JUST a few days ago, it looked as though they might be bound for glory; but now they're headed back to the real world. For many of the college-educated football players who for three weeks tried to fill the shoes of men like Walter Payton and Dan Marino, the ``real world'' means jobs as security guards, bouncers, cargo handlers - or, simply, unemployment.
It's a world, many observers say, which their academic careers never prepared them to face.
Before the National Football League strike crumbled around them, the replacement players talked freely about holding onto the dream of a full season in the league. Maybe even more. Their hopes were fueled by union threats to stay out for the duration of the season. For some, the hope still lingers: At this writing, the NFL was still considering expanding the team rosters. (Strike wrap-up story, Page 6.)
But for most of these athletes, the strike that suddenly lifted them out of often stopgap jobs has just as suddenly dumped them back into their old lives and the same questions they have lived with forever.
Do I give up the dream and get my life going, or do I keep putting things on hold and hope for the next training camp? Is there life after football?
The questions can be painful. Especially when an athlete has spent his academic life preparing for professional football - often at the expense of every other life-building endeavor - and then had to face the ugly truth that the league just didn't want him.
``It was tough,'' tight end Brian Glasgow recalled, sitting in the locker room at Soldier Field, after he helped the replacement Chicago Bears rout the Minnesota Vikings. ``I didn't talk about it too much. I didn't watch many games on television.''
Glasgow had been cut from the Bears' training camp in 1983 and played with the now-inactive USFL's Chicago Blitz in 1984. But while his career path may differ from that of many other players, the underlying crisis he faced is known to most of them. ``We all face reality: It's going to end sooner or later,'' said replacement Bear cornerback Steve Trimble, toweling off after a shower.
Facing reality may, in fact, be the one thing many of these players cannot do. Gifted athletes like Glasgow are ``trained not to think about tomorrow and what they would do without sports,'' says Keith Lee, associate director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, which helps professional athletes adjust to life after sports.
``The great majority of their lives have been geared to succeeding in sports,'' he continues. ``It really starts in youth sports, when, often unconsciously, they are taught that to think you are not going to always be on the team is to think negatively.''
It's the same story in college. ``When they come in here as freshmen,'' says Ron R. Koger, director of admissions at Indiana State University, ``they don't do anything for themselves. Usually, they don't even have to go through registration. Some coach does it for them. ... They never really learn to cope with college, so it's no surprise when they don't know how to cope with life.''
The result, observes Gregg Burke, assistant athletic director at Providence State College, is that colleges turn out graduates ``who are qualified to do little more than park cars. The system encourages this to happen.''
What happens, for instance, when an athlete like University of Miami star quarterback Vinny Testaverde (now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), attends the university for five years and winds up at least a couple of dozen credits short of a degree?
``The bottom line is that not every kid who wants to play college ball wants to go to college,'' answers the University of Kentucky's assistant athletics director, Bob Bradley, who is also president-elect of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics.
Part of the solution has come, Bradley feels, in such rules as one recently adopted by the National Collegiate Athletics Association that requires students to make demonstrated progress toward a degree. But he by no means considers the problems solved. ``It's a system you're fighting. So many people have to protect their niche; and that niche is usually attached to money. After all, the NCAA is a bottom-line organization.''
According to many critics, money, and the pursuit of it by college administrators, lead to exploitation of student athletes. ``Basically, I believe we use these kids,'' says Koger. ``It makes the trustees happy; it makes the alumni happy; and the heck with the kid.'' The ``kid'' is, of course, a young adult preparing for life. Do all the years he spends in school contribute much to that life?
``A lot of kids may not graduate,'' observes Richard Dalrymple, sports information director at the University of Miami. ``But they're better off because they participated in college football.''
Dalrymple and other observers point out that these players at least got exposed to college courses. They learned the discipline and team spirit of a highly competitive sport. And some of them even got a grab at the brass ring, a chance to make it in the NFL.
He wouldn't get much argument from most replacement players.
``I know guys who would give their right leg to try out for the NFL,'' Denver Broncos replacement player Joe Dudek commented over the phone from his hotel room, where he was icing down his leg after a practice.
``A lot of guys wait till they're 26 or 27 and keep following that dream. And you really can't get on with your life. You're not ready for the real world yet. You just want to stay in shape, go from day to day, waiting for that next training camp.''
There probably won't be any ``next training camp'' for tight end Sam Bowers, who quit his job as a courier for Federal Express when it seemed the strike might hold. ``I'll be 30 in December,'' he said, sitting in the locker room at Soldier Field. ``I've got a family to support, and you do what you have to do. Maybe you have to lower your standards. But you've got to make a few bucks.''
Such choices seemed distant moments earlier, when he stood on the field in front of 32,000 fans.
Down on that field, with 1:55 left to play, cheers swept back and forth across the stadium. In the bright sun, with the band playing, it's the same old glory. High school, college, pro. Something everybody understands. Winning and losing. And who knows about tomorrow?