Eli Parks was told by his college football recruiter that if he worked hard enough he could earn some scholarship money.
That was music to his ears. He knew how to work hard. And produce. And for the last two years Parks, a senior running back at Southern Connecticut State University, has gotten what he deserved.
“They gave me money and it helped out a lot, I’m certainly grateful,” said Parks, the Owls senior running back and 2018 rushing leader out of St. Paul Catholic High School in Bristol.
For full scholarship athletes in Division I, this isn’t a problem. Their rides are full. They don’t have to pay for anything. Division II schools, like Southern, offer partial scholarships and Division IIIs offer no athletic scholarships but, like D-II, can help an athlete and their families bridge the gap in several ways. The athlete can help their own cause by being a well-rounded student-athlete, too.
“If you ever went to one of those high school college nights and, if you’re a parent you’d walk away thinking how can I do this?” Southern Connecticut athletic director Jay Moran said. “You can’t let the sticker price, whether it’s a state school or a private school scare you because there are avenues, whether it’s athletic scholarship, financial aid, academic scholarships that they don’t have to pay money back so you can’t just get sticker-price scared because you’d walk away from most schools on the private side.”
Student loans, of course, are often par for the course, but there are merit-based scholarships, which reward talent and for those who truly put student in front of athlete there are academic scholarships as well as grants that help.
“Yep, you have academic money available if you’re in a certain academic standing where schools can give you a little extra money based on your SAT scores,” said St. Paul coach Jude Kelly, a four-time state championship coach who has helped deliver numerous players — from Parks to Dallas Cowboys star defensive back Byron Jones — to all of the NCAA divisions. “Colleges are looking for the best, well-rounded people. If they have good grades and contribute to athletics they could get a scholarship from academic money, too, yes.”
According to a 2012 CBS News report, only two percent of all high school athletes receive a full scholarship at the Division I level. Think about that — two percent. If you can get past the ego part, Kelly said, Division II and Division III are nice landing spots with plenty of options in New England, especially in-state where the bill can be more manageable.
“Check out your schools, find out the ones you like and how much aid they’re able to give based on athletic ability,” Kelly said he often tells his players looking to move on. He also said understanding the percentages involved in D-I scholarships and getting past ego are necessary steps in the process.
Neither was an issue for Parks, who left St. Paul as the school’s all-time leading rusher. He capped his college career by winning the 2018 ECAC Division II Offensive Player of the Year, leading he Northeast 10 conference in rushing yards (1,240), rushing yards per game (124.0), rushing touchdowns (12), and all-purpose yards (1,374).
Parks wanted to play at a high level close to home and followed the process Kelly laid out. He believed Southern was a good choice, but he does recall his first two years being more difficult to manage than the last two. In fact, Parks wasn’t able to start preseason camp on time as a freshman because his financial situation wasn’t in order.
The tab for a year at Southern for an in-state resident, including tuition and fees, room and board, books, etc., is approximately $15,000 to $20,000 a year.
“My parents had been paying, financial aid helped a lot and I worked during the summers, too, to help out,” Parks said.”I was just doing what I could to help my parents out. We had to pay at St. Paul, too, so I knew I had to get a job.”
Southern coach Tom Godek called Parks before the start of his junior year with some good news. The program was ready to hold up its end of the bargain.
“He said they have some money they can give me this year,” Parks recalled. “And I told him I was very, very appreciative of it. I got it my junior year and got it a little more this year.”
Parks kept up his end of the deal, Godek said.
“It’s a process, that at least in football, starts in the spring or you might see them at a camp or at a game when they were a junior,” he said. “At least here we have our whole staff make decisions. Far more importantly, academics is the No. 1 piece and how are they as people. Sometimes those things far outweigh ability as opposed to: you’ll take that great player, is that player going to be coachable, is that player going to be with you four or five years. Nobody is clairvoyant on that, but you try to put things in order. Your name is attached to that person. Everyone is not going to be an angel, but you want to have guys who take care of their work, take care of their personal lives and then obviously come and be willing and dedicated to do what it takes to be a Division II football player.
“With Eli, too, it’s important for us to be on Connecticut guys and a Connecticut guy interested in Southern Connecticut,” Godek said. “It’s a two-way street. If they’re interested and we’re interested, we want to keep the conversation going. So here’s a guy who just worked hard from the first minute he stepped on campus. Being a Connecticut resident and obviously having a cost to go to a state school is obviously less. It’s affordable, maybe not for everybody I guess, but somewhat more affordable. He worked his way onto the field. The last two seasons, I guess the best way to say it is, were able to supplement his financial aid package a little better. There’s still going to be a bill there, a cost, but it’s going to look a little better and if it’s a Connecticut family it’s going to look even better.”
Division III is the largest NCAA division with more than 400 schools and, technically, schools offer no athletic scholarships, but merit-based scholarships, academic scholarships and grants can come in handy at this level more than at DII, Kelly said.
Kelly said he’s enjoyed being part of many journeys down this road.
“I do very little,” he said. “But what I do do is, if a kid is a senior and I know the kid pretty well and I know his academics, a lot of the schools after the season is over will come in recruiting and a lot of times they know the coach is here and they get a chance to ask me who would I recommend. I get emails all the time asking who should be recommended to a particular school. If a kid has some skills and maybe can play at the Division II or III level I’m not going to recommend him to Syracuse, OK?”