A Georgia Southern University football walk on, Austin had the rug ripped out from under him when he arrived at a meeting after his third season, only to hear that he was being cut from the team. Devastated, he threw himself into working on campus with other sport programs, as well as eventually interning for the PGA Tour. Once he realized it was time to move on from athletics as a career, he went back to finish his degree, worked his way up in Chick-fil-A, met his wife, and landed in insurance.
Where are you from, and when did you start playing football?
I’m from the south side of Atlanta, GA in Fayetteville. I grew up playing soccer from age six to 15. Right about middle school I hit a growth spurt (my best friend and I were always the tallest kids in class). I kept pushing people down and stepping on people in soccer and fouling out without even trying. It was just a given I was going to get a yellow card every game. So I was looking for an outlet. My dad played college football in Arkansas, so I thought I would try it. But he said, “You can’t play unless you can do 100 push ups and 100 sit ups for every day for three months.” I did it, so I started playing football in middle school and loved it.
How did you end up at Georgia Southern University?
I didn’t have a great high school experience. I wasn’t highly recruited or decorated or offered a scholarship. I got in trouble my senior year, and to get out of having to go home to being grounded the last half of the year, I said I would join track. So in high school I played soccer, football, and then track senior year. If you run every day, you get better at it. I got really fast, and so I decided to try walking on at Georgia Southern University. There were a couple kids from rival high schools on the team, plus my high school head coach’s son had been recruited there. Because those people knew me, I had a little bit of an edge walking on. I made the team, and played for three years. I redshirted my freshman year, played the second year, was hurt my third year, and then cut after that third season.
What was it like to walk on and redshirt?
I always loved practice. I may be one of the only people ever to practice football and love it. I figured I would get better each time. I understood if the worst kid improves, we all improve. I’ve always bought into that concept, so it was easy just to go to practice. After my first year I received the Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year award. Only one signee received a Scout Player of the Year award for special teams, and another walk on received the offensive award. We earned those awards because we went hard every day, even though there were 30 signed recruits on the team. There were only two things that stuck out to me being a walk on and under classman. First, we had a not-so-great physical trainer who treated walk ons differently, which was frustrating. He would outright verbalize it. Second, I was pleasantly surprised that as an under classman that I was never hazed. The worst thing was all the freshmen had their heads shaved.
It sounds like your second year was your year. How did that go?
I was reminiscing with a friend recently and told him that in my second year I got to “start on the field goal team.” When you’re a walk on, you tell yourself anything that helps, and you hang onto it for dear life so people forget you’re a walk on. The most exciting thing for me was catching a two-point conversion. I didn’t play much on the defensive end. But I was on the field goal team, so I got to travel. We had a Walter Payton Award winner on our team, so it was fun being around him. Instead of 3-8 like my redshirt season, we went 7-5 and barely missed playoffs.
How did you get injured your third year?
Two weeks prior to season starting, I pushed off my ankle in a play and felt a sharp pain. I knew it was damaged. I wasn’t screaming in pain, like someone who tears an ACL, so I was hopeful. We were hoping with rest and ice it would heal in a couple weeks. They had to do an MRI, which revealed two torn tendons on the outside of my ankle. Surgery was scheduled and I was out for four to six weeks – I didn’t even report to school. Within that time I kind of lost contact with the team. I don’t remember getting a call from a coach, or really anyone asking how I was doing. The message I remember receiving was to just take care of my grades and come back when I was healthy. Ankle injuries like that take a year to heal. I was non-weight bearing for three months, so I was scooting through campus on a scooter. At the end of the year when the season was over, we had a meeting before dismissing for Christmas. I went to meet with the coach and he said, “This meeting is not for you.” He said I needed to go see the head coach the next day. That moment I walked out of the room and collapsed into a ball of fear and puddle of tears. To date, that was the emotional moment of my life. There was really no other traumatizing event in my life. A roommate passed away a few years before, but we weren’t close. Having football ripped out from under me was the hardest departure from what I knew.
What happened when you went to meet with the head coach?
He wasn’t remorseful — he just wanted me gone. He said he was doing me a favor by letting me go before Christmas, so if I wanted to transfer I could. That was his second year as head coach at GSU, and he was known for bringing in a lot of junior college players instead of signees. He brought in some poorly behaved students who were busted for pot during the season. It left a bad taste in my mouth that I was cut even though I stayed clean and kept up with my classes, and they played on regardless.
Was it difficult remaining on campus, not being part of the team any more?
Because the coaches MO was to bring in junior college athletes, I didn’t even recognize the next couple of teams. I didn’t go to games. He was fired at the end of his third year. So I decided to try to walk back on. I had gotten strong, but lost speed, so I did not make the team. After I didn’t make that cut, I was 260 pounds when lifting and running, but I had dropped 20-30 pounds in six months without trying. One very eye-opening day was when I realized you only have to eat three meals per day. I had never done that. I was eating four to five meals per day since I was in middle school. I remember thinking that was weird. Any way, that second coach took all the signees in my class away, so I didn’t even recognize the guys out there when I turned out. My network had already disappeared by the time I tried to walk back on.
Did anyone help you through this tough part of your transition?
There was not someone to handle the transition. It was too small of a school to help with that. I called my dad. I don’t remember everything he said, but he said not to burn my bridge with the coach, because you never know. I also got a call from a guy who was basically my second dad. He said, “Austin, I had a final day playing football in high school. You know Jerry Rice? Jerry Rice will have a last day playing as well. Someday he will hang up his cleats. Sometimes it’s on your terms, sometimes it’s not. You’ll be ok.” That helped ground me. I got another phone call from my brother who previously left football as well. He said, “Well, now you have to get a job like the rest of us do – so you may want to get to work on that.”
How did you figure out what you wanted to do?
Georgia Southern was a small school when I was there. There was a lot of professor interaction with students and out-of-class help. I leaned heavily on them and their advice. I have a sheet of paper called “The Strategy to Securing a Career in Sport.” I went undeclared for awhile. Right about the time I got cut I needed to declare a major, so I decided to try the sport thing out. I really like it — or at least I thought I did. I studied sport management, started getting some experience in working with golf, NASCAR, college athletics, minor league baseball, community and rec sports, as well as turf management. Eventually I did an internship in my fifth year and lived in Washington, DC. I remember going to Library of Congress. I had never been in a facility where learning was so revered and paramount. Georgia Southern began as a teachers college so it wasn’t known for its education system or robust alumni base. So when I got there, I decided I ought to read more, and it kick started the creative juices into the healthy part of my life. The internship itself was with THE PGA TOUR in Maryland, and it was huge. THE TOUR was a big machine, and I felt lost. It was a massive production. They do good work, but it wasn’t for me, so I pivoted to a different career.
How did you decide on your next career path?
I messed up the registration for graduation and needed a couple more classes. I had to go back after my internship to finish. The internship was weird in that it was mid-summer to mid-fall, which doesn’t follow the academic calendar. I got back in early part of November and classes didn’t start until January. I needed something to do for three months, so I got a job working as marketing assistant for Chick-fil-A. I stayed there for six years. Marketing assistant turned into front counter, which turned into learning to run a restaurant, growing sales, corporate training — it was a lot of fun. At the end of that, they told me “no” to being an owner/operator, which was common when applying. There are 100 spots in the program, and there are about 12,000 applicants every year. I made it through a couple interviews, but didn’t interview well. I won’t be going back, it’s not a good fit for me now.
That experience made me realize I wanted to do something sales or ownership related. My dad had been in insurance his whole career minus a few years coaching and teaching. He was at every sporting event for me, so his flexibility was attractive to me. I tried working with him, then a little insurance firm, and then after that I got engaged. I thought we could do it long distance and that did not work. As soon as Haley moved to California for a teaching job at Pepperdine I realized I needed to be near her, so I resigned and got a job in Southern California continuing my commercial insurance career. I joke with her that she got a job, house, graduated with her doctorate, and got engaged all in eight days. She had just gotten a house in California, flew back to Atlanta to walk for her doctorate, and I popped the question two days later.
How are you feeling now?
There is not a football player who doesn’t ache to some degree every day. I can confidently give that blanket statement. I’ve separated both shoulders, sprained my MCL, had back surgery for a herniated disc, and have had five recorded concussions, among other things. Of everything, the concussions make me the most nervous. Second is my back. I had the back surgery in 2010 – then two years ago I thought I would try power cleaning again. I felt good at low weight, but then I wanted to see how much I could do. I re-herniated the previous back injury. I got some cortisone injections and have been OK since then. The ankle doesn’t really bother me now. My shoulder bothers me when reaching and trying to swim.
Do the injuries prevent you from being active?
I’m still very active. I climbed Mount Rainier this past summer. I didn’t realize that people don’t train intensely for stuff like that. The closer I got, the more determined I was to not miss the summit due to poor conditioning. I did a lot with treadmill work with weight on my back. The thing I did the most was three separate 12-13 hour days with weight on my back up a mountain in Southern California, with way more weight than I knew I would be carrying on Rainier. I took 50-60 pounds with me on those hikes, while on summit day I was carrying maybe 20 pounds. I knew I may not be the first to reach the top, but I wasn’t going to be the last. It was a really big group that climbed up at the same time: six guides, two groups of nine, and maybe only nine people summited. Three people dropped out of my group, six from the other. It was a really thin summit team. I’ve also done Spartan races, 5ks, sprint triathlons and half marathons. I’ve never done a swimming competition, as my shoulder kept bothering me. I also play golf. If someone invites me to do something, I usually say yes. I’m wired for the thrill.
How do you define success, and do you consider yourself successful?
I like Coach John Wooden’s take, “The definition of success is where you have done the best to prepare to be at your best when the best is required of you.” When you are ready in the moment and do the best you can, that’s it. Everyone wants to win, most don’t. I do consider myself successful. Would I like more opportunities to win? Sure. But those aren’t my mark. I have an internal purpose as a Christian, and doing right by my family is more important than sport or professional accolades. I would rather be a better husband than great insurance salesman.