College athletes enjoy family life

Published 5:24 am Sunday, March 4, 2007

When Oregon State wrestler Jeremy Larson wins a match, he skips a chance to go out with the boys.

Instead, he heads home to tuck in his toddler.

“Sometimes I stop and say, ’Hey, this is pretty crazy,”’ Larson said. “But most of the time I stay pretty busy and just keep after things.”

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Most college players hold down the equivalent of two jobs — student and athlete. Add in the role of involved parent, and every day can become an endless string of dirty diapers, classes, homework and practice.

For Larson, a senior ranked 17th in his weight class, college life revolves around 10-month-old Benjamin.

“We do stick out like a sore thumb,” said Larson’s wife, Lisa. “But I don’t think either one of us minds it.”

The odds are against athlete parents. Some find themselves torn between sports and school, or sneaking a day off to spend time with a precious little one.

If baby’s up at 3 the morning of the big game, so is the star quarterback or point guard.

Jackson State guard Trey Johnson counts himself as a lucky man. His girlfriend, Marguerite Sims, has made his life a lot easier as he pursues the national scoring title, his degree and a career in the NBA.

On most nights before games, Sims answers the baby’s call for attention and leaves the senior to rest up.

“I’m just the assistant,” Johnson said.

Still, newborn Cynia Felice has already figured out how to manipulate her dad.

“She’s spoiled, I guess you could say,” the 22-year-old Johnson said with a smile. “She’ll cry for no reason. I could be just done feeding her and she’ll start crying and you wonder what she wants.

“I just pick her up and walk around with her and she’ll stop crying. Then as soon as you sit her down, she starts crying again,” he said.

Colorado coach Dan Hawkins has watched quarterback Bernard Jackson, who has a 2-year-old son, try to excel in all three areas.

“It’s extremely difficult,” Hawkins said. “We have a few other guys that are parents as well. You know, shoot, it’s hard enough to juggle football and school, then you’ve got to juggle parenthood in there.”

Jackson is fine with that.

“It’s become very humbling for myself,” he said. “I don’t do the things that most college students would do. It’s matured me a lot. I enjoy every minute of it. I wouldn’t ask for any other situation. This is my life.”

Becky Mehring understands. The UCLA volleyball player gets only a short break between classes, practices and matches. When she does, the junior finds herself drawn home to son Mason.

“He’s so much fun,” she said. “He walks now and says some words and he’s just like a ball of energy. And he is just so happy.

“When I get to come home for two hours, it just makes your day that much better. Him smiling and how animated he is now, I mean, oh, it’s just so awesome.”

Like many college students, Texas Tech linebacker Paul Williams wasn’t sure how he would handle life as a parent.

When wife Crystal told him she was pregnant, Williams couldn’t figure out how he was going to fit a baby into an already packed schedule. Plus, his wife sometimes worked 12-hour shifts as a nurse.

After Ashton was conceived, their social life became board games and television, along with midnight trips to the store for ice cream and Bomb Pops. As the baby’s birth neared, the worry increased.

“But then it’s almost like Super Daddy mode takes over when the baby’s born,” Williams said.

The 22-year-old Williams said his wife leaves for work shortly before 6 a.m. He rouses the baby a half-hour later, feeds him and takes him to daycare. Then it’s off to class in the morning and team meetings and practices in the afternoon.

Williams picks up 17-month-old Ashton after the team breaks for the day and by the time Crystal comes home, the little boy is winding down for his 7:30 p.m. bed time. After that, it’s time to study.

That’s a schedule most student-athlete-parents can identify with. Mix in the occasional illness or late night brought on by a growth spurt, and an 18-hour day might seem like a reprieve.

“You just have to grow up and take care of your responsibilities,” Williams said.

For Jackson, the Colorado quarterback, a complicated life became even more difficult when son Jayden was diagnosed with retinoblastoma in his right eye. The cancer forced doctors to remove the boy’s eye.

That trauma threw Jackson and his girlfriend, Brenda Burgos, into emotional territory they never expected to travel.

The 21-year-old junior remembers trying to balance studying film and textbooks between trips to the hospital and recuperation time.

A year later, the 2-year-old remains cancer-free in his left eye and the couple feels blessed. Jayden comes to Jackson’s football games and likes to hang out at his dad’s apartment with teammates.

Jackson wouldn’t have it any other way. When he was 12, his brother adopted him and gave him a stable home. He believes Jayden deserves the same.

“There’s things that can be taken for granted that I don’t take for granted now,” Jackson said. “I cherish every minute with my son. I mean, who knows? It’s definitely life-changing and humbling, and definitely puts life in perspective.”

Arkansas basketball player Danielle Allen knows all about new perspectives — she’s raising 16-month-old son Caden alone. She asks for little help in juggling all her responsibilities, though her parents live nearby and are available to lend a hand on game day and during road trips.

“I didn’t realize how easy I had it just being a student-athlete,” she said. “Having Caden, it really did become a lot more difficult.”

The 21-year-old senior tried to keep her life intact throughout the pregnancy. She kept working out, doing lunges the night before the baby was born, and rejoined the team less than three months after Caden arrived.

“Every day I’m more amazed at what she’s done and how she’s handled this whole situation,” Arkansas coach Susie Gardner said. “She is just an inspiration. Amazingly, she took a semester off and she’s still going to graduate on time. I don’t have enough adjectives to describe how proud of her I am.”

Allen said the sight of her son — blue eyes, curly blonde hair and, like his 6-foot mom, taller than average — has kept her driven. They shoots hoops on a child-size basket before his bedtime.

“He’s a funny child to me,” Allen said. “He can entertain himself just by shaking his head back and forth and screaming. Sometimes, if I’m sitting on the floor doing laundry, he’ll get behind me and play peekaboo and just laugh, just crack himself up.”

Arizona linebacker Spencer Larsen and his wife, Ann, cleared the clutter out of their lives before becoming pregnant.

Their baby — the first of many, they hope — is due in April, right about the time spring practice starts. For a time, Larsen will be going to a full load of classes each day and practices, plus preparing for a trip to the hospital.

After this semester, the little boy should expect to see a lot of his father. Larsen plans to take just one class in the summer and fall so he can spend his free time at home.

The hard part for the Larsens is the waiting.

“We’ve really enjoyed this, but it’s been a long haul,” he said. “Nine months is a long time to wait for him to come.” Once the baby arrives, perspectives and habits change, Mehring has realized.

She has spent much of her life facing a net and playing sports. Her husband, Luke, a former UCLA soccer player, has enabled her to continue her career after the birth of 16-month-old Mason.

Luke Mehring decided against taking a post-college job this year to become a house dad. Becky said he is an “amazing” partner to take on those duties, but she finds it hard to remain in the college flow.

“I’m not going to lie,” she said. “I did miss a lot of classes sometimes just to go home and see my family, and to rest. It was pretty busy.”

These days, she finds spending time with Mason, a cherubic strawberry blonde with brown eyes and a wide smile, trumps all. She’ll earn her degree this spring, then will face a big decision — return for her senior season or become a full-time mom.

“Now that Mason is older, my heart is so much elsewhere,” she said.