College football's 'senior citizens' are in it for the long haul

Illustration by ESPNstration

With redshirt seasons, medical waivers, grad transfers, the portal and the extra COVID-19 year of eligibility, it seems more and more college football players are staying in school longer and longer. Having 24- or 25-year-olds on rosters, or spending six or seven seasons with a program is not unheard of.

But although these cases are less unusual than they once were, the players' experiences and stories are unique as they navigate a path very different from that of the typical college student.

They are stories of new beginnings and fresh starts, of perseverance, dedication and overcoming obstacles, of pursuing dreams and of not letting go of something they love.

There's Frank Harris, who in seven years at UTSA has become ingrained in the San Antonio sports community. Miami tight end Cam McCormick endured three consecutive medical redshirt seasons and a complete ankle reconstruction, only to get hurt again in his second game back.

Clemson's Xavier Thomas, who looked like a surefire first-round draft pick as a freshman in 2018, is still with the Tigers after a lingering case of COVID-19 and state of depression. Wisconsin quarterback Tanner Mordecai has been with as many programs as his 50-year-old coach.

And 14 years after initially trying out for the team, Matt Ganyard finally made it as Virginia's kicker.

Here are the stories of five "senior citizens" of college football who have been in it for the long haul.

Jump to:
UTSA QB Frank Harris
Miami TE Cam McCormick
Virginia K Matt Ganyard
Clemson DE Xavier Thomas
Wisconsin QB Tanner Mordecai

Call him Uncle Frank, Grandpa or Mr. San Antonio

Sitting in UTSA's football building one Saturday this summer, Frank Harris thought back to a time when the lot where it stands was just an empty field, nothing more than a sales pitch from the Roadrunners' coach, Frank Wilson, when he was being recruited. The dorm across the way? He can remember when that was just a parking lot.

Forgive Harris if he sounds like an old man reminiscing about what life was like back in the day. He committed to UTSA back in 2016, when the program had played just five seasons. Despite Harris' severe knee injury in high school, UTSA honored his scholarship, and he arrived in 2017 as a two-star recruit who redshirted his first year to recuperate. He suffered another knee injury in 2018 and sat out that year too. In 2019, he started four games before a shoulder injury sidelined him.

Thanks to that 2017 redshirt, a medical redshirt in 2018 and a bonus COVID year of eligibility, Harris, 24, is in his seventh season at UTSA. He's been at the school for more than half the years it has had a football program (this is Year 13) and he owns more than 30 school records and a 32-12 record as the starting quarterback. In that time, it seems, everything has changed, and not just the Roadrunners' fortunes after they went 13-22 in his first three seasons. Harris, who played high school football in San Antonio about 20 miles away from the Alamodome, has become a favorite son.

"Frank Harris? In this city?" UTSA coach Jeff Traylor said. "There's going to be a lot of businesses lining up to hire Frank Harris. He's got an amazing story. I'd put him in sales and turn him loose. He'd make some millionaire a billionaire.

"Everybody knows Frank. Other than Wemby [Spurs draft pick, phenom Victor Wembanyama], I think he's the second most popular. ... I'd say it's Wemby, [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich], Tony Parker, David Robinson, [Manu] Ginobli, [Tim] Duncan, and then Frank's probably in there."

Wide receiver Joshua Cephus, one of Harris' favorite targets since he arrived in 2019, said the players love to keep him humble about his age.

"Some people call him Uncle Frank, some call him Grandpa," Cephus said. "We call him Mr. San Antonio. But he's already a humble guy. So it's not too hard to keep them there."

Harris has been the only quarterback Traylor has had since he became a college head coach in 2020, and he jokes about wishing he could sign him to a 20-year deal. Together, the two are 23-5 in the past two seasons, with two straight Conference USA championships. Now, after moving into the AAC, they're together for one last run. But even that wasn't guaranteed.

Harris had another knee surgery this offseason and got an infection. As recently as June, it wasn't clear he'd be able to play. Traylor said the team's new surgeon examined Harris, realized what was wrong and was able to correct it. He recovered just in time for the start of the season, although he had to sit out part of the Roadrunners' Week 2 win over Texas State because of a toe injury.

"It's been a long journey," Harris said. "Everybody just sees the success that I've been having and the notoriety that I've been getting recently, but they don't know about the other years with my injuries, all those things, to get to the point that I am now.

"I cherish the moments now, but it definitely was not an easy road. I mean, even this offseason was a very dark time for me. Being able to go out there and play with my teammates once again, it's just a blessing."

Traylor said he didn't want Harris to return just for him, recognizing all he's been through. But as much as he loves and wants to protect his quarterback, he knows Harris struggles to take his foot off the gas, even appealing to others for help sending that message.

"Frank ain't going to go out there unless he can be Frank," Traylor said. "I wish he'd slide. I got to get Frank to get down. I wish he'd change that. If y'all would encourage him to do that, I'd appreciate it, man. So would his mother and his father."

As long as he can stay on the field, Harris should top 10,000 career yards passing this year (he's in the top five nationally in total offense among active quarterbacks), and he said he hopes to stay in San Antonio when he's done playing.

"Having winning seasons, winning back-to-back conference championships, having the love and support of San Antonio?" Harris, the elder statesman, reminisces wistfully. "It's like a made-up story." -- Dave Wilson

'Every day I was in pain, and it would never go away'

Cam McCormick arrived at Oregon in 2016 with Justin Herbert as part of his signing class, and with Mark Helfrich as his head coach.

Today, Herbert is headed into his fourth year as an NFL starter with the Chargers and McCormick is in Miami ... headed into his eighth year of college football, with one more year of eligibility remaining.

"I know," McCormick says. "It is crazy to think about."

Nobody would blame McCormick, 25, if he had stepped away from the game, after multiple injuries and complications from surgery forced him to miss four seasons. He has already won the Capital One Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award for overcoming those injuries and playing a full season at Oregon in 2022.

But playing last year -- his first full season in five years -- led McCormick to believe he still had more football in him. He could have returned to Oregon, but after spending seven years and earning two degrees there, he felt a change of scenery was in order.

After starting his career under Helfrich and playing for Willie Taggart, Mario Cristobal and Dan Lanning at Oregon, McCormick dialed up one of his former coaches to see whether there would be a spot available for him as a transfer.

Cristobal, now at Miami, said yes. So McCormick moved to the East Coast for the first time in his life and went through preseason camp with an entirely new set of teammates, all while feeling reinvigorated about his new opportunity. It didn't take long for McCormick to earn raves from coaches and teammates for his leadership.

"For us it was seamless," said tight ends coach Cody Woodiel, who was at Oregon with McCormick. "We know what he stands for, the work he puts in, and he's a really good football player. It was a no-brainer for us when he called."

Although other programs might have had concerns about his injury history, McCormick said Cristobal has believed in him over the course of his career. He needed that positive encouragement, considering everything that happened to him.

After redshirting as a freshman in 2016, he was hospitalized in early 2017 with rhabdomyolysis, in which soft muscle tissue breaks down and leaks into the circulatory system, after intense offseason workouts. He was able to return and play that season, starting two games. Then in the 2018 opener, he broke his left fibula and tore a ligament in his left ankle, ending his season.

Multiple complications stemming from the injury arose, sidelining him for all of 2019 and 2020. McCormick said the suture doctors used to repair the ligament ended up fracturing the inside of his ankle. He had to have another surgery, in which two screws were inserted to repair the broken bone. But those screws began impinging on a ligament in his foot, which caused a rupture to one of his tendons. McCormick needed even more surgery, and he ended up taking medical redshirts in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

By 2020, McCormick started having serious doubts about continuing with his football career.

"Every day I was in pain, and it would never go away," he said. "I didn't know how it was going to get fixed. I was talking to my mom, saying I just want to be good for my life. At that point, I didn't care about football; I cared about, can I go every day without having a problem in my ankle? I wasn't sure."

McCormick turned to the internet in hopes of finding a doctor who could help him. He ended up going to see foot and ankle specialist Robert Anderson in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in December 2020. McCormick said Anderson told him that he could fix his ankle with a complete reconstruction and that, if rehab went well, he would be able to play in 2021.

McCormick and his mom went back to their hotel room to discuss his options. Hearing what Anderson said gave McCormick hope that he could play again. So he decided to have the surgery done right away.

"My mom always told me never quit, so to me, it was like, I'm not going to quit," McCormick said. "I am going to finish what I started. Whether that be on my terms, or the game's terms, but at the end of the day, I can say I gave it my all."

Sure enough, McCormick was on the field for Oregon when the 2021 season opened. In Week 2 at Ohio State, McCormick got the start. He made a huge 16-yard catch for a first down but felt something awkward with his foot. He tried to stand up, but he says it felt as if he had a high heel on his foot.

Watching up in the coaches' box, Woodiel's heart sank. He made a beeline for McCormick in the locker room at halftime. McCormick had ruptured the Achilles tendon in his right foot.

"He's sitting there already on crutches and booted up, and he's over there coaching up the younger tight ends just as intensely as all the coaches were," Woodiel said. "If everybody handled adversity like Cam does, you would live a pretty happy life."

As challenging as it was for McCormick to sit out another season, he said making that catch on the road against a top-three team gave him confidence that he could make plays ... if only he could stay healthy. And he did in 2022, playing a full season at Oregon, with six starts. Known for his blocking prowess, McCormick had a career-high 10 receptions for 66 yards and three touchdowns, tied for third most on the team.

He has already made an impact this season. He filled in as the starting tight end in the Hurricanes' 48-33 win over Texas A&M and was named one of the team's offensive players of the week.

For now, his No. 1 goal is to stay healthy. From there, who knows? He could come back for a ninth college season, or he could try to pursue a pro career. With multiple degrees, he also could join the non-football workforce. More than anything, he prides himself on his resilience and all the life lessons he has learned along the way.

"The easy path would be to walk away, but the love of football is what keeps me going," McCormick said. "Some people tell me, 'Football is football, you have to get on with life,' and other people are like, 'Life's not going anywhere.'

"Football is going to end at some point, I do know that. When that moment comes, I'm ready to move on, but I have this opportunity to play football. I've been blessed with the years I've been given, and I want to take advantage of that." -- Andrea Adelson

Two kids, eight years as a Marine, one dream fulfilled

Matt Ganyard had thought far enough ahead to bring a football with him for what the Marines call a fleet tour -- seven months spent mostly at sea with intermittent stops in places such as Jordan and Thailand. What Ganyard hadn't remembered was an air pump. So he ended up buying a new ball -- "a really bad, rubbery ball you'd buy at a beach store."

But in the Marines, you learn to make the best of a situation, so Ganyard used his beach-shop football to kick any chance he got, including on a turf soccer field while in port in Jordan.

"And a few Jordanian soldiers walk by, and I don't speak Arabic and they don't speak English," Ganyard said, "but they pointed to the football and saw me kicking it, so they went and kicked too. Just a cool sports moment and cultural experience."

Experience is one thing Ganyard has in spades in his 35th year on the planet but his first inside the Virginia locker room.

Ganyard first tried out as a kicker for the Cavaliers football team in 2009 when he was a sophomore -- the Al Groh era, he points out -- but didn't make the cut. He graduated with a degree in history, married a girl he met at Virginia, spent some time working on Capitol Hill, followed his dad's footsteps by joining the Marines, flew AH-1 Cobra helicopters and trained pilots, had two kids and, yes, kept kicking on fields from the Mediterranean to San Diego, always hoping there might be another chance to play for real.

When Ganyard's eight-year commitment with the Marines was up, he told his wife, Marie, that he wanted to go back to school, get his master's degree in business and maybe give kicking one more shot.

What Ganyard had going for him was an NCAA rule that effectively stopped his eligibility clock when he joined the military, meaning he could still play for one more year despite having his undergraduate degree already.

The problem was -- well, pretty much everything else.

Ganyard kept the rejection letter he'd gotten from his first tryout with Virginia as the background on his iPad for years. He kicked whenever he had time, often bringing his daughter out to the park with him to practice. He posted videos online, and one Instagram post caught the attention of Nick Novak, who is from Charlottesville, Virginia, and had spent parts of 15 seasons kicking in the NFL.

"I was inspired by his story," Novak said. "I was getting into my coaching career, and I contacted him. I really wanted to help the kid -- ah, I guess I shouldn't say 'kid.'"

Novak said that he was impressed with Ganyard's ability when they met but that he helped Ganyard improve in smaller, technical ways. He was amazed that Ganyard was willing to go to recruitment camps and kick alongside high school players, all in pursuit of a dream, but he also believed the dream was entirely attainable.

"This guy was a D-I kicker," Novak said. "The only thing that hindered him was his age, and he doesn't have a lot of game film."

Ganyard decided his priority was his business degree, and going back to Virginia seemed an obvious choice. He figured he could try out for the team again, but the class schedule at UVA's Darden School of Business was so regimented that there simply was no time to practice with the team, even if he could make the roster.

So another year passed, and the dream seemed to be over.

By this summer, however, Ganyard saw one last shot at kicking. He applied for an NCAA waiver to get a sixth year of eligibility, and, after a tedious appeal process, it was granted.

"I was really shocked because I didn't think it was going to happen," Marie Ganyard said. "And then I was thinking, how are we going to do this? It was a mixture of pure excitement for him and not knowing what this was going to look like."

On Aug. 2, Ganyard posted the update to social media: "At 34 years young, I'm officially a member of the Virginia football team."

To say his presence came as a surprise to the rest of the team was a bit of an understatement.

Ganyard is older than quarterbacks coach Taylor Lamb. He noted that his 3-year-old daughter, Savannah, is closer in age to Virginia's freshmen than he is. On his first day in the locker room, teammates assumed he worked for the school.

It was at the tail end of an August team meeting that head coach Tony Elliott introduced Ganyard to his Cavaliers teammates.

"I could see the shock on their faces when I said I was 34 with two kids," he said.

In the Marines, he was tagged with the call sign "Puff" after fellow pilots found an old video from his high school days in which he dressed as a Powerpuff Girl -- "always scrub your social media," Ganyard relates, another life lesson he has gathered -- so at Virginia, the nicknames didn't rattle him much.

"They call me Pop-pop or Grandpa," he said. "I kind of like Uncle Matt."

Truth is, it's still kind of surreal, Ganyard said. He thought about getting to run onto the field with Virginia for nearly 15 years before he actually got to do it.

Marie brought the kids -- Savannah, 3, and Noah, 9 months -- to Matt's home debut Sept. 9. They won't remember the game, he knows, but it was a big moment regardless.

Matt has worked so long to get here. Marie, too, has sacrificed a lot so her husband could pursue his dream.

But the dream isn't just his now. It's a treasure he can pass along to Savannah and Noah.

"I've had plenty of people along the way say, no, you can't do this," Ganyard said. "The number of doors shut along the way. I hope that kind of message -- if you have a crazy dream, go after it -- I know it sounds clichéd to say, but I'm living proof, and I hope they'll see that when they're older." -- David Hale

From the top to the bottom and back again

The play stands as one of the most memorable of Clemson's recent run of ACC dominance. It was 2018, and with a backup quarterback at the helm, Clemson had just charged back to take a late lead against Syracuse. But the Orange still had a shot, thanks to star QB Eric Dungey, who took a snap at his own 13 and dropped back to throw.

That's when the world learned about Xavier Thomas, who came off the edge like a 240-pound lightning bolt, utterly annihilating Dungey in the backfield.

Thomas was a five-star recruit, ranked No. 4 in the nation by ESPN, but that play had the feeling of a coming-out party. It also secured a victory that ultimately helped the Tigers win a national championship. Thomas was five games into his college career when he delivered that hit, and he was already cast as a future first-round NFL draft pick.

That was five years ago, and Thomas, now 24, is still waiting to reach that potential.

"I definitely wasn't planning on being here this long," Thomas said. "I was planning on being three-and-out."

Thomas finished his freshman year with 10.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and 4 QB hurries, a taste of what was to come when he stepped into a full-time starting role as a sophomore.

He hasn't approached those numbers since.

In 2019, Thomas played more, but his production dipped. He went into that offseason determined to improve, but in April 2020, he tested positive for COVID-19. His symptoms lingered, and he was unable to train. He put on weight -- 30, 40, 50 pounds. At one point, he checked in at more than 290. He was furious with himself, and by late 2020, he said he was mired in full-fledged depression.

"I had a lot of expectations on myself," Thomas said. "I had the world watching me, and I knew what they expected me to be. I didn't feel like I just let myself down, but I let down the people who depended on me."

Thomas seriously considered quitting football. He was angry with himself, and he didn't see much point in clawing his way back into shape.

It took a year for Thomas to dig himself out of that hole. He said he leaned heavily on his coaches and teammates and that he talked often with Clemson coach Dabo Swinney about God's plan. Thomas embraced his faith in a way he'd never done before, and it helped.

By the time the 2022 season kicked off, he was in the best shape of his life. He was a veteran on the team, two years past the point he figured he would be at Clemson but ready to do something great.

Again, it was not to be.

During a scrimmage that August, he was rushing off the edge when the right tackle stepped on his foot, breaking a bone.

"I broke down," Thomas said last year. "I started crying in front of the training staff."

Trainers told him he'd likely miss four to six weeks of action. He didn't play his first snap until Oct. 8. Even then, the injury wasn't fully healed, and after just three games of minimal action, he was sidelined again. Year 5 included just 50 snaps of playing time.

"It's unbelievable what that guy's been through," Swinney said. "He just needs one good year when he can stay on the field -- because he will dominate college football."

It would be easy to feel sorry for Thomas. The truth is, Swinney has. But he's an optimist, and that's something he has tried to convey to Thomas: With each setback, there are lessons and opportunities.

Think back on that sack against Syracuse, for example. What did it really prove? Thomas was an absurd athlete -- big and fast and strong. But his recruiting tape already told that story. What Swinney saw that year was raw ability with virtually no understanding of the nuance of the game.

"He probably had the least amount of knowledge of any hyped-up player coming out of high school I've ever seen," Swinney said.

Five years later, Thomas gets it. Throughout his injuries and illnesses, he couldn't play, but he could learn. Some lessons were hard, but they've stuck.

"He's in a good spot," Swinney said. "He's going to be a problem for people. And he knows more. That's really a blessing for him."

If Thomas could have seen into the future back in 2018, Swinney guesses he might well have quit football. If he could see into the future now, however, Swinney wonders if those trials won't ultimately keep him playing at the next level longer than he'd imagined.

Looking back, Thomas still feels those pangs of frustration. It bothers him, for example, that he has been tagged as injury-prone. The broken foot was a fluke. The rest -- well, the whole world struggled with COVID.

But those concerns are fleeting. Thomas has perspective now. When he delivered that hit against Syracuse, he thought he had his whole life figured out. He was a football star, and that's all that mattered.

In the five years since, he has seen what life looks like without football, and the truth is, he said, it wasn't so bad.

"Being at the top and being a projected first-round pick then being at the bottom and getting both those perspectives," Thomas said, "it keeps you grateful for each moment."

He has high hopes for 2023. He is in shape and demoralizing offensive linemen in practice -- "a pro," Swinney said, "still in college."

But it's OK if it doesn't work out, Thomas said. He loves football, and he wants to be great. But now he knows there's more to his life than the game.

He didn't expect to still be here. Looking back though, he's glad he is.

"People ask me if I would change anything," Thomas said, "and I really wouldn't. The adversity I've faced and all the lessons I've learned and prospered through all that -- I wouldn't change my story at all. Everything I've gone through, it helped me grow. Whatever I go through in life, I'll be prepared for it." -- David Hale

'I've seen a lot, and I'm grateful for it all'

Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell has had an unusually stable career path. He spent 15 years as an assistant at Ohio State, his alma mater, and six as Cincinnati's head coach, before taking the Wisconsin job in December.

Fickell's first quarterback at Wisconsin, Tanner Mordecai, has followed an increasingly more typical path for college QBs. Mordecai is at his third school in five years.

"He's been in as many programs as I have, and I'm 49 years old," Fickell, who turned 50 in August, told ESPN this spring. "Some would say, 'I can't believe it,' but all of those are incredible experiences for him. I would imagine those experiences helped make him who he is."

Mordecai, who will turn 24 on Nov. 8, said they undeniably have.

A native of Waco, Texas, he was ESPN's No. 151 overall recruit in the 2018 class. He left his home state to play for Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma, where he sat behind Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray in 2018 and Heisman runner-up Jalen Hurts in 2019. Mordecai competed for the starting job before the 2020 season but lost out to Spencer Rattler.

After only 70 pass attempts in three seasons at OU, Mordecai transferred to SMU, where he played for two coaches -- Sonny Dykes and Rhett Lashlee -- and recorded 7,152 yards and 72 touchdowns. His SMU tenure included several staggering performances: a team-record seven touchdowns in the 2021 opener against Abilene Christian; seven touchdowns in the first half alone -- tying the NCAA record -- and nine total, an AAC and SMU record, in a 2022 game against Houston; and 20 games with multiple touchdown passes.

Then he saw an opportunity for his final college stop, under a playcaller -- Wisconsin's Phil Longo -- whom he knew and in an offense where he could thrive.

"I'm really blessed; I've been at three awesome places," Mordecai told ESPN. "I made best friends for the rest of my life [at Oklahoma and SMU], and I expect nothing less from the people here. I've learned a lot of things, gone through a lot, seen a lot, and I'm grateful for it all. I don't regret anything."

Like most older college quarterbacks seeking a final transfer stop, Mordecai had a refined strategy in making his decision. Longo had recruited Mordecai while serving as Ole Miss' offensive coordinator.

Mordecai believes all the top college offenses contain elements of the Air Raid that Wisconsin is now operating -- and that Longo is "the best at this offense." Although the signal-caller had been in Air Raid or Air Raid-adjacent systems at both Oklahoma and SMU, he saw Wisconsin as a spot where he could reach the next level of development.

"It was a perfect fit for me," Mordecai said. "A lot of people try to run this offense, but the good ones, they have wrinkles that make them the best. Just learning his small wrinkles has been really interesting. I've learned at a deeper level from Coach Longo."

To prepare, Mordecai watched "hours and hours and hours" of North Carolina quarterbacks Drake Maye and Sam Howell, who combined for 14,693 passing yards with 131 passing touchdowns and 1,769 rushing yards with 24 rushing touchdowns while playing for Longo. Mordecai also studied a bit of Jordan Ta'amu, who had nearly 4,000 yards passing in Longo's offense at Ole Miss in 2018.

But Mordecai's familiarity with the Air Raid gives him an advantage most of his new teammates don't have. His biggest contribution this season could be bringing everyone else up to speed -- quite literally. Wisconsin is transitioning from a scheme that consumed the clock in cheese-curd-like chunks to one rooted in tempo and scoring points as quickly as possible.

"He's got a moxie about how he carries himself," Badgers wide receiver Chimere Dike said of Mordecai. "He's a leader, but it seems to come naturally. The biggest way he's helped us adjust is his comfort level. He's always poised; he's always under control. When you're going fast, especially early on, you can get sped up. Him doing that every day helped us calm down."

Mordecai has heard the perception that Wisconsin's returning players might resist such a dramatic scheme change. But he said if he sensed a "buy-in issue," he wouldn't have left SMU for such a dissimilar program.

"Since he's walked in the door, he's done nothing but earn the respect of pretty much everybody," Fickell said. "Being where he's been and some of the experiences he's had make him a hell of a lot better at [the offense]. But he's been nothing but impressive." -- Adam Rittenberg