|Sunday, January 7
Updated: January 8, 9:24 PM ET
Insurance keeps some players from leaving for NFL
By Darren Rovell
It's 27-17 with 2:10 left in the game. A defensive stop for Indiana gives the Hoosiers a homecoming victory over Northwestern in the middle of the 1999 season.
Northwestern quarterback Zak Kustok drops back to pass from the Wildcats' 48. Indiana's Adewale Ogunleye comes from the left side on a pass rush. Kustok gets rid of the ball as the pocket collapses around him. It's picked off in the Indiana secondary. The Memorial Stadium crowd cheers. Then comes the silence.
There's something wrong. It's Ogunleye. A preseason All-America defensive end and projected first-round NFL draft pick in 1998 who had come back for his senior season is down on the ground holding his left knee. Indiana linebackers Devin Schaffer and Justin Smith reach for Ogunleye's hands to pull him up. "Nah fellas, this time I'm done," Ogunleye weakly told them. "I can just tell."
After about eight minutes, the man nicknamed "Wally" is brought off the field and into the locker room. He gets on to the table where the doctor injects him with a pain killer. "Wow, I was pissed," he said, more than a year later. "But I ran through my options really quickly. If I didn't sign that deal I probably would have jumped off a six-story building."
The "deal" is a $1 million insurance policy Ogunleye took out before he played spring ball that season. With millions of dollars waiting for Ogunleye in the NFL, Indiana coach Cam Cameron urged his star player to look into buying insurance against a career-ending injury.
Today, about 90 percent of potential NFL draft picks projected for selection in the first three rounds take out insurance policies, according to Mark Idelson of ASU International LLC, the administrator the NCAA's Exceptional Student-Athlete insurance policy program. The recent jump in the number of insured athletes is "a function of the numbers going through the roof and the stakes getting higher, not a function of more and more players getting hurt," Idelson said.
With some high-profile student athletes deciding to stay at school this week, insurance is definitely high on their checklist.
"College football is a business in itself, and the demands and rigors are similar to professional football," said Angelo Wright, Ogunleye's agent. "You have to protect your ways of earning revenue in the future, aside from earning your college degree. In fact, salaries are so high now that you can't get enough insurance if you are going to get top-pick money."
The NCAA Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance program, which has been in place since 1990, will provide a loan to any athlete projected to be taken in the first three rounds by NCAA-hired talent evaluators. The program keeps some from leaving early and covers juniors and seniors, and sometimes even exceptional sophomores. Fifty to 65 college football players each year are under the NCAA's program, according to Marla Gleason, operations manager for the NCAA.
Future NFL draft picks also can decide to select with an independent insurance policy, usually recommended to them by a school official. Independent premiums average $10,000 per $1 million policy, while the NCAA premiums are slightly lower at about $8,000.
Coverage on both the NCAA's policy as well as the independent insurance policy is for any injury or illness, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except for exclusions involving previous conditions.
"Top guys coming out are making $11 million to $13 million signing bonuses, so going down with a career-ending injury is a big loss," said Jim Shaaf, former general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs who has been an insurance agent since 1989.
That's why when an athlete decides to come back for one more year, it often means sitting down and talking to the bank. While quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tim Couch reportedly had $5 million policies backing them for their senior seasons, both signed signing bonuses of over $10 million as top picks in the NFL's 1998 and '99 drafts.
But Michael Hairston, portfolio manager of the pro sports division at Firstar Bank, said top athletes can take out bigger insurance policies.
"A guy like Drew Brees at the beginning of this season was the No. 1 college player in America, so he probably could have gotten whatever he wanted," Hairston said. "If he put down a $100,000 premium, he probably could have had a $20 million policy."
How does a college football player with no job -- not counting football -- come up with $8,000-$10,000 and sometimes more? Banks, like Firstar, that specialize in pro sports lending give the athlete a loan based on the projected value of his first contract. It's an extremely risky business for the banks -- lending to someone who has very little net worth -- but that's why there are only a handful that are willing to cover student-athletes.
For top-notch players like quarterbacks Drew Henson of Michigan and Michael Vick of Virginia Tech, the NCAA also offers a loss-of-value insurance option. If either quarterback were to suffer an injury next season and dropped to a third-round pick, the loss-of-value policy would pick up the difference in the total value of their contracts.
ASU International LLC would not confirm which players were part of the program, though Vick reportedly had taken out a $1 million policy for the 2000 season.
Ed Chester, former defensive tackle for Florida, collected on a tax-free $1 million insurance policy last year. A 1997 AP third-team All-American and projected first-round draft pick after his junior season, Chester decided to come back for a shot at a second national championship.
"In the spring, I didn't think much of insurance," said Chester, who now works at the Boys and Girls Club in Gainesville. "I had the forms in front of me, but I kept putting it off. In the summer, they kept telling me to sign it, so I finally did."
Good thing. On the first defensive play against LSU during the 1998 season, Chester sustained a serious knee injury. At one point, doctors told Chester that they might have to amputate his leg because of the extensive nerve damage.
"I was in the hospital and after the game everyone came up to see me," Chester recalled. "As everyone was walking away my roommate, Deac Story, whispered right in my ear, 'Hey man, you signed that insurance policy, so you're all right.' I didn't even think about it. And then we laughed and laughed and laughed, and no one had any idea of why we would be laughing."
As for Ogunleye, he isn't thinking about collecting just yet. He signed a free agent by the Miami Dolphins after not getting picked in the 2000 NFL draft, and was put on physically unable to perform list. And while he can still collect on the policy if he doesn't pass the team's physical and is forced to retire, Wally would still give up his million to play in the NFL.
"I like to let my play dictate how people receive me and I haven't been able to do that yet," he said. "But I'm very optimistic about my future and I have confidence in my ability."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.