Prior to arriving on the campus of Vanderbilt University for preseason football camp in 2013, I hadn’t thought too much about identity.
I was just me. Delando Crooks. Football player. Jamaican immigrant. Son of Lester and Janice.
But as soon as I got to Vandy, I began to be much more aware of identity. Specifically that mine was different from most of the people around me in a couple significant ways.
First and foremost the color of my skin. I went from Carver High School in Atlanta, where black students make up 98 percent of the enrollment, to Vanderbilt, where in 2013, black students accounted for just 8 percent of the undergraduate population.
I’m also a first-generation college student.
I had always been academically successful. Especially because my parents hadn’t gone to college, I prioritized education. That’s partially why I chose Vanderbilt over other schools that recruited me. I wanted that challenging academic environment.
But classes turned out to be difficult in ways I hadn’t expected. I experienced something I now know was imposter syndrome.
In case you’re not familiar with imposter syndrome, here’s a quick definition.
Imposter syndrome, also known as imposter phenomenon, is “the internal experience of intellectual phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.”
Like I said, I was a good student in high school. I even dual-enrolled in college courses so I arrived at Vanderbilt with more than 20 credits to my name. With my four years of eligibility on the football team, I had plans to pursue a masters degree.
But in my classes at Vanderbilt, I barely spoke, choosing instead to avoid drawing attention to myself. On the rare occasion when I would contribute to the discussion or ask a question, everyone would whip around and stare. “This is why I don’t talk,” I’d think.
Outside of football and class, I didn’t leave my room much. Athletics took up a lot of time, and in order for me to be successful academically, I needed to spend the rest of the time on schoolwork. That only exacerbated my feelings of seclusion.
My grades weren’t as good as they were in high school. Sure, the classes were harder and having the distractions and responsibilities of football made it tough, too, but my discomfort in class and lack of participation also hurt.
Even in the locker room, I never felt entirely comfortable. I played offensive line, and historically offensive lineman are predominantly white. Mostly conservative. Some of them would call me the prince of Jamaica. I guess they were under the influence that anybody who comes from the island is a king. I was like, “OK, that’s not problematic at all, but whatever.”
Some of it was all fun and games, but at the same time, some of it was just pure ignorance.
But one man represented a challenge to those ideas. David Williams, the Vanderbilt athletic director, was the first black athletic director in the SEC. Dr. Williams had something like five degrees. In addition to being the AD, he served as vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and taught in the law school.
The son of a member of the Tuskegee Airmen and a Detroit public school teacher, Dr. Williams ran track in high school and got his undergraduate degree at the University of Northern Michigan. He told me he was not always the best student, and he even entertained the idea of going into the military instead of attending college after he graduated from high school (but he wasn’t 18 and his father refused to give him permission to enlist).
Dr. Williams had been an athlete, sure. He was a black man from a big city. But he was obviously so much more than that.
When I abandoned my initial major of engineering and transferred to the communication studies department, figuring I’d eventually pursue business, Dr. Williams encouraged me to think about what else I could do with that degree.
So it’s partially because of him that I stayed at Vanderbilt after graduating and got my masters in learning, diversity, and urban study. While working on my masters, I started to learn and think even more about identity. In particular the combination of “athlete” and “first-generation college student.” I’m still focusing on that population today as I pursue my PhD in higher education leadership at the University of Texas.
I think for a lot of young people, especially young men who participate in Division I revenue generating sports like football and basketball, “athlete” has been their main, or only, identity for as long as they can remember.
But just like Dr. Williams, no one is only an athlete. We’re all much more complex than that. And not taking time to consider or understand the other parts of ourselves is limiting and potentially damaging.
If you believe you are only an athlete, whenever your athletic career ends, you will be lost. Whether it ends prematurely due to injury, or if you retire after a long professional career, it doesn’t matter. There will be life after sport, and if you have only ever considered yourself an athlete, that transition is going to be very difficult.
Learning about your various identities also helps you pinpoint and overcome the challenges that come with a particular identity. Like the imposter syndrome, loneliness, and anxiety a first-generation college student of color might struggle with, as I did.
I believe that creating more awareness around these issues of identity, particularly in first-generation student-athletes of color, will lead to higher graduation rates and more success in the game of life that begins when sports end.
As it is now, I don’t think colleges do a very good job of helping student-athletes connect with and discover their other identities. After all, if athletes’ lives expand to encompass more than just their sport, that’s not good for the colleges or the NCAA. When a student-athlete prioritizes other things above sport, or even just on par with sport, that might lead to less revenue or fewer fans.
This is all so important because that identity of “athlete” doesn’t come without risk. Early in my third season playing football at Vanderbilt, I suffered a season-ending concussion that turned into a career-ending concussion when I elected not to return for my final year of eligibility.
That meant I had to take out loans to pay for my master’s degree, instead of using my athletic scholarship to fund it. But that was worth it to me, because I knew by then that there was more to me than “athlete.”
We can’t just keep propagating this idea that all the risks, struggles, and sacrifices required of a college athlete are worth it because they get a “free education.”
It drives me up the wall when people say that to me: “You got a free education.”
I have had cortisone shots in my ankles, my knees. I’ve had so many MRIs, I can’t even count them all. I recently requested my medical file from Vanderbilt and it was 260 pages.
If the only identity I had connected with was “athlete,” I might have ignored the risks and played that final year of eligibility and then aimed for an NFL contract. But with the help of Dr. Williams and other members of the academic support staff at Vanderbilt, I discovered some new and interesting parts of myself. I valued my intellectual capabilities and academic goals too much to take that risk.
I want other athletes to have those same options.
Delando Crooks was an offensive lineman for the Vanderbilt University football from 2013 to 2016. He holds a BA in communication studies and a M.Ed. in learning, diversity, and urban study, both from Vanderbilt. Today, he is pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education leadership at the University of Texas at Austin.