Starting Over

“Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.”
-Oliver Wendell Holmes

Andrew Staten thought he was done with football as a college freshman. Twenty years later, he’s just getting started.

For the first time in Andrew Staten’s life, there was no football.

His father had played for Ohio State in the 1960s under the legendary Woody Hayes and then-assistant Bo Schembechler. When it was time to hang up his helmet, he transitioned into a role as a high school coach; Andrew’s older brother Mark played on through college. The Staten household was scheduled around home games, road games, televised games—pro, college, varsity. It may not have been religion, but you could make the argument it was close.

“We’d drive or fly if it was way out of state,” Staten says of his brother’s collegiate career. “Growing up, it was football. Every time there was a game going on, we were going or we were watching.”

Of course, Staten played: defensive tackle beginning in junior high in Dowagiac, Mich. He was, in his words, “heavily recruited” out of high school, but his grades were borderline and the Division I schools got cold feet. When his phone started buzzing with Division II offers, he chose Ferris State, close to family.

At 220 lb, they wanted to put some weight on him. He red-shirted for a year, warming the bench, once again the spectator. Academically, he wasn’t getting into his classes. He lived in the weight room. He was tired. He’d had 19 years of football, in one form or another, and that seemed to be enough.

“After the spring game, I went to the coaches and told them I’d had it,” he says. “And then I went home.”

At first, Staten figured he’d take a semester off and then walk on somewhere else. His father took it easy on him. “You’re an adult, and I can’t make choices for you,” he said. “But you’ve gotta think about this.’”

Staten thought about it. But then he met a girl and wanted to stick around town. He enrolled in a community college for graphic design. A couple of years went by. School was OK, and no one was yelling at him to run faster or get stronger. Then there was the accident.

A Future Crashing

Staten, 21, was the passenger, his girlfriend the driver. They were on one of those country roads that look like they were designed by theme-park engineers, all crests and valleys. A car full of students heading in the opposite direction was going 70 miles an hour, trying to pass a semi. The head-on collision sent Staten through the windshield—no seatbelt laws then—and back again.

“Broke my back,” he says. “Crushed all my ribs. I spent two weeks in intensive care.” He pauses. “It sucked.”

Staten’s constitution was strong enough to grant him a full recovery after a few weeks of bed rest at home. By then he was restless, depressed; the college girlfriend was history, and so was college. One morning, his father told him to put on some nice clothes and find a job.

He went to work welding aluminum for mobile homes. He met another woman, this one marriage material, and moved into road construction.

The Statens had two sons; the marriage lasted 13 years before fizzling out. Staten was unhappy—maybe as unhappy as that first year in college—so he uprooted again and went into farming. By now he was 37, had spent over 15 years in the working world, and started thinking about the road not traveled.

“It’s a tough world out there,” he says, “especially when you don’t have a college degree.”

The hard physical labor didn’t make him rich, but it did keep him in shape. Staten had always been sturdy, but time, blue collar work and a devotion to fitness had built his 6’5” body into an imposing 280 lb of functional muscle. When he went to see his brother—now a coach at Michigan State—a bunch of high school buddies remarked on Staten’s physique and half-joked that he looked like he could still play.

To Staten, it didn’t matter whether they were serious or not. Because he had dropped out his freshman year at Ferris, he was no longer eligible for NCAA play. There were hoops you could jump though, but he was in all likelihood a castoff. You get one shot; Staten had his, and that was that.

Or not. “My brother looks at me and says, ‘There are other ways of playing college football.’ All the years I’ve been around the game, I had never even heard of the NAIA. I’m thinking, OK, get a lawyer, get reinstated, whatever. That was all he said—that there are other ways.”

A Place to Play

A few days after the visit, his brother reached out and said he’d be getting a call in an hour. “Answer the phone when it rings,” he said, and hung up.

An hour later, Staten picked up the phone. It was Jeff Duvendeck, coach for the Culver-Stockton Wildcats, a team based out of an NAIA school in Canton, Mo. Duvendeck had gone to Michigan State with Staten’s brother. Now he was newly installed at Culver-Stockton, a program with a high turnover rate, and needed a defensive tackle—someone with some size. He’d get a full ride. Would Staten be interested?

“Honestly, I didn’t know if my body could handle it,” Staten says. There were other concerns: He shared custody of his two sons with his ex and knew she had no plans to follow him to another state. He told Duvendeck he’d get back to him.

“I had my boys with me all Christmas break,” Staten recalls. “They’re old enough to talk to, so I was talking to them about it, and both of them were, like, ‘You gotta do it, Dad. This is something that doesn’t come around every day.’ It’ll better everyone financially, and it’s something they can look at and say, at any point in your life, you can make a change for the better.”

His ex was moving south; Staten would have his kids for holiday breaks, summer, spring breaks. He told them it wouldn’t be forever. The older you get, Staten says, the faster times goes by.

So he said yes. At 38, he would become a college freshman and a starting tackle for Culver-Stockton.

Feeling the Pain

It’s not the first practice that hurts; it’s the second, when your body realizes that first burst of trauma wasn’t an aberration. “That’s when the pain comes,” Staten says, laughing. “I got a staph infection in my leg, I rolled my ankle. There’s stuff my body had forgotten to do.”

Staten spent the first week getting his feet moving again, firing off the ball on the move, running a 3.5. The players—many 20 years his junior—have him on speed and agility, but they also lack 20 years of building the kind of dense muscle that can knock most any man on his ass.

“I hate to say it, but I’ve got old-man strength,” he says. “I can handle these guys.”

Handle, yes. Outrun or outhustle, maybe not. “I felt out of place as far as, these guys have been playing every fall since they’ve been able to play, and I’ve taken a 20-year vacation. It felt weird strapping up.” (Duvendeck recalls the first time Staten mingled with his teammates. One ran over to him and said, “Coach, who’s the jacked-up dad over there? Where’s his son?”)

Staten knows his freshman year is the warm-up; it’s going to take the offseason to max out his potential. “He jokes about the younger guys being like rubber bands and able to bounce back,” Duvendeck says. “He’s been doing bodybuilding, but that’s different from playing football.”

“Knock on wood, I’ll come in injury-free next season,” says Staten. “I’d like to be more limber. It’ll take time to get the ligaments stronger. I’m taking glucosamine to get the joints not hurting as much.”

Staten’s rebuilding process comes at a time when Culver-Stockton itself is in disrepair. Retention has been a problem: The team is comprised mainly of freshman, with none of the glue or shorthand that comes with athletes spending years in a program together. Duvendeck hopes to change all that, and Staten is part of the equation.

“We’re having a tough season,” says Staten. “It’s a rebuilding program. A lot of guys talk about quitting. I say, ‘Look, this program needs you for two more years.’ You need the seniority on the team. Teams aren’t built off of freshman; they’re built off returning lettermen.”

The 38-Year-Old Frat Boy?

There’s irony in the way Staten sees versions of himself on campus—guys disenfranchised with the effort demanded from them. “I look back at my class at Ferris. Out of 42, only three graduated. I understand there’s a huge dropout rate, but if I can influence even one or two to make the right choice, I’m happy. You’re here for your education. The football is a bonus. It should be the icing on the cake.”

That mentor role comes with a funny contrast. Even as he cautions against the hardships of the working world, Staten sleeps in a fraternity house; and while the idea of being surrounded by 18-year-old women might be attractive to some, Staten is a self-aware man pushing 40. “I’m not into 18 years olds,” he laughs.

Staten’s major this time is in physical education; with a degree, he might get into strength and conditioning, even coaching. He’s taking it a season at a time. Of course, he faced the possibility that he might be a starting college player—a senior—at the age of 42.

“That was our intention, to get him four years and to get his degree,” says Duvendeck, who is nearly five years younger than Staten. “I know he’ll be here for those four years. Whether he transitions to a coach earlier than that, I don’t know. I hope not, because it means he’s been injured. But his physical stature and mind-set to taking on injuries is very good.”

“I’m going to try to do all four,” Staten says. “I could be done in another two years, but I’m going to try and stretch it. I don’t want to leave early. I’d like to prove to myself I can play four years of college football.”

Staten seems content, which is a far cry from the restlessness he experienced as a dropout at 19. “I was very immature coming out of high school. It was all about football. Living in the working world for so many years—it was a different life. In just the short amount of time I’ve been here, I value what’s going on now a thousand times more than I did when I was 18. I worked manual labor, some of the hardest work on this planet. This is going to hopefully put me in a position where I don’t have to hurt myself at work every day.

“Here I am, 38 years old, living in a fraternity house. It’s crazy, but I don’t want to be treated differently. It’s a young staff; I’m quite a bit older than they are. But they know I’ll give them everything I’ve got.”

Photography by Lisa Wigoda