USF players deal with life as superstars

Being one of the faces of USF football means more than throwing touchdown passes or out-juking the nation’s top defensive lines.

Sometimes, it means autographing a few spoons.

Yes, spoons. And socks. And hats supporting other universities. At least, that’s what happened to quarterback Matt Grothe this summer, when about 450 kids realized their camp coach had been leading a double life.

“I was swarmed,” he said. “They were handing me all kinds of weird stuff to sign. I didn’t mind signing any of it, but I wouldn’t sign a (University of Florida) Gators hat. I just couldn’t do that.”

Though UF quarterback Tim Tebow may be more nationally renowned thanks to his 2007 Heisman Trophy win, in the Tampa Bay area, USF’s Heisman candidate couldn’t escape his fans if he tried.

As Grothe’s and his teammates’ names grow more familiar with every win, advertisement and award, their public identity begins to seep into the rest of their lives. While they haven’t reached the level of popularity at which they’re forced to dodge paparazzi between classes, some players have to grapple with what it means to be both a college student and campus celebrity.

“Athletes have to understand that once they’ve obtained any kind of public image, they can’t take it back,” said Roger Mills, president of First Down Imaging, a media consultancy company specifically geared toward athletes. “You can’t unring a bell. They have to accept that they’re going to be used as public figures, and they must accept the responsibility that comes along with it.”

Rising recognition
Despite being voted to the All-America team as well as being named the Big East Player of the Year, USF defensive end George Selvie hasn’t experienced the swarming of fans that Grothe has.

“If anything, I bet people see me and think I’m a basketball player,” he said, referring to his 6-foot-4, 245-pound build. “People don’t recognize me that often. I don’t score touchdowns, so I’m not as high profile, I guess.”

That may soon change, as Selvie’s face has been plastered on billboards and is featured in TV commercials as part of USF Athletics’ “Can U Feel It?” campaign. Meanwhile, his and Grothe’s images are gracing newspaper covers, their names are being emblazoned on green-and-gold T-shirts and their talents on the field are becoming the topic of many a Facebook group, as college football fans wait to see whether the Bulls will live up to the past season’s string of successes — or losses.

“Twenty, 40, 50 years ago we didn’t have the Internet, podcasting or blogging,” Mills said. “The mass media’s growth is so exponential that it’s an indication of the insatiable thirst the public has for information. The question for athletes is: Do you want to give them a bitter taste or a sweet taste? Either way, they’re going to drink — you have to determine what you’re going to give them.”

The first steps an athlete must take to deal with this sudden rise to fame, Mills said, is to accept one’s status as a public figure, prepare for it by watching what one says and does at all times, and evaluate the image that’s being projected. What many athletes don’t realize is that they have the power to shape their public persona, he said. Players who don’t care could wind up with the media shaping it for them.

Manage the media or be managed by it
To help players learn to cultivate their images, media training is built into the Bulls’ preseason training camp. ESPN personality Doug Graber stopped by the Athletics building Aug. 13 and spent 40 minutes with the team, instructing players on how to answer difficult questions and project the right image.

Graber also advised players about what not to discuss, such as game plans or other information that could give an opposing team the upper hand come game day, said Assistant Athletics Director Chris Freet.

“This training is valuable in terms of polishing them up for their careers,” he said. “It helps them make sure they don’t embarrass themselves, the team or their opponents.”

Should the Bulls have another high-scoring game like last season’s 64-12 trouncing of the University of Central Florida Knights, or a defeat like the 56-21 loss to the University of Oregon Ducks, Graber’s insight should help the team learn to address those issues so that they don’t boast and come off as arrogant if the former scenario occurs or respond in an unsportsmanlike way if the latter happens.

No matter what the season brings, Selvie can turn to his parents to keep him grounded.

“One time some people asked for his autograph while we were in the mall, and I just stood back and smiled,” his mother, Twana Selvie, said. “When it was over, I said, ‘You’re still not anybody,’ and I told him that no matter where he is in life, he’s got to stay humble. You have to remember where you came from.”

When it comes to keeping their egos in check and getting general advice about dealing with the press, Grothe and Selvie said they also turn to USF head football coach Jim Leavitt.

“He told us to watch what we say because the media could turn things around,” Selvie said. “I just try to be me and say the right things … We’re just regular college students.”

The athlete next door
As “regular” as they may be, some aspects of their college life just aren’t the same as everybody else’s. Studying at the library, for example, isn’t quite as simple as finding a quiet corner and downing enough caffeine to stay up all night.

When Grothe joined a study group for one of his secondary education classes during the height of football season last year, his group’s attempts at studying were often interrupted by students approaching the quarterback, who at the time stood out even more thanks to his Mohawk, or Grohawk, as some fans dubbed it.

“A lot of students just walked by and said, ‘Can I shake your hand?’ or something like that, but some people made a big deal about it,” he said. “They were like, ‘Holy s—! It’s you!’ I probably should’ve worn a hat.”

At first, this kind of attention was a little unnerving for Grothe, but he said he’s getting used to it.

“He used to get a little embarrassed when he was signing something in front of people,” his father, Matt Grothe Sr., said. “It was strange at first, when we’d be out at dinner and somebody would ask for his autograph, but he handles it really well. He’s really appreciative of the fans’ support, because it means they’re embracing USF football, which is a great thing.”

Though some may consider asking for an autograph in a restaurant a faux pas, Selvie and Grothe said they don’t have a problem with fans approaching them. As a common courtesy, however, it may be nice to make sure those spoons are clean before offering them to be signed.

As for the Gators apparel? Consider leaving it at the table.