There’s no question coach Brent Brennan has a lot to show on the field with his squad, the university, the alumni, the students, the fans, and the public. There is pressure to win in his second year with a football program that seeks to gain credibility and respect in the Mountain West and in the tough, entertainment-rich Silicon Valley area. In this case, the requirement is relatively simple for the general consensus: win and keep going.
But much below the radar, Brennan also has a bigger and deeper picture in mind for his program - the well-being of his players beyond football. The year-old program, “Beyond Football” is his brainchild. It was Brennan’s idea to implement an on-going, in-house program to draw upon the uniqueness and working spirit of the Silicon Valley.
To execute the program, Brennan hired Tobruk Blaine last July to manage and handle the day-to-day operations of the Beyond Football program. As a former educator and now life-skills quartermaster for the players, she finds and connects them to the corporate world and community. MWCConnection sat down with Blaine and two SJSU players who have already benefited from the Beyond Football program.
What It Is
“Coach Brennan created it,” Blaine explains. “It was his idea and it didn’t exist before that. He recognized the importance of it, found funding for my position through a private donor that committed to five years of funds, and brought me in here last July.”
Blaine has come in and made the program her own. She has transformed Beyond Football from a great idea to a program that has taken on a life of its own.
Although Brennan was responsible for the idea and vision, it is Blaine who has gives it life and action. While this is a brand new role for her, Blaine has a deep background in working with high school and college student-athletes. According to her bio on the teams’ site, she was a cheerleading coach in Idaho at Eagle and Rocky Mountain high schools and Boise State University. During that time, she won four state championships at the high school level and led her team to two United Sprite Association (USA) Division I National Championships at the college level. It is apparent she can lead and get the best out of the players she is working with. Blaine has leaned on her background and skills in this new role as well.
“I’ve been here for nine months. I moved here for this program and the chance to start it. I had a background in high school education and I’ve worked in colleges. So, I have an understanding of this age group. Other than that, I pretty much started with a blank slate,” Blaine said.
“I’ve learned a few things. Every player is different, so I’ve created a road map for each player. There are benchmarks of what they need to have done at the end of every year here. By the time they are seniors, they have these benchmarks met.”
The Purpose Behind It
To sum up Beyond Football in one simple sentence - it’s all about preparing players for life when football is over. According to Blaine, Beyond Football’s main purpose is: “to provide opportunities to the players when they graduate so they have success beyond their playing careers.”
She was very careful to specify the last part, as some of their players will pursue NFL and CFL opportunities. Regardless of when life beyond football starts for a Spartan, the overall goal remains the same.
The long-term goal for the program is that every player who comes through is able to accomplish a comprehensive list of various things that may be quite new to them. The list includes solid resumes, the ability to network, prepare their “elevator speech,” have job opportunities, job interviews, display confidence going into interviews and be proactive in one’s career development. According to Blaine, “There’s a lot in there for them, but the base is that they have the skills, knowledge, and competence that they can apply for a job.”
Blaine spends her time both behind the scenes and in the forefront where the action is. It sounds like there is rarely a typical day due to the ongoing networking and player development. She is doing it for the benefit of the players. The program is still laying its groundwork.
“I’ve had to build my own networking, especially not being from here. So I am talking to a lot of people I don’t know and building relationships. There is lots of time spent figuring out how we can partner. I’m reaching out to the community and asking them how can we jump in with what they are already doing.”
In addition to networking, there is also the task of getting information about events and programs. Blaine details, “I also make a weekly calendar for the players. This coordinates tons of information for them. Mainly events both on and off-campus like guest speakers or other opportunities. For example, last week we did a hospital visit where I took six players to a hospital’s pediatric unit. This week we have a mentoring program at an elementary school. We’ve also done some career development events.”
It isn’t that far-fetched to think that she may be spending just as much if not more time with the players as the other members of the coaching staff. However, that is by design as she is an integral staff member and figures into the players’ lives. It is often a commonly used cliche for coaches to say something to the effect of: “We want to develop these young men as not only quality players, but as quality people off the field.”
While that might be true of any coach or program, it is clear to see how that is being put into action at San Jose State. Blaine offered this description of how her role fits on staff: “I see myself as a position coach, but a life-position coach in a sense. I push the same messages and important points he (Brennan) pushes, just off the field.”
Although Beyond Football is still in its infancy stages in many ways, it is a testament to the program and the hard work of Brennan, Blaine, and everyone else within the program.
One early success story is one that should be counted as a total team effort. Two players who graduated in December were hired by recruiting firms. Blaine explains, “To have a real adult job within a month of graduating, with benefits and a 401K and all that, not everyone can say that. Being so new, I can’t take too much credit for them and their success, but it was through connections coach Brennan and I built.”
Another success story can be credited to Blaine, although she deferred some of it again to others.
“In January, I started a program within Beyond Football called the Agoge Academy,” Blaine explained that Agoge is a Spartan term (get the connection?) that was used to describe hand-picked young males to be leaders in the community. She said that QB coach Ryan Gunderson found the term for it.
“We have found lots of players struggling with getting outside their comfort zone, working on their interpersonal skills, and building confidence talking to new people. We created the program to counteract that. We picked 10 players, about one per position group, and do events specifically focused on: interpersonal growth, first impressions, talking about strengths, and translating football skills to the job world. For example, we have an upcoming event called “Dinner with a Spartan” where they have a social gathering with alumni in a nice restaurant. This may be a new experience to some and it will allow them to network and put these things into action”
If Beyond Football sounds like a huge recruiting tool, it isn’t off base. Numerous members of the Spartans’ 2018 recruiting class told MWCConnection that Beyond Football was one of the reasons San Jose State won them over and helped them decide it was the school for them. When the question was posed to Blaine, she agreed but made an important clarification.
“For the recruiting piece, it’s something we really promote because it makes us unique. Some universities offer school-wide programs, but coach Brennan thought it was important to do something football-specific where we can interact with coaches and players daily. I’m integrated into the culture and daily life of the football program. I’m on the sidelines, helping on game day, traveling, in team meetings. But I’m hesitant to say it’s a recruiting tool, because we don’t just make it sound cool for recruiting and then don’t follow through. For us, it’s all about the follow-through. I’m bringing a consistent presence that may not be at every other school.”
What the Players Are Saying
It was explained that both Beyond Football and Agoge is by choice. The players can choose how much they participate in it. Of course, it is highly encouraged by the staff but nothing is mandatory. However, the players are buying into what is being provided for them. “They choose to come to my events,” says Blaine.
“We picked players who would buy into this and it’s catching on. Younger players want to be a part of these events and the Agoge program.”
Blaine continues, “We have two freshmen players who have chosen to mentor an at-risk first-grade boy at a local elementary school. They go twice a week (on different days for a total of four days investing in someone’s life) and provide an adult male presence for him. It’s not the first thing you would think 18-year old college males would do, but they wanted to do this. Many of our players are social activists and are interested in getting involved in the community. Coach Brennan cares about those things and will take time to talk to the players about what these things mean in the world.”
The program is made up of players who care about making a difference in their community.
MWCConnection spoke with two freshmen that are part of the Beyond Football program and it is clear to see how these players are benefiting.
Steven Houston is a freshman wide receiver from Dublin High School in Dublin, California. He says “Initially, I was expecting some activities, learning stuff and having fun doing it. I’m finding things that I like, what I’m passionate about, and seeing how it can relate and lead to job opportunities and internships for me. ‘Beyond Football’ has taught me personally that I need to work on the interview process. Just being prepared and communicating with a company and voicing my opinion more.”
His teammate, Brian Papazian is a freshman punter from Ayala High School in Chino Hills, California. “I go to nearby Washington Elementary a few times a week. It allows me to reach out to the community, encourage the kids to strive to be the best, stay in school, and go to college. They are looking up to us and hopefully, that will help them to go to college and pursue their dreams.”
Beyond Football has given him some perspective in Papazian’s life and helped him develop skills he may not have otherwise. “I’m not naturally the biggest leader due to the position that I play, but my teammates selected me for the leadership council. It’s hard to get to the next level (NFL). But where I am in the Silicon Valley will help me for the future.”
Being in Silicon Valley, coach Brennan was aware that this puts them in a unique position location-wise. It has allowed Beyond Football to partner with alumni and alumni connections associated with Apple, Google, Facebook, and others. These partnerships have opened players’ eyes to job opportunities they might have not known even existed before.
Houston says “I’m interested in Google and its creativity. It allows me to combine my competitive nature on the football field, plus my creative side. Also, I had an experience with the San Jose Sharks. I learned whether I want to stay in the sports field in a business capacity.”
Likewise, Papazian, who is looking at majoring in business management, visited Facebook and the Sharks. He says, “I definitely know I am learning to be more outgoing. I’ve never connected with the kids in this type of setting before. And, I think some of these skills can translate to connecting with adults in the job world too.”
Through the vision of Brennan and Blaine’s leadership and guidance, Beyond Football is off to a tremendous start. They laid out short and long-term plans for what they want to accomplish, and are personalizing it to each player. They have built a network of opportunities for players both on and off-campus to allow the players to get where they want to be.
They have convinced the players to buy into the program and have streamlined communications about what is available to them. If all of this growth and success has taken place in just the official first year of Beyond Football, imagine what it will look like once this year’s freshmen complete the program’s full cycle.
It is certain that the potential for the players to succeed and the surrounding community to be transformed is unlimited.
A huge thanks to Tobruk Blaine, Lawrence Fan, Steve Houston, Brian Papazian, and the San Jose State football program for the privilege of interviewing them and writing about the great work they are doing.