By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Even for the most talented players, football doesn’t last forever, and the large majority of those who don pads and cleats in college never reach the highest level of the sport.

University of Virginia head coach Tony Elliott doesn’t want to quash his players’ NFL dreams. If football is “a vehicle that gets you to the league, that’s great,” Elliott said, “but that vehicle is going to run out of gas early. Early in life, you’re gonna have to switch to another vehicle, and so you need to have your education taken care of. You need to have your professional development taken care of.”

And that’s why, at the end of the season, the UVA football program holds a career day during which players meet with representatives of companies to discuss opportunities for internships, externships and jobs. The Cavaliers’ 2023 Career Kickoff, held Wednesday at The Forum Hotel on the grounds of UVA’s Darden School of Business, attracted 60 companies representing 12 industries. About 50 alumni of the football program attended the event, too, and spoke to current players about opportunities in the working world.

“We don’t want to diminish the [NFL] dream,” Elliott said. “We’re still chasing that dream. But at the end of the day, I want to make sure that they’re prepared, because statistically, if you look at the numbers, less than 2 percent of college guys actually get to play in the NFL. And if they do, they very rarely last longer than three years …. And that’s why events like this are important. The guys that we have at the University of Virginia, they come in with a pretty good perspective about what’s important, and so they invest in things like this, and they want to be successful in whatever they do. So it’s just a great opportunity to reinforce that.”

Tony Elliott

Elliott recently completed his second season at UVA. At the inaugural Career Kickoff last year, all 14 players who were looking for work landed jobs. It was also a valuable experience for their teammates, who had opportunities to network with alumni and see “what it would be like to interview with a company and kind of understand what they’re looking for when it comes to a candidate,” linebacker Josh Ahern said. “I think overall that makes this event really beneficial.”

There were 128 players at this year’s event, which lasted about four hours and was sponsored by Ford May Wealth Management, The Good Feet Store and Cav Futures Foundation. After a luncheon came a career/internship fair, followed by interviews and networking with company representatives. Most of those players will back with the Wahoos next fall, but for those whose football careers are over, 2023 Career Kickoff held special significance.

That group includes Ahern, who graduated from UVA with a bachelor’s degree in applied statistics last spring. He’s on track to receive a master’s degree in quantitative analytics from the School of Education and Human Development in May, after which he plans to start working.

In the offseason, the time commitment required of football players meant Ahern wasn’t able to take a summer job or hold an internship, “so I’m not sure what I like and don’t like,” he said. “But I’m interested in finance, data and data analytics. We’ll figure that out in a couple months.”

Ahern said it’s important to take advantage of the educational opportunities UVA offers. “Obviously, it’s difficult to think of that when you’re a first-year,” he said, “so Coach Elliott has done a really good job of trying to harp on that for those first-year guys, so they’re just not putting it to the wayside and focusing solely on football.”

Sackett Wood (left) with football alum Tim Conway

Among the UVA football alumni who spoke to the players was Trey Womack, who played defensive back for head coaches Al Groh and Mike London. Womack, a 2010 graduate of the University, is assistant director of engineering extension and outreach for the University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering.

“It’s awesome [not only] to be able to do this, but to do it with former players,” Elliott said. “We talk about family at Virginia, we talk about being connected, and this is a great example of how strong the football alums are at the University of Virginia, how well-established they are and how willing they are to come back and be involved with our players.”

Womack previously worked for Aerotek, a recruitment and staff agency, and he’s eager to give back to the football program and share his insight with current players. He has experience in helping job-seekers prepare “for their interviews and getting them ready to win the job,” said Womack, who also spoke to the team Tuesday at Bryant Hall.

When he was getting ready to enter the workforce, Womack said, there was nothing comparable to the football program’s Career Kickoff to help him in his job search.

“I’ve talked to a bunch of the alumni,” Womack said, “and one of the things that we said is we wish we would have had an opportunity that literally came to our doorstep like this. This is tremendous. I don’t think any other [college football] program that I’ve seen is doing something like this at this level.”

Douglas Duenkel, another former UVA player, has helped organize the Career Kickoff events. He’s also active in the Cavalier Circle mentorship program Elliott launched this year. That program matches current players with alumni of the football program.

Duenkel, who’s also active in the Virginia Football Alumni Club, is on the Cavalier Circle board of directors, along with two other former players, Barry Word and Tim Conway, and Heidi VandeHoef-Gunn, director of career development for UVA Athletics.

All four of them were at The Forum Hotel on Wednesday, and Duenkel was delighted to see how the Career Kickoff has grown since the inaugural event. Forty companies participated in 2022.

Duenkel, who’s the chief executive officer of Kairos Data Communications and Innovations for Gospel Impact, graduated from the McIntire School of Commerce in 1992. Their football obligations meant he and his teammates “didn’t have opportunities to do internships and externships and have [summer work] experiences,” Duenkel said, “so when football was over, we had to go find our own jobs. And the hope with this is, there’s so many former players that want to be involved that are in positions where they could really help out. There’s no guarantees on jobs but, the guarantee is that we’ll help you network to get a job.”

Douglas Duenkel

Elliott said he’s thrilled by the support football alumni have shown for his player-development initiatives.

“I think they understand that we’re trying to build an entire program,” he said. “Obviously, we get judged on Saturdays about the results on the field and we’re working extremely hard to improve in that area. But at the same time, while we’re working on that, we’re trying to build the entire program, and this is a huge component. And I think a lot of them have expressed gratitude because they didn’t have something like this when it was time for them to transition.”

Elliott played football at Clemson, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering. His first job out of college was with Michelin.

“I remember my transition coming out of college, and I pretty much had to do it on my own,” Elliott told his players at the start of the luncheon. “It was a challenge. And so my goal, my objective, is to help ease that transition, to make that transition easier for you.”

When his players’ football careers are finished, Elliott said, he wants them to “have options. It’s a lot like in recruiting, when they sit down and they weigh their options and say, ‘Where’s the best place for me to go play college football and pursue my education?’ I want to create that same experience for them at the end of the road where they’ve been developed, they’ve had exposure to networking, and by the time they’re ready to step out in the world, they can pick and choose the best option for them. So it is extremely critical to have events like this. This is actually one of the most important days in our program. It’s actually a beautiful day too, just to see how many companies have showed up, how many former players we have representing different companies.”

To that group, Elliott said he hoped his players “would impress you and make you want to have a Virginia football player working in your in your organization.”

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Paul Akere (right) with Deloitte representative