As a football player, Jalen Whitlow went through the recruiting process twice.
When he was a high school athlete in Alabama, he chose the University of Kentucky. He later transferred to Eastern Illinois, where he completed his career and graduated in 2017.
His experiences as a student-athlete provided life lessons that he shares with high school athletes as an assistant coach at Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Ga. Last summer, after moving from Dallas to Georgia, Whitlow decided to share his knowledge with a broader audience.
The result is “Prepared: The Guide to a Successful Collegiate Experience for Athletes and Parents,” a book that was published last month, which shares the value of networking and relationships, being a good teammate, managing athletics and a social life, and finding an academic path that fits your interests and your future.
“It’s not just about (your sport) and school,” Whitlow said of the college experience. “College is just as much about how you’re developing as a human being. There’s more to you than football or basketball or softball or baseball or swimming or track.”
Where to start
In the book, which is available online via Amazon.com, Whitlow said he encourages athletes to constantly think about a post-athletic life.
“How can I put myself in a position to thrive outside of this?” he said.
That starts with the recruiting process, where athletes often ask too many basic questions of current athletes at the school, such as, “How’s football? What do y’all eat here?”
The conversation with other athletes should focus on a well-rounded experience.
“You need to ask about character-building programs, networking opportunities,” he said. “Do they bring back alumni often so we can have conversations with them? What type of organizations can I get involve in during the off-season?”
Athletes should also get more in-depth with the coaches they will be directly working with and get familiar with people outside of their program, such as the names of the university president and athletic director.
As a quarterback, for example, athletes should ask, “Who’s the offensive coordinator? Where’s he from? Where did he coach in his career? How many kids does he have? What’s his wife’s name? Know everything.”
The people an athlete knows can strengthen relationships.
Gaston Moore, a quarterback that Whitlow coached in Hilton Head, S.C., is now at the University of Central Florida, which recently hired former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn as its head coach.
“Gus Malzahn recruited me when he was at Arkansas State,” Whitlow said. “I told (Gaston), ‘You need to go to Gus Malzahn and say this is who coached me in high school.’ Gus Malzahn knows me. He knows a couple other Whitlows that he recruited and who played for him.”
Using that connection, Whitlow said, will help Moore start a conversation and build a relationship with his new head coach.
Getting involved in activities outside of athletics can open plenty of doors and allow student-athletes to grow.
Whitlow encourages athletes to ask, “When I graduate, what type of knowledge, wisdom and information do I have? What type of people am I connected with? That’s everything.”
Since graduating from Eastern, Whitlow has been a teacher and coach in South Carolina, Texas and now Georgia.
But as a young man playing college football, Whitlow said he wasn’t the most outgoing person.
“If I could go back and change, I was a quiet guy,” said Whitlow, who also has his own business as a personal quarterback coach. “I still am to a degree. I would make sure I took advantage of meeting people and building those relationships.”
Both inside and outside of athletics, athletes should consider each person they meet as a networking opportunity, according to Whitlow.
Since coaches can leave a school during an athlete’s career, their relationships should exist well beyond the coaching staff.
Whitlow said athletes should get to know athletic trainers, nutritionists, academic advisors, and other support staff. Those relationships will last well beyond four to five years of an athlete’s career.
“To this day, I take advantage of the nutritional advice that we got from our strength and conditioning coaches,” he said.
When he discussed academics with his father, Walter, Whitlow said he got some sage advice.
“My dad always said, ‘Don’t just do basket weaving,’” Whitlow said.
In other words, don’t go to college to get just any degree.
“It’s 2021,” he said. “I want to make sure to get a degree that’s up to date. Tailor your passion to what’s popular today.”
Athletes should also look forward.
“What’s down the road?” Whitlow asked. “We see a lot of artificial intelligence, a lot of coding, computer sciences. It’s having skills rather than just a degree.”
Students and parents should also understand what a future career demands, such as a master’s degree or certifications in certain skills.
“Make sure you know this going in so you can develop certain skills,” he said.