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From The Iliad to “The Duke”: How the Ivy League Shapes Football Players for the NFL—and Beyond

Current and former Ivy League NFL players detail how their collegiate careers led them to success—both on and off the field—as well as helped to create everlasting bonds.

San Francisco 49ers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

NOTE: This article, per se, doesn’t relate directly to the Steelers. Feel free to read it, though, to witness really unique journeys to the NFL as well as what players do to better their communities, both away from the game and after retiring!

To start the 2020 season, the Steelers are projected to have at least 9 SEC players, 9 Big Ten alumni, 7 ACC products and even 6 former Mid-American Conference (MAC) participants.

In the entire NFL, there were just 22 Ivy League alums to make a roster entering the 2019 season; only 18 played just one regular season snap a year ago.

Across the country, there are a plethora of “small school” conferences, including the aforementioned MAC, Mountain West, Conference-USA and even the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA).

However, none has fewer—and more distinct—participants than the Ivy League.

To transition from some of the nation’s most antiquated and erudite college campuses to raucous, avant-garde stadiums is a marvel in and of itself. But those who have ventured from Ivy League football to the pros don’t just enable themselves to excel in the NFL—they often look decades beyond.

When Joe Valerio was recruited by the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) Quakers in 1986, he was allured by the program’s undefeated record that season and its history of fabled names like John Heisman, Chuck Bednarik, Skip Minisi and more.

What most fascinated Valerio, though, was not just being close to his native Philadelphia, but Penn’s rigorous curriculum.

“I think academically for me, Penn was a really good fit because they have the Wharton School—I did take some Wharton classes,” Valerio, the former First-Team All-American offensive lineman and 2005 Penn Athletics Hall of Fame Inductee, said. “I just felt like, for me, it provided an academic environment that was diverse and it was also what I felt would’ve met my post-graduate needs as far as where I would like to work.”

A second round pick by Kansas City in 1991, Valerio was able to enjoy 4 seasons with the Chiefs between 1992-95, though his NFL tenure took an unexpected turn after a severe back injury in a 1996 preseason matchup against the Dallas Cowboys in Monterrey, Mexico.

For Valerio, the recovery process was painstaking; moreover, the premature birth of his triplet daughters incentivized the 6’5” O-Lineman to retire at just 27 years old.

But the journey for Valerio was far from over: in fact, it was just beginning.

Valerio quickly put good use to his Penn economics degree, earning jobs within the insurance industry with corporations such as Marsh, Wells Fargo Insurance Services, TD Bank Insurance and Willis Towers Watson, where he has served as a Regional Operations Officer since 2018.

In fact, Valerio’s quest for higher learning has proliferated to this day. He is currently in the process of earning his MBA from Villanova University, and even serves as an adjunct professor of Leadership in Sports at Arcadia University.

What allowed Valerio to transition from signing crimson helmets to bank checks? A strong, nurturing nexus of Penn alumni.

“Any time I would look to a new career to try something different, the Penn community was always there with a helping hand; [I could] talk to somebody who was in a hiring position who was a Penn grad,” Valerio said.

For individuals like Valerio, the rigor of Ivy League institutions proved fruitful post-playing days. But for others—like Columbia University alum Josh Martin—success outside the hashes has come before hanging up his cleats.

Martin was drawn to Columbia due to its campus being located within a cosmopolitan hub: New York City.

“The city energizes me,” Martin, a current free agent who totaled 17 sacks in three years for the Lions, said. "The thought of being around billions of other people that come here [to New York] every year to pursue their dreams or people that are actively pursuing their dreams. This is the place where I wanted to be.”

Since going undrafted in 2013, Martin has spent time with a bevy of teams, including the Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and most recently the New Orleans Saints. Martin signed a one-year deal with New Orleans in 2019 but tore his labrum in the preseason and did not partake in regular season or postseason action.

After traveling more than he did within the confines of Columbia’s concrete campus, Martin was finally able to settle in with the New York Jets from 2016-18 and even started 9 contests in 2017.

Martin’s return to New York wasn’t just special because of flourishing on the field; he was able to return to Columbia and visit jazz clubs in New York City, a concept that helped reignite his interest in music.

As a high schooler, Martin “would skip [football] practice to go to band rehearsal”; recently, he was able to rekindle such passion by joining the Harlem School of the Arts as a member of the organization’s Board of Directors.

Martin hasn’t just explored euphonious tunes when not assailing opposing quarterbacks, though.

Through the help of his agency, VaynerSports, Martin has been able to produce video series such as “First Down and Life” and “First Down Feasts”; hosts “Journey For More,” a podcast devoted to gaining insightful tidbits of knowledge through a variety of guests; and even is working on “Making America,” a documentary about America’s myriad of cultures.

“Taking that team player mentality from football and applying it to other ventures,” Martin details as his overarching goal. “At the root of everything, it’s about building community, recognizing that whatever I do, it’s possible because of others.”

Even for those who are neophytes to the NFL, further, the Ivy League has already deeply resonated with them.

Isiah Swann, Dartmouth College’s all-time interception leader and an undrafted free agent signee of Pittsburgh’s rival Cincinnati Bengals, adulated his colleagues in Hanover, New Hampshire. But the former Big Green cornerback was especially impressed by how athletes were treated no differently than other students on Dartmouth’s campus.

“There’s no favoritism with football players,” Swann said. “You don’t have any special privileges. I kind of like it that way. That’s what you want: you want everyone to be treated equally.”

As he entered the 2020 NFL Draft process—especially in the unprecedented COVID-19 era—Swann needed a crutch who could deeply relate to him. He found exactly that in Vernon Harris, a former Dartmouth cornerback who signed with the Chiefs out of college.

Both Valerio and Martin, too, were able to utilize the bond of Ivy League football to connect with other Ivy League players and hopefuls, especially from their alma maters.

“From a Penn perspective, we call it the ‘Penn Brotherhood,’” Valerio said. “I think Penn football has an incredible brotherhood of alums that stick together and really take care of each other in times of needs, in times [not of] need, where we really look after each other from a career perspective and a personal perspective.”

Valerio has also been able to connect with former Quakers Brandon Copeland—a linebacker for the New England Patriots—and Justin Watson—a receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—at Penn Football Banquets and other awards ceremonies.

Likewise, Martin hosted an Instagram Live interview session in April with 2020 Draft prospects Niko Lalos (former Dartmouth defensive end; UDFA signing with the New York Giants), Michael Hoecht (former Brown University defensive lineman; UDFA signing with the Los Angeles Rams) and Daniel DeLorenzi (Columbia all-time sack leader; remains unsigned). As he entered the Draft himself in 2013, Martin was able to connect with former Lions defensive end and current Fox Sports 1 “Speak For Yourself” host Marcellus Wiley.

There is no shortage of Ivies who have flourished in the NFL. Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (Harvard University), San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk (Harvard), Cleveland Browns center J.C. Tretter (Cornell University), former Patriots fullback James Develin (Brown) and more have enjoyed Pro Bowl selections and Super Bowl rings throughout their professional careers.

What has allowed these sublime stars to shine so brightly? Their wits may be the answer.

“I feel like it’s a technical game now, so I feel like their smarts really help them and enhance their athletic ability,” Swann said.

At the same time, what truly distinguishes Ivy League athletics is that no athletes are awarded scholarships for their sports. As such, players’ success in the American northeast may translate well due to tenacious motivation and a true love for the game.

“They’re [Ivy Leaguers] playing football because they love the game,” Valerio posited. “It gives [an NFL] coach an opportunity to have somebody on the roster that is never going to take anything for granted.”

While suiting up at Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium, Martin was able to find inspiration via the pursuit of excellence of his diligent classmates. His Columbia pupils, in fact, still drive him today.

“I have classmates that reach out to me to help with their different endeavors, whether it’s creating a video for their nonprofit or having a conversation to offer their students or kids that they work with,” Martin said. “It’s just an inspiration seeing what some of my classmates are accomplishing now.”

Ultimately, the ability to receive world-class instruction while honing pass blocking skills and tackling prowess is what truly makes Ivy League football unique.

Valerio, Martin and Swann concur that looking up at an Ivy League diploma each day is what makes playing Ivy League football truly worth it.

But it’s more than just a simple document: Valerio feels strongly that the Ivy League provides an unparalleled experience and is the paragon of learning for life.

“You’re not gonna play in front of 50,000 people; you’re not going to go to the Fiesta Bowl and the Rose Bowl.

“But the level of football that you will play is fantastic, competitive football. You couple that you’re going to be able to hang on your wall an Ivy league degree and be able to use that advantage for the rest of your life. It’s the ultimate combination of being a student-athlete.”