By Kim Constantinesco
The winds of change can be challenging and intimidating to even the most badass heroes on our planet.
That’s why former Marine Sergeant Alex Stone, 30, and his Cambridge, Mass. based company, Athletes of Valor, are helping military men and women successfully transition back to civilian life using collegiate sports as a major catapult.
After struggling to find his own way to “gainful employment” following four years of active service, Stone determined that the first step to launching veterans into a successful post-military career was to foster relationships between them and college coaches.
Sure, helping them get recruited onto sports teams would ease the shift. But Stone is thinking bigger and brighter.
“We don’t only help veterans just get into college and play sports. The idea is while you go to classes and get the four-year degree, you’re going to be much better prepared for long term employment,” Stone said. “We’re not just an athletic recruiting company. We use sports as a support structure on campus. By being part of that team, veterans are going to find purpose, and ensure they graduate and use their educational benefits widely.”
The stats support his thinking. Of the veterans who go back to school, a staggering 52% drop out before obtaining a degree while 85% of student-athletes go on to successfully earn their diplomas.
Making The Leap Back To A Civilian Life
Stone is from Swampscott, Mass., a short 15-mile drive north of Boston. He grew up playing football and hockey, and had the skill to take it beyond high school. However, he enlisted in the Marines during his junior year after being inspired by his grandfather, a World War II Marine.
“At the same time, academically, I wasn’t very strong,” Stone admitted.
So from 2004-2008, he deployed to Iraq twice and gained unbelievable leadership skills along the way. Once he separated from the military, however, he entered a job market steeped in a tough economy with just a high school diploma.
“I found it difficult to find good opportunities,” Stone said. “There were plenty of hourly wage positions, but they wouldn’t lead me to many places beyond that. My challenge was there were a lot of programs for veterans out there, but there was no start and finish. You’d start a program, but it wouldn’t really get you any further than you already are. ”
So Stone navigated the choppy waters by himself. He leveraged his network and found an old football coach to intern for who was working for an overseas manufacturer. While gaining some experience, he earned a business degree from North Shore Community College, and eventually worked his way into a product line manager position at Under Armour.
Still, his transition left him concerned for his fellow uniformed brothers and sisters. The solution, he felt, was to unite military service men and women with college sports teams.
“As an athlete, I never really knew I had an opportunity to go back and play sports after serving,” Stone said. “Team sports check every one of the boxes. You have coaches who are mentors and leaders for you. You have a structured environment with practice schedules, study sessions, and meal times. Most importantly, you have the camaraderie. You leave the military, where you’ve been working as a team day in and day out, and you go to this big scary civilian world where it’s very individualized.”
So, after five years at Under Armour, Stone branched out. He connected with an old pal named Jordan Fliegal, who is the founder of Coach Up, an online platform that connects athletes with private coaches. When Stone told Fliegal about his idea, Fliegal was all in.
A Natural Fit
Stone left Under Armour in June and launched Athletes of Valor on Veterans Day. So far, there are a few hundred coaches and potential athletes on the free platform with 20-25 “recruits” signing on every day.
In the past, the biggest challenge coaches encounter if they want to recruit veterans is once they leave high school and go off on their military contracts, there’s no way to stay in contact unless they’re lucky enough to obtain an email address or a phone number.
“We allow active duty military who are thinking about transitioning to create a profile which has all of their academic info, their basic military info, and basically their recruiting resume,” Stone said. “Coaches can access the platform, find them, express interest, and begin to tell them why they might be a good fit for their school.”
There’s also overcoming the challenge of targeting the active duty population.
“It’s not a business or an industry where you can just do email marketing,” Stone said. “We leverage a lot of personal connections.”
It may be a digital process, but Stone and his team call all recruits who sign up so they can talk to them personally.
Today, big time schools are showing interest in many Athletes of Valor users. It’s easy to see why coaches would want to bring a veteran onto their respective teams.
“There’s a huge difference in maturity between an 18-year-old and a 22-year-old, or even a 26-year-old,” Stone said. “If a coach tells his team there’s a 6:00 a.m. practice, most veterans will be there at 5:45 a.m. ready to work no matter how difficult the task in front of them is. That’s because they do what they’re supposed to do and they do it to the best of their abilities.”
One big goal for Stone and his crew is to get one veteran on every single college team in the country. But, the ultimate mission? Giving veterans a springboard into the job market. In fact, Athletes of Valor is working on creating corporate partnerships so there will be internship and employment opportunities for those in the program.
“We want to lead them into good jobs, good careers, and set them up for success,” Stone said. “Sports are just the vehicle.”
With that philosophy, a transition from the battle field to the playing field means so much more.