Recruiting: Veteran Affairs

March 7, 2018

When thinking of U.S. military veterans, words like loyalty, respect, leadership, teamwork, and perseverance may come to mind—the same qualities coaches want in their athletes. Recognizing that similarity led to a new recruiting initiative and partnership at Union College, an NAIA school in Barbourville, Ky.

“Veterans have real world experience,” says Leo Rumbaugh, Recruiting Coordinator and Linebackers Coach for the Union football team. “They can provide players with leadership examples they wouldn’t get otherwise. When I first got to Union, I discussed seeking out veterans with the rest of the coaching staff, and we began trying to find some through recruiting fairs at military posts. But we weren’t really successful.”

Enter Athletes of Valor, a Massachusetts-based organization piloted in 2017 that works to connect collegiate teams with former servicemen and women. “A lot of them don’t realize they have the ability to play on the college level and that they are still eligible,” says Alex Stone, CEO and Founder of Athletes of Valor. “It’s also a lot of work to get recruited, even at lower level colleges—there are steps they might not know about.”

Through the company, former and active military members upload profiles with biographical information and videos highlighting their athletic skills. Colleges then pay a fee to access the profiles, with costs varying depending on the school’s needs.

While this runs counter to most recruiting websites, in which the athletes absorb the cost, Rumbaugh feels the money is well spent. “I think it’s worth paying for the service to give veterans an opportunity to live out their dream,” he says.

In addition, the expense can be offset by the fact that the military often pays veterans’ college costs, meaning these recruits are not looking for scholarships. “It’s a win for everybody,” says Stone.

Athletes of Valor also plays more of a hands-on role than other recruiting sites. It is hosting combines and informational sessions on military bases, and will work with partnering colleges to find candidates that meet their needs.

Last fall, three military veterans joined the Union football team, and three more arrived in January. Rumbaugh, who himself served as a medic in the Army, says they have been a positive for the program.

“The veterans lead by example,” he says. “I don’t have to tell them to do something twice, and they are quick to jump in with, ‘Don’t talk back to coach’ or ‘Do what you’re told.’ They also show our younger players that discipline can lead to success.”

In addition, the former servicemen are providing their teammates with an important worldview. “The veterans on the team have lost friends in combat, and the rest of the players know that,” says Rumbaugh. “I think it gives them a greater appreciation for what they have—to know that it might not be there.”

At the same time, it was important for Union to make sure it had the resources on campus to help veterans with their unique needs. There is a faculty psychiatrist available to speak with the servicemen and two of the football team’s coaches are retired from the military.

“A lot of veterans don’t want to go see a psychiatrist,” says Rumbaugh. “Because another coach on staff and I have prior service, we are here for them to talk to. They have their teammates to lean on now as well.”

So far, 25 colleges have signed up with Athletes of Valor, and more than 2,000 recruiting profiles have been uploaded. Most of the recruits are football players, but the company hopes to attract athletes in a full line-up of sports in the near future.

Union is eager for that to happen, as it hopes to expand its military recruitment to other teams. “We as a football staff decided to start this initiative—we were the guinea pigs,” says Rumbaugh. “Because of our success, our athletic director and conference are working with Athletes of Valor to allow access to all its athletes for one fee.

“This is a big initiative for us,” he continues. “We believe we owe it to our veterans to give them these opportunities, and we want their leadership qualities on our teams.”

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