On Sept. 10, two days before the Wildcats defeated Eastern Illinois 41-0 at Ryan Field, senior co-captain Christian Jones sat at the front of a hotel ballroom just steps off of the Magnificent Mile in downtown Chicago.
To his right sat four members of the Northwestern faculty with expertise in materials science, law, human development and social policy, and economics. Standing at the lectern to Jones' left, president Morton Schapiro asked each panelist to share a personal goal with the crowd of several hundred people.
"I said my goal, which I have been working on, was to start a program like NU For Life at my school, Westfield High School in Spring (Tex.)," the wide receiver recently recalled.
Jones, a Houston native, was the Wildcats' leading receiver as both a true sophomore and junior, but he missed the entire 2014 season with a knee injury.
While in high school, Jones was regarded as one of the top wide receivers not just in Texas, but in the entire southwest, before tearing his ACL during the spring of his junior year. The injury limited him, a 2010 preseason All-American, to just three games as a senior. His Westfield career featured Academic All-District and All-State honors, and he was a finalist for the Touchdown Club of Houston's Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award.
"I love my high school," Jones said. "It was a very unique experience. It was great. I got to explore what I thought I wanted to do, so you could do engineering, or they had a law track. They had different tracks that you could explore. They had a literal auto shop. Probably almost as big as you'd see at a dealership, in the back of the school. The people I was around when I was playing football were some of the best people I've ever met. It was a great experience."
Jones arrived in Evanston in the summer of 2011, before NU For Life started at Northwestern.
A unique program dedicated to the professional development of Northwestern student-athletes, NU For Life is now in its fourth year of existence. The mission is to equip Wildcats with the resources necessary to excel professionally upon completion of their athletic careers. Created by a group led by Assistant Athletic Director for Career Enhancement & Employer Relations Julie Hammer and Northwestern trustee David Kabiller, NU For Life offers a programming structure specific to each of the academic years of the student-athlete college experience.
"I got my first internship through NU For Life, in marketing with the consumer engagement team at Kraft Foods," said Jones. "I went in, talked to the people and really liked the people, and I got the internship. And it's been one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. It was the first time they let an undergraduate intern there, usually it's for MBA students."
Awareness of opportunity off the field came gradually. Jones chose Northwestern because of what it offered in the classroom and in competition, but his eyes truly opened to professional development when he experienced the Wildcat Professional Excellence Program as a junior.
"I had never been in a room with so many professionals. The only professionals I knew, outside of my mom, I knew there were lawyers in the world. I knew there were construction workers. I knew there were engineers because of my focus in high school."
NU For Life's programming allowed Jones to expand his thought process about life after football.
"Being in that room and talking to those people, hearing what they do, learning about companies I'd never heard of, jobs I'd never even thought existed. It broadened my horizons. It's something that I think could really be helpful back at my school."
Relative to their peers, Northwestern student-athletes get an early start on life-after-sports through NU For Life. Jones wants to offer that same chance for a head start to his alma mater.
"A lot of kids don't know what a résumé is, don't know what an internship is. Nobody knows what networking is. Nobody understands — and I didn't know this either — when you go to your school, there are so many people that come from there that are successful that would be very willing to help you. You don't know you could go work somewhere, go shadow someone. I think it's something that could be really beneficial."
This is not just a fantastical dream. Jones has a plan, and he has help.
"My mom, she was funny. We were talking about it and she was the one that said, 'Alright, well, let's do it. I guess we're doing it.' She and I have written up a proposal, we're going to give it to the head coach to see if he likes it. And we're going to get started there. And then if it grows, it grows."
Starting small is all part of the strategy for fifth-year senior, who earned his undergraduate degree in learning and organizational change and is now working on a master's from the Kellogg School of Management.
"I want it to just be effective. I feel like that's where a lot of good things go wrong. You go to a school, you say we're going to do this for the entire school, and then nobody shows up, and it doesn't help. But if we start with football, and people are enjoying it and it's helpful, and their parents are telling them it's good, and they start urging more people and more people. And it grows from there."
Now five years removed from Westfield, Jones has accumulated some wisdom along the way that he wished he had back then, that he believes can be useful to a high school student if someone took the time to share it with them.
"It's OK to try. It's OK to learn, and fail. Don't be afraid to research, or say you don't know something, and reach out to someone to learn more. I didn't really try to do that. If I can help people at least think a little bit about it. Research a little bit about what they want to do. Then I think it could be helpful."
But that life-after-sports can wait for Jones for now, until he finishes his final season as a Wildcat.
To read the original story, visit nusports.com.