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Hutton: Pay for play: Hard concept for players to grasp

Northwestern quarterback Tim O'Brien has his eye goal line as he closes Rutgers defender Marshall Roberts. O'Brien dived inend zone

Northwestern quarterback Tim O'Brien has his eye on the goal line as he closes in on Rutgers defender Marshall Roberts. O'Brien dived into the end zone for a touchdown, but Rutgers still won 38-27.

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Updated: April 5, 2014 11:42PM



For all the chest-thumping and high-fiving the College Athletes Players Association has done the past 10 days, in the wake of the ruling that allows Northwestern football players to vote on unionization, there is one seemingly quiet but important faction that has largely been ignored.

The current players. They don’t know what to think. Many seem uninterested. They would rather just play. They aren’t activists. They are football players.

Typical kids.

Dave Helding understands the sentiment. He was there, pulling down ball carriers from his defensive tackle position in the late 1980s. He didn’t have a care in the world beyond where his next road trip was and what they were serving at the training table.

Helding has two words for them that will likely resonate in 20 years: Achy knees.

He played at Dyche Stadium when the turf was like asphalt.

He still feels that turf, shooting up his thigh bone 25 years later. He is like one of those old cars that takes a while to get warmed up.

“It takes me 10 minutes of walking before I start to feel good,” he said.

Helding, a 1985 Hobart graduate, was lucky. He didn’t have any surgeries. He hasn’t had any major health issues. He is 46. It’s possible in 10 years he might have to have a knee or hip replaced. It all had its genesis from football. Probably at Northwestern. Maybe from flinging down ball carriers at the Brickie Bowl, which was like concrete on a dry fall day.

Helding is happy the players likely will have a chance to take care of themselves even if they don’t know get it now.

Unionization, if it happens, is a long way from being realized at the college level. Northwestern players are expected to vote on their status on April 25. Northwestern has promised an appeal — something that could take years to sort out.

“I just don’t think they understand the magnitude of what could happen if they get hurt,” Helding said. “Once you leave, you are on your own.”

Helding has a unique view on the situation. He worked in automotive management for 25 years before joining the Operators Union four years ago. He drills holes for a living. It’s a hard job but he gets paid well. And he’ll get a nice pension when he retires.

He believes it is wishful thinking to assume colleges are going to take care of the players who suffer serious injuries. Injuries that could cause them a lifetime of rehabilitation. He compares the NCAA to a big corporation. They have all the leverage.

“It’s all BS until someone makes you do it,” he said. “Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a union to make them do it.”

Tim O’Brien is best friends with Helding. They graduated from Hobart together. Went to Northwestern together. Roomed together. Played football together. He still wears his Northwestern sweatshirts proudly. O’Brien still gets to Hobart games on Friday night. Still works in Hobart as a financial adviser. Still loves the place.

O’Brien is conflicted about the sweeping changes that are looming over his favorite sport. He wants a stipend for the players. He wants them to be protected from a lifetime of injury but he is worried about larger questions, like how could paying players affect competitive balance? Would it help or hurt schools like Northwestern?

Will some schools get swallowed up by the financial burdens that are certain to accompany the shifting nature of the sport? Union or not, no one believes that the NCAA will operate like it does now, in full blown amateur mode, in 10 years.

O’Brien and Helding were two of six players that attended Northwestern that graduated from Hobart in a two-year period: Ted Karras Jr., Tony Karras and Mike and Scott Golarz. They all played football, graduated in four years and ended up with great jobs. It was a wonderful opportunity for all of them.

There were six kids in O’Brien’s family. He never would’ve played at Northwestern if it weren’t for football. Couldn’t afford it. How can you put a price on that?

“I’m forever grateful to Hobart and coach (Don) Howell and Northwestern,” he said.

He understands both sides but he also knows what those kids are feeling now. They just want to go out, put the pads on and hit someone. They were some of the best days of his life. He doesn’t want that to change for a generation of players.

The talk of a union and pay-for-play has muddied up the college ideal for them. It has taken them out of their comfort zone.

No one knows how this is going end up or how it should end up but it will be different eventually. That much is certain.



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