A new college football season began this past weekend for my Oregon State Beavers, and with it, the dawn of a new era for OSU Football — one I’m proud to say I will play a part in for what I hope to be a fruitful future for the program.
The program turned over this offseason, hiring a new head coach Gary Andersen and a new athletic director Todd Stansbury. As this new chapter in Oregon State athletics got underway, especially with Oregon State football, I wanted to make sure that there was a stronger connection between the program, and me and my peers.
Over the last several seasons, I felt that we didn’t really have a strong alumni base in the program as far as former players being involved with the current student athletes. Don’t get me wrong: The program has always been pretty open with me and pretty proud of me, and everyone at Oregon State has been a big part of supporting me throughout the years in my NFL career. But there was a little something missing in terms of the connection with current players.
The new regime has been very receptive to building this relationship and to input from alumni. I give a lot of kudos for that to Coach Andersen. He came over from Wisconsin, and said that he wanted to build that pride in the tradition of Oregon State football right away. And to build that pride, you need some camaraderie like you see around college football when former players vocally represent their school, and go back for visits all the time. The best college programs are well represented in the NFL, and they have former athletes involved with current athletes directly.
It’s important to have that, and I wanted to help build something like that at Oregon State. As former Oregon State football players, we represent the team and the school. We bring the program notoriety. It's important for these young guys to understand that everything we've accomplished in our own careers and our individual lives, it all started at OSU with the foundation that they're now building for themselves.
So I reached out to Coach Andersen and Todd Stansbury after they were hired, and we began building that bridge between the past and the present.
It started in May at a dinner in Las Vegas. We invited all the Beavers alums I could get in touch with, and Coach Andersen and his staff came out, introduced themselves to us and took a round of questions. They described their vision for the program for us, and their new outlook on it. Coach Andersen also extended an open invitation to any guys that wanted to visit during camp, spend time with the players, speak to them about the tradition of the program and just kind of start building that cohesiveness between current athletes and former athletes.
Later, Coach Andersen reached out to me personally and said, "I know there's some uncertainty with the NFL right now, but if things work out, we would love to have you come out and talk to the players, spend the weekend here in Corvallis.”
It sounded like a great idea to me. So a few weeks ago, I headed out to Corvallis, and had a great weekend out there, watching the team, speaking to them and just continuing to build that connection with the program.
It was a really special weekend, because in addition to having me there, Coach Andersen invited fellow running back Ken Simonton, one of my former teammates — he was a senior when I was a freshman coming in — to come visit as well. Another former Beavers running back Yvenson Bernard, who came to OSU right after me to carry on the legacy, and now works for the school as a Discovery Officer and lives in Corvallis, was also there. So it was sort of a running back reunion.
Ken is the all-time leading rusher for Oregon State, and I'm the single-season leading rusher for Oregon State. To have the two of us be the first two former athletes come back, and be able to honor the school’s history at the running back position as we continue to build this relationship, was pretty awesome.
Reconnecting with Ken meant a lot to me as well. I hadn't seen him in years. He was really my first great teammate, the guy who showed me how to be a great teammate and mentor to others. I think about it all the time. People ask about me about me being so open with guys, particularly that I share the backfield with, you know, the Save the Running Back campaign and all that stuff. A lot of that comes from what Ken showed me at a young age.
He was up for the Heisman Trophy at the very beginning of my freshman year. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and shared that cover with Joey Harrington. I remember looking at that Sports Illustrated cover with him in the locker room and he said, "If you trust me and you do everything I say, I'm going to show you how to be successful on this level, and you too may be up for the Heisman one day."
I took that to heart. He showed me how to work out. He showed me how to approach things. And it helped me immensely. So much so that, the very next year, I ran for 1,690 yards. A year later, just two years removed from having that conversation and having someone share with me the insights on how to be successful on a different level, I became a Heisman Trophy candidate as well. He helped set me up for success, and I will always remember that.
We’d stayed in touch since then a little bit via texts here and there. But of course, life takes on its responsibilities and those texts, after years went by, came and went more sparingly. So it was pretty cool to have a full two to three days together to catch up 14 years later. We hadn't spent time like that really since he left school.
While I was in Corvallis for the weekend, I also had the opportunity to really enjoy and appreciate the landscape, the setting and the community in a way that I didn’t when I was in school there.
When you go to college in a new area that is different from where you grew up, you’re so overwhelmed with learning to live on your own and becoming an adult that there are a lot of things you don't get to appreciate until you go through life. Coming from Las Vegas, Nevada, where it was a desert, I didn't really understand the beauty in all the landscapes of Oregon.
Now when I have the chance to go back, without the pressure of being a student athlete and balancing classwork and football, I’m really able to just unwind and enjoy. To just take in all of it during this trip was pretty amazing. I had a chance to visit the Willamette Valley Vineyard and take a private tour there, which I really enjoyed. As a college student, my palate wasn't even mature enough to even consider doing things like that, seeing the region, seeing the state, in a different light.
I also spent plenty of time with the players and coaches there, learning more about the direction of the program now and imparting some of my own wisdom on the student athletes.
I’ve always believed it’s important to preach confidence and instill that in young people, and I think it’s important that they get encouragement from a player's point of view.
My message to the players was to be proud to be a member of the Oregon State Beavers, and play with that honor for their school each and every day. For a very long time, we always prided ourselves on being the underdog, the blue-collar school, especially in the Northwest. But it’s my belief that we have to do away with that underdog mindset, and approach everything we do as members of the Oregon State football program from a more confident place.
Coach Andersen and his staff are big believers in that as well. My first impression of Coach Andersen is that he is a man who will not stand for counting yourself short by any means. It extends down to his recruiting. He’s not the type to say, "I can't recruit this athlete," or "It's okay. This is a building process. We are years away from getting the program where he wants it to be."
He wants to win, and he wants to win now.
I got a great sense that he's a player’s coach. He understands when to push guys, and when to back off and give guys a break to enjoy themselves and unwind. It’s very important that guys not only work hard on the field, but guys get to know each other off the field as well, and I think he gets all that.
Allowing players like me and Ken Simonton to come back and speak to the players — given that our relationship with him is so new — showed a lot of trust, and I really appreciate that. He knows that as veteran athletes and players, we get it, and we can convey that message to the guys who are going through it right now.
The mentality we had in the early 2000s was that we saw a brighter future for the program, and saw the program beginning to grow, but we knew we had to work hard for it. But now these guys see the nice facilities and nice amenities, things that we didn’t have at the time, right in front of them. It’s all right there for them to utilize. So like anything, you don't want people to become complacent or lax, and take things for granted. A lot of people before them worked hard so that they could have those things, and we want them to do the same for the next generation.
We are a very talented program. The standard has been set since the 2000 Fiesta Bowl team from Oregon State. There are going to be some trying times and tough games. You're going to make mistakes. But the one thing we all prided ourselves on in the early 2000s was that we were going to be tough and physical, and when any team played the Oregon State Beavers, they knew that they were in a fight.
To do that, you have to have a sense of pride and confidence initially. When you come in as an underdog, you're coming in with the mentality that, "If we don't win, it's okay because no one expects us to win." But now we need to have the mindset of, "We're absolutely going to go out and compete, and we expect to win."
I’m so glad the lines of communication with the program and the school are more open for me now. One of the best things about that has been coming to realize that a lot of the things I value fall in line with the beliefs of the people at the forefront of the program now.
I really enjoyed talking to Todd Stansbury about the bright future of Oregon State athletics as a whole. Todd is in his second stint at Oregon State, now as athletic director. It’s great that the administration brought back someone who is so familiar with the school and the department. Because Todd knows the landscape of Oregon State, he knows the right people to get in touch with. He knows the culture and the people there, and he doesn't have to reinvent the wheel to get people on board with his ideas. Many of the ideas in place now are ones that he helped come up with initially.
The football program and athletics department have changed by leaps and bounds since I was at Oregon State. The facilities there are amazing and state of the art, and they're still in the process of building more. I think now, in this new day and age, you have to have great facilities to allow athletes to maximize their potential, on and off the field.
A lot of new buildings have popped up around campus over the last several years. They’ve opened eight new schools, one being the School of Business, so it’s a burgeoning atmosphere. Fifteen years ago, the campus was a lot more open and spread out, with a few buildings here and there and a lot of open fields. But now, it's almost like every inch of space has been maximized and built on to attract students, regionally, nationally and internationally, and it all is more appealing to student athletes as well.
Each sport is experiencing growth and success — not just football. We have a pretty impressive roster of coaches now at Oregon State who all believe in the same values. We’re talking about really breeding the mentality of believing in oneself and being a good teammate, breeding a champion.
Todd and I talked about being an "everyday champion," which is something he really believes in. That involves teaching student athletes how to be successful day in and day out, and how that will transition into them being successful not only in their respective sports, but also post-college in their careers.
One of the things that really peaked my interest was a program at the school called "Beavers Without Borders." As part of that program, Oregon State sends sends students to Third World countries to lend a hand and learn. That’s one of those things that kind of touched me personally, especially because I love to travel. It’s a mutually beneficial program because the students are able to help out and learn about culture, and they’re also expanding the Oregon State brand globally.
The fact that the administration at Oregon State supports a lot of the same initiatives that I do makes the conversations we have go a lot more smoothly. Ideas can be thrown around a lot more freely. All these things allow for me to be in tune with the university and the student body, and that's pretty cool. There are so many bright young minds there, and you never know who on campus needs that extra push to be great.
College is an important part of all our lives. When young people go to college, that’s often where they find their lifelong friends. Oregon State is a relatively small school, in a small town. That’s the mindframe of the people who look at it from the outside. But the way we look at ourselves is much greater than that, and that makes for an exciting future.
BUILDING THE BRIDGE
I still keep in touch with a number of my old Oregon State teammates — ones who are in the NFL as well as ones who are pursuing their own careers. I’ve reached out to them to let them know, "This is where the new regime for Oregon State athletics is headed, and they want us to be a part of it."
I think now that the school has reached out to us and asked us to be a lasting part of the program, it’s on me and my fellow Oregon State Football alums to be as involved as we can be. Personally, I will definitely continue to be the mouthpiece and the spearhead of this, to make sure that former athletes and current athletes are able to connect with one another, and current and future Beavers are able to get sound advice from the guys who helped build the program to what it is today.
Having a direct line to Todd Stansbury and Coach Andersen definitely helps get the ball rolling more quickly in the direction we all want it to go in. You don't have to worry about third parties, and things being filtered in and out of conversations.
It’s all about building that bridge. Sometimes coaches and administrators don't understand the mindset of the athlete, and sometimes, student athletes only see their own ambitions and what they're trying to get out of college and their experience there. Part of my role as an alum is to get everybody to see the bigger picture of how we could both help each other. Being someone who has gone through the process and been successful, it allows for the conversation to be way more open than probably it would be.
It also allows me to be truly excited about the future of Oregon State football.
The 2015 team is one with a lot of young talent and they have a lot of opportunity for guys to grow and get better.
I think having guys like myself and Ken Simonton around this summer will prove beneficial for them. It showed them that they’re not just representing themselves as those players in that locker room, or even just all the students, faculty and staff at the school in 2015. There are people across the country who are going to be watching and supporting them. Any time you know you have that kind of support, it makes you dedicate yourself and work even harder, because you know if you don’t, you're not only letting down yourself, but you're letting down a lot of people who all have shared this walk. That’s important and it breeds confidence on both sides that the school and the football program can do big things.
I think that we all collectively have to say that we're no longer second tier.
We're a first class program, and we expect to be champions.