Reaching the athletic crossroads

Deciding whether to keep playing can be a difficult choice for athletes

Leydi Pliego, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School
Tsimnuj Yang, St. Paul Harding Senior High School

TWO FORMER DIVISION I athletes – one a Minnesota native, another who played in the state – have divergent ideologies about life after their collegiate careers.

Donald Lynn Wilhite II, 25, a former University of Minnesota football player known to his friends as D.L., found a career path away from the field, while former Hopkins star Marvin Singleton, 22, is pursuing his passion as a professional basketball player.

For student-athletes, the decision to pursue their sports after college isn’t always entirely left to them. Fewer than 2 percent of Division I athletes make it to the professional level, with the exception of baseball and hockey, according to the NCAA.

Bob Madison, the activities director at Mounds View High School, said many of his former athletes have had to decide when to call it quits and move on.

“Going from an athlete to being a general part of society and the workforce is a really tough transition because you miss your teammates, you miss the physical activity, you may even miss physical contact in some situations,” Madison said.

Wilhite was 5 years old when he first held a football. Eventually, his parents and coaches recognized his talent, which one day might’ve catapulted the young player into the pros.

But Wilhite had doubts.

“I wrestled with it a lot,” said Wilhite, a native of Lexington, Ky., who led the Gophers with 8.5 sacks and was named to the All-Big Ten second team in 2012 as a defensive lineman. “I was one of the best athletes in the country, at least statistically, for Division I.”

Wilhite’s accomplishments were splashed all over the media. He also was recognized not only for his athletic talent, but also his academics and community service.

Photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications. D.L. Wilhite, right, a former University of Minnesota defensive lineman, rushes a lineman during a 2012 game for the Gophers. Wilhite now works for Cargill.

After some thought, Wilhite decided he didn’t want to play football for a living, and he didn’t need it to achieve success. But leaving football after graduation wasn’t easy – for him or his parents.

“I left the country and I went to France and Italy,” he said. “I was all over the place.”

His parents had had other plans for their son.

“I had to have a lot of discussions with my pops,” he said. “He wanted me to make it there. I was so close. I understand why that would hurt his feelings.”

Eventually, Wilhite’s parents came to agree with his decision to not play professionally.

Wilhite, who now works in the human resources department at Cargill, was more intrigued by how he could make a difference in his community, similar to the people who helped him along the way.

“I feel like it’s my duty to do that,” he said.

He found motivation to help the community through Athletes Committed to Educating Students, an afterschool program founded in 1994 that is designed to help tutor and mentor students from low-income families.

“Some of the kids that he worked with were a reflection of his upbringing,” said former ACES executive director Chad Caruthers, now the executive director at ThreeSixty Journalism.

Singleton’s story is different.

Singleton grew up in north Minneapolis and dreamed about playing professional basketball (He also was a part of ACES, but as a student.).

Singleton became a standout forward for Hopkins High School and helped carry the Royals to three consecutive state championships from 2009 to 2011. He went on to play at the University of Northern Iowa, where he averaged nearly five points and five rebounds per game as a starter his senior season. He was named to the Missouri Valley Conference All-Improved Team his senior year, and UNI finished 36-7 with the 6-foot-6, 237-pound forward in the starting lineup his junior and senior years.

Photo courtesy of Mike Dunlop. Marvin Singleton (12), a 2015 gradate and former men’s basketball player at the University of Northern Iowa, drives against an Iowa defender during a game last season. Singleton, a Minneapolis native, is pursuing playing basketball overseas.

Now, Singleton is in the process of trying to play professional basketball overseas. Teams have shown interest. He’s just waiting on the phone call.

“They could call any day, and I could be gone any day,” Singleton said in early August.

He’s willing to take the best offer available to get his foot in the door, he said, although he wouldn’t mind playing in a tourist location. In the meantime, he was working out and coaching a local basketball camp in the Twin Cities in August.

Basketball keeps him sane and motivated, he said.

“It’s just the love of the game, I can’t give it up,” Singleton said about continuing to pursue basketball. “I’m not done. I’m not done yet. I just want to keep playing as long as I possibly can and after that, then I can do something with my degree to get a job. In between in the summertime I could probably get internships here and there to use my degree, just to have some experience on my resume, but I can’t really stop playing now. I’m addicted to it.”

The NBA is still a goal, too, he said.

“… You never know the journey you have to take to get there all the time,” he said. “It might not always work out the way you want it to, but you can never stop working, you can never stop dreaming.”

Although they’re on different paths, Wilhite is happy with his choice, and so is Singleton.

“Whatever you do, there’s probably a million people who want to do that, too,” Wilhite said. “It’s really about, what can I do to set myself apart?”