Junior Colleges Offer Another Athletic Chance

These college athletes play football before crowds smaller than those they saw in high school. Their low-budget operations offer no athletic scholarships and they travel by bus. Hardly anyone knows their names. One team in Arizona even calls itself the Fighting Artichokes. Yet, as the most successful teams in college football square off in this season’s bowl games, many of these athletes will have made their way onto the rosters of champions en route to basking in gridiron glory.

Each year, junior college programs across the country help to turn dozens of athletes into upper-division football players, some of whom will become stars, such as top NFL quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton. Junior colleges, or JUCOs, give athletes up to two years to compete, and to earn an associate’s degree. For many, this opportunity makes possible the transition from high school to a four-year college program.

At Central Lakes College in Brainerd, head coach Greg Medeck strives to give athletes a

“rewarding football experience while creating an educational experience of great value.”

He points out that the annual tuition at Central Lakes is “right around $5,000, or $189 per credit, and that the transferability of credits to four-year colleges in Minnesota is nearly flawless.”

Central Lakes plays in the 12-team Minnesota College Athletic Conference, with schools dotting the state from Ely to Rochester, and includes two North Dakota colleges as well. Last season, Coach Medeck led the Raiders to an 8-3 record.

JUCO players typically believe that coaches of four-year schools overlooked them in high school. Recruiters passed on them. Some athletes had poor grades; others felt they had to add size and strength. Many needed to improve both academically and athletically.

Medeck said that “anyone who completes a two-year program at Central Lakes is prepared to play football at the next level, if that is what he wants to do.” Most of his athletes who go on to play at four-year colleges do so at the Division II or Division III levels, although a handful go on to play Division I ball. Some, having obtained their two-year degrees, choose to enter the work force. Among the most popular courses of study are law enforcement, natural resources, welding and robotics.

After one JUCO season at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, former Edina athlete Chase Nelson transferred to the University of Toledo, where he earned a football scholarship. Coming out of Edina High School, Nelson felt he could play Division I football, but he had no offers.

Nelson’s year as a JUCO player gave him the chance “to get a better look,” or showcase his size and talents as an offensive lineman to a nationwide range of Division I coaches. Toledo was one of several Division I programs to offer him a scholarship.

“It helped me a lot,” said Nelson of his JUCO experience, and led to his appreciating the perks that big-time college athletes sometimes take for granted. It also led to his playing last January in the GoDaddy Bowl before nearly 37,000 spectators, about 30,000 more people than the whole population of Wahpeton.