A Bittersweet Departure
July 21, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
As football fans today rejoice while stories of the NFL's pending return to business roll in by way of avalanche, the "official" and at-first-glance somber word that Albert Rocker has left Georgia Tech will trickle out.
His career in football, which he loved dearly even as a beyond-the-headlines bit player on the Flats, is over even although he had health and eligibility remaining.
Some of those not in the know will take this as a form of bad news.
You read Sting Daily, though, so you know that back stories often relate more closely to your life than what's on a front page. This is great news, the tale of a young man from New Market, Ala., who has taken the best of what Tech has to offer while living the mission statement of college athletics to the letter to now point his life's arrow straight to the sky.
This is about a wonderful - if bittersweet and difficult -- transition for Rocker, whose story may wet your eyes if you read, read, read to the end.
Simply put, the former reserve linebacker and special teams player had options, and one of them was too good to pass up. Now, he's living in Los Angeles, and working with one of the world's greatest companies - Microsoft.
After graduating in May, Rocker could have played this fall like graduated former classmates Roddy Jones, Jason Peters, Tyler Melton, Logan Walls and Michael Peterson. He gave it serious thought, considering other employment opportunities that would have waited for him long enough to play out the fall.
In the end, the pull of Microsoft won. But the software giant would not wait; it was now or not at all.
"It was very difficult, probably one of the most difficult decisions of my life," Rocker explained. "It was kind of like choosing between something you love and something that can benefit you for the rest of my life.
"The hardest part is feeling like I'm giving up on my teammates... not going out in a bad way but not having fulfilled my football dreams."
Rocker had visions. They were big. He thought of the NFL.
Yet in and after college, he took into account the big picture.
"I think a lot of kids these days get caught up in... putting all their marbles in one basket," he said. "I think you kind of over-evaluate yourself in thinking that an opportunity is going to come."
Does something about a bird-in-hand come to mind?
Rocker's decision might have been made easier by the realization over four years in Tech's program (one spent as a redshirt) that his NFL prospects were remote.
Still, his fondness for the game, its structures, and his embrace of the concept of sharing pain, remained and remains abundant. "I still do my same routine, get up at 5 a.m. and work out," he said.
As the spring semester wound down, opportunities began ramping up.
Rocker had a few key advisors, including Atlanta CPA Steve Julal and Michael Parker, a vice-president of sales with Hewlett-Packard. They and others showed him some ropes, helped him spread marbles into many baskets.
"When you don't have anybody teaching you how to go about getting a job, it can be really tough, but I had great mentors, and a lot of help at Tech," he said. "I built my network very well in Atlanta for options after football."
He stayed connected with a Microsoft recruiter met at Tech by e-mail because: "A lot of times [companies] tell you to apply on-line, but then you get lumped in with thousands. I stayed in touch with her directly by e-mail."
Eventually, the Microsoft recruiter called Rocker, who concentrated on IT while earning a management degree. First, he had an interview in Alpharetta, then in Charlotte.
"I was actually looking for an internship. When I went to the interview I wasn't sure if they were going to hire full-time or internship," he said. "They started talking about a technical account manager.
"That's usually a more senior position, but they want to get younger faces . . . and utilize the interpersonal skills that our generation has. I woke up one morning to an offer by e-mail. This was probably the third or fourth week of spring training."
Thus began the decision-making process.
Rocker said he prayed, called his parents, prayed, and consulted a few others. He picked the brains of former teammates who went through similar experiences.
Osahon Tongo had a year of eligibility remaining when he opted instead to take a job with Turner Broadcasting. Like Rocker, he was a reserve. Dominique Reese graduated last summer and had job opportunities, but returned for another season of football - as a starter.
"I think everyone comes into that situation [thinking], `Do I live my dreams out and try to make it to the NFL, and fill my satisfaction of playing football, or hop out and get into this economy and get a job,' " Rocker said.
"Dominique was facing a lot of injuries, and had job offers when he graduated. He was on the verge. He'd had shoulder surgery, and it kept bothering him the last three years but he came back and played his last year. It was definitely helpful finding kids in similar situations."
Reese is now in the work force, by the way, a management trainee with Norfolk Southern.
Microsoft gave Rocker two months to make up his mind. In late June he decided to go pro.
His office is in Irvine, Calif., and southern California will be his territory. At dinner Wednesday, he met the Microsoft CEO and CIO. He's been to company headquarters in Seattle for training, is in Denver at a sales meeting this week, and Saturday will travel to Charlotte for three more weeks of training.
He plans to visit Atlanta from Charlotte each weekend, and, "hopefully catch the first scrimmage." Microsoft has asked him to be involved this fall in recruiting when Georgia Tech holds a career fair.
The good times are rolling. But they're daunting.
"It's definitely a humbling, tough experience," he said. "I'm not complaining. It's overwhelming . . . for a company like this to feel like you're worth the compensation. Here I am only 22 years taking on a role created for our generation. You have to watch how you act, be more self conscious."
Rocker's personality helps. He's well spoken, and comfortable with others. His job, which will require maintaining, growing and adding relationships with Microsoft customers and potential customers, will include roughly 50 percent work from home, and 50 percent client interaction.
His family, including a sister who recently took a job as a registered nurse in Tampa, is far away although his mother plans to visit L.A. in a couple months.
"My parents are happy. This is a blessing for both me and my family," Rocker said. "I was blessed with such a great opportunity. When in college, you really can't judge your worth."
The Yellow Jackets remain on the mind of this young man, who said, "Tech hasn't been getting the right kind of news, but I definitely think coach [Paul] Johnson has the program in great shape, and the internship program that he is implementing will help the image of Tech athletes."
Surely most would agree upon the wisdom of Rocker's departure, but that didn't make leaving Tech easier. It was miserable. Even after deciding to join the work force, he continued working out with teammates for a couple weeks, telling only a couple of his plan.
Finally, he decided to break the news not by way of a trickle, but via avalanche.
Shortly before a workout, he told director of player development Neal Peduzzi of his decision, and asked Peduzzi to gather teammates around after the workout.
"I think it was the most emotional point in my life," Rocker said. "I really didn't feel like I was going to cry. I had rehearsed the speech. As soon as I started talking, tears started coming from my eyes. My teammates, they're like brothers. I told them before coaches, and I still talk to them every day on Twitter."
Twitter, now there's a generational interpersonal construct. I think Rocker's story is epic, the tale of a tough decision that was a blessing to have to make. He did it right, playing a game he loved well enough to earn a college scholarship, and then taking college seriously to jump-start the rest of his life. He couldn't say enough about his mentors and Johnson's efforts to get players in front of potential employers. I'm jealous. I wish I qualified for mentors like those available to Tech students and student-athletes. If you want to mentor me in a possible transition, or if you have thoughts on Rocker's trail, hit me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I may not be of the same generation, but I have serious interpersonal skills, I swear.