition at Penn State, it pitted the first-team offense against the first-team defense. No quarter asked, none given. “And sometimes,” says Mike Meade, “if we had a sub-par game the week before or a tough game coming up, Bloody Tuesday was followed by Bloodier Wednesday.”
The full-bore weekly scrimmage was just one of many rites of passage Meade endured in a successful, though not spectacular, football career: All-State running back at Dover High School, starting fullback at Penn State, four relatively injury-free years in the National Football League, then a comfortable life as a businessman and family man in his hometown.
Meade’s journey could serve as a template for those who choose the pressure-cooker of big-time football, which long ago replaced baseball in America’s sporting heart. The game generates tremendous revenue from gate receipts, television contracts and gambling action that builds throughout the season, concluding with nearly $100 million wagered on Super Bowl Sunday.
Big money begets big pressure on the players. It starts at age 16 or 17, when college coaches visit recruits at their schools and homes, then barrage them with phone calls, emails and letters. It amps up markedly once the athlete enters the college game, with its huge stadiums and TV audiences, gung-ho alumni and coaches who demand total dedication. Then, if he’s talented and lucky enough, a player can reach the ultimate—the NFL, where fortune and fame await.
Jamaal Jackson, Andrew Szczerba and Ben Patrick are at various stages of the journey Mike Meade completed three decades ago. Jackson is a highly-touted senior running back at Hodgson Vocational Technical School near Newark. Szczerba, a Salesianum grad, is a sophomore tight end at Penn State. A former All-American at UD, Patrick is in his third year as a tight end for the Arizona Cardinals. Each provides a unique viewpoint on football’s impact on their lives.
Page 2: College Bound
Jamaal Jackson interrupts the interview to take a call on his cell phone. “It’s my dad,” he says. The conversation lasts less than a minute. Jamaal tells his father that he and his girlfriend will visit on Father’s Day, then ends with, “Love you, Dad.”
The call is brief because John Jackson is an inmate at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, where he has served five years of a nine-year sentence for kidnapping. Jamaal (pronounced Ja-meel) writes to his father and talks to him every week. He visits once or twice a month. His father “has made some mistakes,” he says. Jamaal believes the kidnapping charge resulted from “a miscommunication” in a domestic situation.
Jamaal now has the chance to live out a dream John Jackson may have entertained 20-plus years ago, when he was a star running back at Claymont High School. At about the same time, Jamaal’s mother, Maila Madric, was a top hurdler at Sanford School, St. Mark’s and, later, Temple University, which she attended on a track scholarship. Those bloodlines and Jamaal’s work ethic have combined to produce a running back who has college scouts drooling.
Though slightly undersized at 5-feet-9 and 170 pounds, Jackson possesses 4.4-second 40-yard speed and tremendous balance. Bob LaFazia, who has been watching Delaware football since the 1940s, calls Jackson the state’s best back—ever.
With her background in athletics, Madric, a counselor at the New Castle County Detention Center, has helped her son maximize his gifts. When he floundered as a freshman at Brandywine High School, she researched other schools. She picked Hodgson Vo-Tech and Coach Frank Moffett, who has placed several players in NCAA Division I programs. Early this year, she and Jamaal traveled to three “combines”—workouts that showcase top high school players—including the U.S. Army National Combine in San Antonio, where he made honorable mention All-Combine. She will accompany him when he takes the five official campus visits allowed by the NCAA.
Page 3: College Bound, continues…
So far, the two-year starter has scholarship offers from Boston College, Louisville, Michigan, East Carolina, Rutgers, Syracuse, James Madison and UD.
“I think there’ll be a lot more to come,” Jackson says.
Moffett advises his players who move to the next level to visualize each school without football, then decide if they will be comfortable there academically and socially. Jackson is looking for a school where “the people are down to earth, not just trying to put on a show ’cause I’m coming to visit.”
Both Moffett and Madric have helped Jackson improve his grades, and he knows what is truly important at the college level: the degree. “Most likely I’m going to do a double major in sports management and communications,” he says. “With sports management, I was thinking like a sports agency-type thing where, if I do make it into the NFL, I can be my own agent. And communications, even if I don’t make it or after I retired, I’d be able to be a commentator for college or NFL games. If that didn’t work out, be a coach.”
With the start of the school year, recruiters can visit and call more frequently, so the pressure on Jackson to make a choice will intensify. So far, he seems to be enjoying the process and looks forward to his five official visits. Meanwhile, he wants to close out his high school career by topping 5,000 rushing yards (he’s just under 4,000 now) and winning the state championship.
He is grateful for the opportunity that lies ahead—a chance to lead a life far different from his father’s.
“All the coaches that offered me, I’ve called them and thanked them,” he says. “Giving somebody a full scholarship, that’s a lot of money. They put a lot of time and effort into it, and I appreciate it.”
Page 4: From Little Ol’ Sallies to PSU
He’s 6-feet-6, 260 pounds. About two ax handles wide at the shoulders. Narrow waist. Body fat, 8 percent. Big, beefy hands, hands meant to catch a football—or pound one into a linebacker’s chest. Runs the 40 in 4.8 seconds. Smart and dedicated.
Andrew Szczerba would seem to be the quintessential college tight end. That he is third on the depth chart at Penn State speaks volumes about the level of talent coach Joe Paterno has corralled in Happy Valley.
In 2007 Szczerba was Delaware Gatorade Player of the Year and ranked 25th in the nation among all schoolboy tight ends. Recruited by several schools, he enjoyed the attention—at first.
“In the beginning, it was exciting,” he says. “It was pretty cool having big-time coaches come to your high school. Towards the end, though, it got a little bit stressful, with constant emails and mail and having to return calls to coaches. One of the toughest things was making the trip to all those schools. That can be a long weekend. You don’t really have any downtime. You’re constantly seeing everything the campus has to offer. That can be exhausting.”
His advice to high school recruits: It’s the guys you’re going to play alongside, not the coaches, who are important.
“Obviously you’re going to like all the coaches because they’re going to be as nice as they can be to get you there,” he says. “Go somewhere where you feel a connection to the players, because those are the guys you’re going to be around every day all year round. You’re waking up with them at 5 a.m. and walking over to workouts with them. And during the game, you’re on the field with them. The coaches are on the sidelines.”
Szczerba says some high school prospects spend too much time in the weight room, not enough on the treadmill or track. “What’s hard to motivate yourself to do and what helps you out the most is being physically fit—the running.”
Page 5: From Little Ol’ Sallies to PSU, continues…
By now he’s acclimated to the über-intense Penn State program. But that first workout is etched in his mind. On a scorching July day, coaches whipsawed the squad through a series of shuttle runs and dashes, starting at 300 yards and working torturously down to 20 yards. Two freshmen passed out. Szczerba survived, but it shook his confidence.
“I was thinking to myself, What am I doing here?” he recalls. “They’re all about mental toughness at Penn State, so they were trying to break us down, especially the guys who had a little bit of ego, to show them it’s going to be a tough journey before you start to get on the field.”
Having made it through the most arduous workouts, he says, “Now, I know whatever they throw at me, I’ll be able to handle.”
During the season, players arrive for practice at about 2:15 p.m. to get dressed and taped. At 2:45, they separate according to position for breakdown meetings, to watch film of the previous practice or most recent game. The meetings end around 4. Practice starts at 4:30 and ends at about 6:30. Dinner at 7. All this is in addition to a 12- or 15-credit class schedule. Following dinner, freshmen have the added obligation of a two-hour study hall monitored by academic advisers and graduate assistants, who also check on class attendance daily.
Miss a class, says Szczerba, and your position coach will run you until your lungs are on fire—after practice. Missing two or three classes earns you an audience with the 82-year-old Paterno. “He’s really into your education,” says Szczerba, “and we have a lot of depth, so if he wants to sit you for a game to teach you a lesson, he’ll sit you.”
Like all major football programs, Penn State demands year-round commitment. Szczerba has spent the past two summers in State College with most of the team’s upperclassmen. A criminal justice major with a business option, he took nine credits this past summer, but mostly he was there to lift and run six days a week and practice pass routes with other receivers and the quarterbacks.
Football, he says, “sometimes feels like a job,” but he’s enjoying the experience, especially game day, with its ceremony and tradition—the bus ride with teammates to the stadium, passing the countless tailgate parties, coming out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel to the screams of 110,000 fans.
A redshirt sophomore, Szczerba has three more years of eligibility—time enough to earn a starting position. As for his NFL potential, he’s realistic. “I would have to get more significant time on the field to see how I match up at the next level. That’s obviously every player’s dream, but for me right now, that’s a lot of plays and a lot of hard work away.”
Page 6: A Super Catch
The play was zero counter three-two-oh pass out of a goal line set. “When we put it in the week before, I had a funny feeling in my stomach that it would be called in the game,” says Ben Patrick. “Then, when we got down to the 2-yard line, I was sure of it. When Kurt [Warner] called the play in the huddle, it’s kind of the moment you dream of.”
Patrick, a tight end for the Arizona Cardinals, made the most of it. Out-jumping a linebacker for the pass from Warner, he scored the Cardinals’ first touchdown in the 2009 Super Bowl, a game eventually won in dramatic fashion by the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-23.
That catch is perhaps the highlight in a career that has had plenty of them. At Jenkins High School in Savannah, Georgia, Patrick was the stereotypical all-around athlete, playing baseball, basketball and football. Named Southeast Georgia Player of the Year in 2001, he was one of the country’s top-rated tight ends, as well as a fine student.
As he sifted through dozens of scholarship offers, the NFL never entered his mind. He was looking for academic excellence. He found it at Duke University, earning a degree in African-American Studies while leading the team in receptions in 2004 and 2005. With a year of eligibility left and a growing passion for football, he transferred to UD in 2006, then became the school’s first first-team All-American while topping all Division I-AA tight ends in receiving.
Taken by the Cardinals in the seventh round of the 2007 draft, the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Patrick has established himself as a solid backup for the defending NFC champs, and he was fighting for the starter’s job this year.
Off the field, his lifestyle contrasts sharply with the flamboyance of some NFL stars. He has an apartment in Phoenix, and his older brother, Freddie, who works for Bank of America and acts as Ben’s manager, lives in a nearby apartment with their mother, Jacqueline.
Page 7: A Super Catch, continues…
Patrick’s 2008 salary was $375,760. His loser’s share from the Super Bowl was $40,000. He’s using his NFL earnings to help free himself, his mother and brother from debt and set up a comfortable future for all. He owes special thanks to his mother. “She’s always supported my brother and me,” he says. “She went to almost every game we ever played.
While claiming he’s “not a real flashy guy,” the 25-year-old Patrick does have at least one passion—cars. He owns three, including a 2007 Cadillac Escalade SUV —the requisite ride for many NFL players—which he bought just before he was drafted. True to his conservative nature, however, he vows never to buy another new vehicle after seeing the Escalade’s value drop precipitously in the first year.
Patrick is a rarity among NFLers in another way—he wants to go back to school, to become certified as a personal trainer and massage therapist, maybe open a gym. “I think training athletes would be fun,” he says.
A bachelor, he hopes to have a family someday, but he’s in no hurry. “I have a 5-year-old niece, and that’s as close as I want to get to children right now. I like my space. I have two dogs at home, and that’s plenty for me. No kids no time soon.”
He makes it back to Delaware occasionally to visit UD Coach K.C. Keeler and his staff as well as ex-teammates. But he admits to some divided loyalties. “I bleed blue and gold,” he says, “but Duke owns my soul.”
Page 8: Looking Back, Looking Ahead
When Mike Meade looks at today’s NFL salaries, one thought pops into his head: “Envious. You can’t use any other word.”
In 1982 the Green Bay Packers drafted Meade, a fullback, in the fifth round, and signed him for $100,000. Adjusted for inflation, he says, that’s about $200,000 today.
“In my four-year career,” Meade says, “I wouldn’t have made as much as I would’ve made today just by being drafted in the same position.” He’s probably right. The 2009 rookie minimum salary is $310,000. The minimum for a four-year veteran, $620,000.
Meade may be a tad envious, but he has no regrets. From his spacious home in Dover, he leads a Norman Rockwellian life full of family and friends. He dotes on Gloria, his wife of 24 years, a microbiologist with the USDA; his daughter Jasmine, who is about to enter Brown University; and his 12-year-old son, J. R., who has some of his father’s athleticism.
By his senior year at Dover High, Meade was something of a local legend. A combination of size (6 feet, 230 pounds) and speed (4.5 in the 40) made him a top prospect. He also had excellent grades and SAT scores, and academics were a priority for him when he visited Stanford, Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State.
He paid special attention to the African-American athletes he met on each campus. “I tried to determine through conversations what percentage of them would be in college if they couldn’t play ball,” he says. “At Stanford, of course, it was 100 percent. At Notre Dame it was high, but it wasn’t all of them.” At Penn State, the one player he had doubts about turned out to be a good student and his best friend.
Once he arrived on campus, Meade discovered everything in his world had suddenly become exponentially bigger—the players, the coaching staff and the classes. “In my first class—8 a.m. calculus—there must have been 350 students in this huge auditorium.”
Page 9: Looking Back, Looking Ahead, continues…
He knew grades were important to Paterno, who discourages a “jock culture” at Penn State, but he didn’t realize how important until he was summoned to the coach’s office one day in his freshman year.
“My mind was on all these football scenarios,” he says. “Are they going to start me at fullback? Or did they decide I’m not good enough to play here?”
When he got to the office, Paterno said, “I have your grades here, Mike, and you’re a better student than this. I thought you would be one of the leaders on this team in the classroom.”
Meade laughs at the memory “The thing is, I had a 2.75, which was second or third in my [recruiting] class. But he berated me for five or 10 minutes. ”
Meade earned his degree in business management, but his grades never got better than that 2.75. “Penn State is a party school, and I enjoyed it,” he says. (Later, in pro ball, he encountered players from other colleges who were surprised that he even had to attend classes.)
The talent at Penn State (12 Nittany Lions were drafted in 1982, and three others signed as free agents) and the intensity of practices made his transition to the NFL relatively easy, but he soon understood that “24-seven, you were a football player.
“I didn’t think that was possible, because I didn’t think there was that much to talk about,” he says. “C’mon. This is football. You hit the guy a little harder than he hits you and you win the ball game.”
After suffering a broken leg his rookie season, Meade came back to be the Packers’ starting fullback in 1983. But the game took its toll. On Mondays, as he painfully negotiated the steps in his Green Bay apartment, he was convinced he would never be able to play on Sunday. But somehow, he was always ready at game time.
Cut by the Packers, he was picked up by the Lions and played in Detroit for two more years. But a balky knee reduced his speed. He failed to make it through training camp in ’86.
“I had a good time in the NFL, and I had my degree, so it was time to move on to the real world,” he says.
He and Gloria bought a house in Pike Creek. In ’89 they moved to their current home in Dover. Meade has made some investments, started a short-lived sports apparel franchise and, for the past several years, has been a sales consultant. He currently represents advertisinghealthy.com, an advertising service utilizing flat-screen LCD TVs set up in business areas with high foot traffic.
The product of strong, nurturing parents, Meade is a proud father who fills the same role for his kids, helping to coach J.R.’s teams and taking Jasmine on her decisive visit to Brown. A pound or 10 heavier than his playing weight, he does the stair stepper and some circuit training at a local gym, and his arms still bulge out of a short-sleeved shirt. But the only sport he plays now is the occasional round of golf.
In six years the 49-year-old Meade will be eligible for an NFL pension, but he holds no loyalty for the Packers or Lions. He understands that pro ball is strictly business. He does root for Penn State and stays in touch with many teammates, both college and pro.
“I don’t miss the brutality,” he says, “but I do miss the camaraderie.”