Concussions have been a heated topic in the football world lately, something that many coaches try to avoid, so it was no surprise that it was the first thing brought up during the TCA panel for the Netflix docuseries Last Chance U.
“It’s something that we have to address everyday,” said Buddy Stephens, coach of the East Mississippi Community College Lions. “You have to constantly monitor the players and the hits that they take to the head. It’s hard to get a lot of these guys to understand the difference between hurt and injured, especially when you’re dealing with concussions. It’s a fine line that you have to walk, and you don’t want to go somewhere that you don’t need to.”
Inspired by a GQ article, the series follows a group of young EMCC players who aspire to be recruited by a Division I college or NFL team. The men not only are pushed to work hard on the field but also are driven to excel academically, which often proves challenging for the administration. “To get them to play football is easy,” Stephens said “They all want to play football; none of them want to go to class.”
Brittany Wagner, academic adviser to the players, does anything she can to keep the guys focused. She stresses that “learning life skills” is just as important as winning games. “You better have a plan because at some point it’s is going to end.”
Another big lesson the staff tries to instill is how to deal with adversity, something the coach struggled with. “[I went through a tremendous amount of adversity, and I didn’t handle it well.” He reflected that seeing himself onscreen was life-changing. “I watched all the series, and I didn’t like the person I was,” he admitted. “This is the biggest thing that ever happened to me in my life because I had the opportunity to make a change.”
Still, it all comes back to the students. “I think that what we do differently is that we have devoted positions specially to the academic success of the athletes,” Wagner said of EMCC’s program. “We balance it out. We do not use our players to win ballgames. They come to our institution, and although football is important and we win, it’s very balanced. There is a big focus on their academic performance. … We put our money where our mouth is.”
Director Greg Whiteley praised the efforts of Stephens and the administration. “They move heaven and Earth to make things happened and sometimes it works.”
And indeed it does. The program has seen many of their player go on to play for division 1 leagues and NFL teams. “Anytime you pour your hart and soul into a job” Wagner emotionally expressed “It’s the greatest reward to see you had a hand in the individual’s success.”
Last Chance U starts streaming July 29 on Netflix.