A new mission: helping veterans land on college teams
It took months of training before Alex Stone could officially be called a Marine. Four years later, after serving as a bodyguard for high-ranking officers in Iraq, he had earned his sergeant’s stripes.
But becoming a civilian again — in the summer of 2008, smack in the middle of the Great Recession — happened almost overnight.
“When you get out, you get a three-day class about how to write a resume and what your options are,” he recalled. “You’re 22 years old. All you’re thinking about is packing your stuff and going through the checklist of what’s required to get out.”
And now Stone is taking another leap: He’s leaving behind a career at the sports-equipment company Under Armour Inc. to launch his own business, aimed at helping veterans return to college.
The Cambridge startup, Athletes of Valor, is developing a website to amass digital dossiers on veterans interested in playing college sports, giving coaches a central place to hunt for promising but possibly overlooked athletes.
Stone’s bet is that participating in sports will help those veterans stick with college by giving them some of the structure they’re used to, along with a camaraderie that might be hard to find while shuffling between classes.
Sports programs, he said, can also benefit by bringing on players who know a thing or two about teamwork and sacrifice.
“We feel like we have a pinnacle group of men and women who have proven themselves and are trained leaders,” he said. “They’re coming out at 22, 23, 26 years old — and they have four years of eligibility.”
Stone’s brainchild is still being tested with coaches and schools in New England. But it’s already won over Jordan Fliegel, cofounder of the private-coach marketplace CoachUp, who invested in the company and serves as Athletes of Valor’s chairman.
If Athletes of Valor can reach a significant chunk of the millions of post-9/11 veterans in the United States, coaches and athletic directors might have a hard time saying no to an annual subscription fee of a few thousand dollars, Fliegel said.
Corporate partners looking to support a new generation of veterans could be close behind, he said.
“I love the mission, and I believe in Alex,” Fliegel said. “But I think there’s a big opportunity to build a profitable, sustainable business.”
The NCAA doesn’t track how many of the more than 460,000 college athletes are military veterans, but has said that it’s “a small subset.”
Stone, who grew up in Swampscott, thinks more organized recruiting could make veteran athletes more commonplace. He was struck by the idea while working at Under Armour, which gave him insight into the machinery that recruits top high-school athletes.
“You see a lot of these combines and showcases at the high school level and you think to yourself, ‘Well, why don’t they do one of these on a military base?’ ” Stone said. “Coaches would say, ‘Sure, yes, we would love to have more veterans on the team. But we don’t know how to find them.’ ”
The Department of Veterans Affairs said there were 2.6 million post-9/11 veterans in the United States in 2014, a figure expected to reach nearly 3.5 million by 2019. About 48 percent have attended some college, and many are eligible for the GI Bill, which pays up to three years of college bills.
They’re also the youngest veterans in the country: About 54 percent were 35 or younger as of 2014, the VA said.
But many veterans also will have trouble readjusting to civilian life. A survey of about 1,500 by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that three-quarters of recent veterans had been unemployed after leaving the military.
About 40 percent also said getting more education was the number-one factor that could help improve their job prospects.
Stone said leaving his job at Under Armour was one of the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make. But it’s a mission he said he couldn’t delay any longer. “If this doesn’t come to life,” Stone said, “I wouldn’t sleep well at night.”