March Madness has seized the nation, and Creighton University in Omaha is relishing the glory bestowed upon basketball phenom Doug McDermott, the classy young man who is not only a standout player, but also arguably everything that is right with college athletics. At tournament time, the focus is often on the stars who will go on to professional sports careers. But what about the majority of players whose basketball careers will end in March?
According to NCAA statistics, less than 2 percent of men’s college basketball players will play professionally after college. Chris Rodgers, director of Community/Government Relations at Creighton University, is an example of how important it is for young athletes to choose the right school, and to stay in school.
Rodgers grew up in the rough and tumble East St. Louis community where, in the late 1980’s, he played on a state champion high school team and was named an honorable mention McDonald’s All-American. “My high school was known as a basketball school,” he said. “I saw a lot of players that got recruited to play at colleges, only to come back after a year or so because they’d flunked out.” His parents, particularly his mother, told him he could play anywhere, but needed to be prepared for life after basketball. “I needed to know that there was a safety net. That if I worked hard and did my part, the school would do its part to help me succeed academically,” Rodgers said. “Creighton was the one school that talked to me about small classes and weekly academic meetings to monitor progress.”
At Creighton, Rodgers was a member of two Missouri Valley Conference championship and NCAA qualifying teams in 1989 and 1991, playing with the “dynamic duo” that included Valley Hall of Famer Bob Harstad and Chad Gallagher, as well as Latrelle Wrightsell and Duan Cole. Like so many athletes, he dreamed of the NBA. But a kneecap injury ended that dream, and Rodgers admits he went into “a bit of a depression.”
Even though he was glad to be part of a team that continued winning, he considered transferring, hoping to keep the dream of playing again alive. But he remembered his mother’s admonition to get a good education because it would pay off. So he continued going to class at Creighton.
Creighton faculty and staff at all levels encouraged him, including now retired vice president George Grieb, and John Pierce, who headed the university’s affirmative action initiatives. Rodgers graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and later returned to complete his MBA at Creighton. After experience at the Omaha Small Business Network and as director of Community Outreach for United Way, Rodgers found his passion in politics, winning a seat on Omaha’s Metropolitan Community College Board in 2000 by 10 points, and joining then mayor Mike Fahey’s staff. He was elected twice as a Douglas County Commissioner and became president of the National Association of Counties (NACo).
As NACo president, he brought national attention to the issues of smart justice and cybersecurity. As a Douglas County commissioner, Rodgers has worked hard to bring reform to the juvenile justice system. “I entered politics about the time I had my first child,” Rodgers, who with his wife Sharlon has two sons, said. “I knew that in my district in Omaha there was a disproportionate number of minorities in the system,” he said. “We are spending too much money incarcerating low risk offenders, and not enough on rehabilitation and addressing the issues of education, family problems and the drug and gang culture.”
Rodgers’ life is a reflection of Creighton University’s commitment to educate graduates who actively work for justice and the betterment of society. Besides efforts to reform the juvenile justice system, he has been involved in Omaha’s violence prevention programs and has worked with the Douglas County Health Department to improve access to healthy foods for adults and children in his north Omaha district. He continues to be engaged with the Omaha community as a whole through the Omaha Sports Commission, Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, Heartland Workforce Solutions, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and Charles Drew Health Center Board of Directors.
His advice for college athletes? “College sports can be all-consuming, but don’t isolate yourself in the gym.” Rodgers said. “Take advantage of the opportunities to engage with the campus and build relationships that continue to be important to you throughout your life.”
That’s part of what drew him back to Creighton two years ago. As it turns out, Mom was right, that four-year degree is important, and it will pay off. And it’s important to remember that there is life after basketball.