Life in the Big Leagues
By Allen Lessels '76
A year ago, they were Big Men on Campus, perhaps UNH's biggest ever when it comes to athletics. In the past, UNH has sent players on to the National Hockey League and National Football League, but last year, for the first time, the best at UNH were the best in the land, too.
Football's Jerry Azumah won the Walter Payton Award as Division I-AA's best offensive player, and hockey's Jason Krog won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the best player in Division I. For both, it's been quite a year since they graduated and left the stability of their college teams.
"It just hit me all of sudden," Azumah says. "I've played a year in the NFL and I'm sitting here working on my second year. I always dreamed of playing in the NFL and all of a sudden the dream came true. I put on this uniform and see myself in the mirror and it says NFL all over it. It's a great feeling, coming from a small school. It's like anything is possible. I'm basically living proof of that.'"
Speedy and athletic, but considered small for a runningback in the pros, Azumah was drafted by the Chicago Bears as a defensive back and spent the year learning to run backwards. Instead of running and catching the ball, he was asked to stop the guys who run and catch the ball. He started the last game, played well and hopes to earn a full-time starting job for next football season.
But football is a business and Azumah, who got some tips on life in the NFL from New York Jets linebacker Dwayne Gordon '92, saw it up close when Tom Carter, a starter, was cut from the team with three games left. "It was like, 'Wow,'" Azumah said. "It's definitely eye-opening. In college, you pretty much know you're secure. In the NFL, you're never secure. Nothing is guaranteed."
Krog has seen his sport's business side, too. His first season of pro hockey was literally full of ups and downs. Originally signed as a free agent by the New York Islanders, he started in Lowell in the minor leagues. He was called up to the Islanders twice for short stints, finally returning to Providence where he could get more ice time than in Lowell. He proved he was "hockey tough" when, after getting a 13-stitch facial wound in the first period of a game, he returned to play in the third period. In November he lost a tooth and chipped several others, and despite a doctor's advice returned to play the next game. NHL players are taller and heavier and one of them is always ready to take your job. There is a different lifestyle.
"In college everyone is going to school, you practice together and spend a lot of time together and all the guys are like a family," says Krog while he waited for his laundry in a Providence area Holiday Inn. "Here, some guys are married, some guys have kids, everyone lives five miles away from everyone else and you don't hang out unless it's at the rink or you're on the road. You're more on your own here. It's not bad, but it is different," he says.
"I think it's been a positive learning experience, but I don't think I've had the season I wanted to or planned to have."
There have been highlights. There was his NHL debut with the Islanders. There was his first goal, in Madison Square Garden against the arch-rival (think UNH vs. Maine) New York Rangers. It was the end of a powerplay and an Islander three-on-two became a two-on-one. "The guy slid it across to me and I just backdoored the shot up over (Mike) Richter," Krog says. "I couldn't believe it. That was a big relief. It felt so good." Krog, too, talked with other UNHers -- former teammates Mark Mowers '98 and Derek Bekar among them -- as he jumped into the pros.
"Mark had a tough time, too, last year," Krog says. "He was up and down, same with Derek Bekar. They sort of gave me the heads up. Not to get too down. Not to get too up. Keep things as consistent as you can."blog comments powered by Disqus
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