The future is bright is often a term thrown around football programs as they look to recover from down years. For Aaron Garland, however, his bright future has nothing to do with the sport he loved; loved, as in past tense. We’ll get to that part of his story a little later. Garland knew as early as his sophomore year in high school what he wanted to do with his life, service. It’s through that service that he wants to help others and ultimately run for public office, with a very lofty goal as you’ll find out.
Leveraging his pursuit of a degree in Political Science here in Storrs, Garland joined a number of organizations around campus in order to better himself, become more well-rounded and grow. Many times we look at athletes and think they have it all at a school. That’s not always the case. Athletes are regular people, students looking to grow at the same place you and I shared similar experiences. For Garland, he joined a club called Collective Uplift, an organization formed by Dr. Joseph Cooper, an Assistant Professor of Sport Management in the Neag School of Education.
“Collective Uplift was created from my research,” Cooper said back in 2015. “I do research on black male student athletes and their experiences at both historically white and historically black colleges and universities. I found that many athletes experience levels of isolation and frustration in college because they don’t feel they have a support system outside of athletics. When athletics is not going well, they feel like they don’t have a sense of purpose at the institution. I found that very troubling and important to create an organization where they felt supported holistically.”
Garland joined the group in 2015, alongside many of his teammates, including Cam Stapleton, Angelo Pruitt, BJ McBryde, Marquise Vann and Foley Fatukasi. Today, he is the Vice President of the organization and in October, was part of a panel that explored ‘Race, Sport and Activism’ that saw alums like Pruitt and Deshonn Foxx return to campus to take part. During the event, Garland expressed the power of collective efforts when seeking to address social injustices, describing how pursuing those efforts alone can be challenging and gaining the support and involvement of an entire team or a group of people, is a way to achieve more impactful change. That change is what he hopes to invoke in society, particularly where he grew up.
BACK HOME IN CHICAGO
No where in the United States is gun violence worse than it is inside Chicago’s city limits. It’s a problem that takes innocent lives and sees today’s youth begin to move down the wrong path in life. Garland has seen what that wrong path can do; to one’s family, their present and their future. It’s that experience that led him to dedicate his life to service.
“The gun violence in Chicago over the last decade has just been ridiculous,” he explained. “I’m from Oak Park, Illinois and if you look at Oak Park on a map, it’s right on the border of the west side of Chicago. I lived three blocks from the city. I never saw gun violence first hand, but I was around it and a lot of my friends are from the west side. You hear stories and see kids going the complete opposite direction as they should at their age. That made me want to get involved.”
Over break, Garland did just that.
“When I was home in Chicago, I was working for Illinois State Senator Emil Jones [III],” he said. “I was able to talk to constituents and learn more about the political process. Since I was a sophomore in high school, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up and my honest answer has been I wanted to run for big-time office, I want to be the President.”
He recognizes the hard work and efforts that will need to go into a career in politics and the pursuit of his dream. Garland already has a plan. He will attend graduate school after finishing up his UConn degree in just three years, before attending law school in or around the Chicago area. He also knows that in order to spark the kind of change that will truly make a difference, he can’t do it alone.
“My brother and I decided to commit our lives to service and give to other people,” he said. “We can’t measure success unless we bring people with us. That’s a big part of my goal, giving back and helping the next person. My brother and some of his friends started a non-profit when I was still in high school. When I get to law school, I want to become heavily involved with that. It entails helping out kids who have been, or are about to be kicked out of school and putting them in programs that will help them stay out of jail.”
As former head coach Bob Diaco took over the UConn program, a pipeline quickly opened up around Chicago, stemming from time at Notre Dame with Josh Reardon. The first pull was linebacker Vontae Diggs, a person Garland became close with back in Illinois. When it became time to make his commitment, Diggs helped make his decision easy.
“I look at Vontae as an older brother,” Garland said on Wednesday. “He’s been a big part of me growing as a young man while I’ve been here. I knew Vontae when I was a freshman and he was a sophomore in high school. We used to play on the same 7-on-7 team, it was called Core 6. He was always in my life. Him being an older guy, I looked up to him and wanted to follow in his footsteps because he is an amazing person. He has a great head on his shoulder, he works hard and is a person to follow.”
One year later, wide receiver Quayvon Skanes followed.
“Q also played on that same 7-on-7 team when we were in high school,” Garland said. “It was kind of like the same cycle that happened with me and Vontae, happened with Q and me. Coach Reardon recruited all three of us [to UConn].”
THE DIACO YEARS
Despite the connection with Vontae Diggs, former head coach Bob Diaco was a major draw for why Garland ended up in Connecticut, choosing UConn because of the defense and his belief in Diaco’s vision. As he arrived, the Huskies immediately began to start to win on the field. Garland’s first college experience was the first UConn football season to end with a bowl game since the run to the Fiesta Bowl under Edsall in 2010. He and many felt like the team was on the upswing.
“After my freshman year, that bowl season, we were ascending,” he said. “Coach Diaco struggled obviously with the offense my sophomore year and got on the hot seat. I knew we were looking for an offensive coordinator and then they suddenly ended up firing him.”
As the coaching change occurred, players of course heard the criticism of their former coach, something that is still prevalent today. Garland wanted to set the record straight about what the guys inside the locker room experienced on a daily basis.
“Diaco was a guy that would protect us in the media,” he said. “He always brought us up, never brought us down in that forum. He had a good heart and knew the game of football. He knew how to bring the best out of his players. He protected us. He had us prepared for every moment of the game. You knew when and how long you were going to play as there was never anything that would be up in the air.”
“He was an honest man that had a lot to offer young kids to help them grow,” he continued. “It was all positive. He was a great Coach and a great mentor for young men. People talk about the move with Donovan Williams. It doesn’t sound like something Coach Diaco would do on his own. A week before, after East Carolina, he even said he wasn’t going to play him because of the redshirt. He was a man of his word. If he said he was going to do something, he would do it. That’s how I feel about Diaco.”
COACHING CHANGE, FRUSTRATION & UNEXPECTED PAIN
Following his firing, Garland considered transferring, but ultimately remained at UConn. He was optimistic about what his third year in the program would bring after redshirting his first year and seeing an increased role on special teams in year two.
“I felt that it was finally my turn to play, my turn to prove my worth to the team,” he said. “The transition from the 3-4 to a 3-3-5, we loved it, especially being a defensive back. We had five guys back there, more opportunity to play.”
But things didn’t work out that way. This past season was a struggle for Garland and the defense, later expressing that he wasn’t sure the scheme was the right fit for the conference’s style of play. Expecting playing time, he saw some very early, mostly on special teams, before things dwindled off. As the season progressed he didn’t play much at all, as there was a sense that the new staff was looking to get guys that fit their system, more experience.
That mindset contributed to something head coach Randy Edsall discussed throughout the year, getting buy-in from the entire team. The lack of that buy-in contributed to some of the issues on the field and the overall amount of wins. Garland confirmed that same sentiment, insinuating that it was some of the public discussion of players’ play that contributed to that mentality.
“We had a brand new coach, which it’s already hard to win immediately because guys aren’t fully bought in yet,” he explained. “I don’t want to sound like an angry UConn alum because I love my teammates, I’m an intelligent guy. I was class President in high school and I’m involved in other things here at UConn, but the truth is a lot of guys were getting put down in the media and the coaches didn’t think we were good enough to run a scheme. People took that personally.”
Not everyone, but some, including several upperclassmen. Following the year, Garland felt it was time to move on.
“I planned on transferring after the season,” he said. “I asked for my permission to contact, but I never did release myself from the team. I realized I only needed 34-credits to graduate, so I decided to stay.”
Then something unexpected happened.
“I received a fee bill for $26,000.00,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on. UConn pulled my financial aid for the spring semester over break. I tried to call and text, but never got a response. I obviously couldn’t pay that amount of money, so I had to contest it through an appeal with the Division of Athletics and the Financial Aid office. We had a hearing last Friday and they made the decision that day that things would be reversed. I guess they didn’t have a right to not honor my aid agreement, which we all signed in the summer for a full scholarship.”
“That experience hurt,” Garland continued. “I was upset. Coach Edsall is a guy that I look up to as a leader. He has done great things with UConn in the past. He always preached academics and getting your degree. That hurt.”
Garland is still at UConn, enrolled in classes and will walk in May. He’ll need to take another ten credits in the summer, but other than that, he is on track to graduate from UConn in three years. He will apply for graduate school and look to complete a one-year Master’s program. Would he consider playing football again?
“It would have to be the right situation,” he said. “I just felt like going through all this at UConn has really trumped my love for the game. It would have to be the right situation and close to home for me to play football again.”
Overall, Garland is please with his decision to come to UConn and will leave with a number of doors and opportunities open to him because of that. He summarized his experience before we ended.
“I believe my story is unique because I came to UConn with very high aspirations for myself,” he said. “My football experience was disappointing, but I learned a lot about myself and grew stronger through it. I’m extremely grateful for my experience outside of the football program. I was able to serve on the leadership board for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, I am Vice President of the Collective Uplift Club, I became fluent in sign language here and I was able to find a major that interested me in political science. One day, I hope to run for office back in Chicago, so UConn has set me up for a lot of good things outside of football.”
He had one final message, aimed directly at his former teammates.
“I wish UConn nothing but the best,” he said. “I’m still going to be here, still going to be around the guys, motivating them to do well for next season.”
With a mentality like Garland’s, you just may hear his name again someday, in Chicago or maybe even Washington DC.
Want to know more about Collective Uplift and the role they play in athletes lives? Watch the following short video:
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