At 28 years of age, Brett Ralph is just entering his prime as a professional athlete, a fleeting window of time when the wisdom acquired through experience meshes with the athleticism of youth.
Yet, Ralph, a five-year Canadian Football League (CFL) veteran and 2008 Grey Cup champion, is not weaving his way through opposing defences looking for the end zone. Instead he is navigating the halls of the University of Lethbridge with his sights set on a new goal – a teaching degree from the Faculty of Education .
“I got to the point in my career where I felt I needed to start thinking long term,” says Ralph, who is married and a father of three. “I still think my best years in football are probably ahead of me, but the one thing I didn’t want to lose was the desire to go back to school. A part of me was scared that if I was to play five more seasons, I may not want to come back to get a degree and would move on and do something different.”
His retirement announcement, on the eve of the Calgary Stampeders ’ 2010 training camp, caught many people by surprise, but it is consistent with Ralph’s character and reflective of his upbringing.
“I’ve wanted to teach since I was a high school student,” he says.
He comes from a family of educators, led by his father Jim Ralph (BA ’83, MEd ’06), who holds two degrees from the
U of L and is the principal of Raymond High School . His brothers Dustin (who teaches at Stirling High School) and Brock (who has a teaching degree but is still playing for the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers ) have also chosen to follow an academic path.
“Watching my dad as I grew up, his lifestyle attracted me to teaching more than anything,” says Ralph, who lauds the familial nature of the profession.
“You have the same hours as your kids, you’re home in the summers with your kids and you have the ability to coach as well. You won’t be rich by any means but for me it’s worth the lifestyle and the opportunity to become a positive influence in kids’ lives.”
The U of L is Ralph’s fourth post-secondary school after brief stints at the University of Wyoming , Boise State University  and the University of Alberta , all while pursuing his football career. Now in his second full semester at the U of L, he’s finding his niche as a student.
“I’ve never been able to go to school without having to go to practice afterwards,” he says. “I don’t have to be on the road for football games anymore; I can actually put all my focus into my schoolwork. I don’t think people understand how hard it is to be at your best academically when your time is split with athletics.”
Ralph admits he wouldn’t have had it any other way, but now that he’s not facing two-hour practices, personal training sessions and film study, he’s been able to immerse himself in his schoolwork. It’s given him a clear view of his future as a teacher, something that was reinforced by a U of L class that took him into a public school setting.
“I compare teaching to coaching in a lot of ways,” says Ralph, adding he values lessons learned outside the traditional classroom. “Obviously, you are required to follow a curriculum but I think the relationship you build with kids is far more valuable than maybe the things they learn out of a textbook.”
The U of L’s personal approach is proving to be a good fit for these ideals. Ralph says his early experiences with University professors and the one-on-one approach they employ is something he can take with him as he looks to cultivate positive relationships with his students.
And while Ralph is fully committed to his new life as a student and only a student, it’s hard to imagine him not missing football, especially now that he’s in school for the first time during a CFL season. He says there are no regrets.
“I miss playing with our receiver group because we were together for a long time, and I miss the atmosphere,” he says. “But I really don’t think it’s any more difficult than I anticipated, or any easier. Now, if they are holding up a Grey Cup in November, my emotions might mess with me a little bit.”
For a look at the full issue of SAM in a flipbook format, follow this link .