“Just remember—football is 80 percent mental, and 40 percent physical.”
Though the math doesn’t quite add up in this quote from the 1994 peewee football film, “The Little Giants” (former pro football player Steve Emtman delivered the line), you’d be hard-pressed to find an NFL player today who doesn’t agree that a majority of their beloved game depends heavily on one’s mindset. Just ask '14 UCI sociology grad—and current tight end for the Arizona Cardinals—Darren Fells.
Yes, though UCI does not have a football team, it does have an alumnus in the NFL. The former Anteater basketball star played football in high school before deciding to focus on the court—instead of the turf—once he got to college. He later played basketball professionally for five years in Europe and South America before being drafted into the NFL during open tryouts in 2012. But Fells got much more out of his college experience than a career as a professional athlete. His degree in sociology has helped him both on and off the field, and he hopes to pursue counseling when his time in the NFL comes to a close.
So what does a sociology degree have to do with professional sports? A lot, according to Fells.
“I was always very interested in why people behave the way they do,” he says. “It’s so interesting to me how you can understand people’s mentalities and how different people approach certain situations."
Understanding the various factors that affect how a person reacts to a situation is invaluable when playing a team sport like football—especially when there is a lot at stake and tensions can run high.
“With sociology, you learn to understand how people act in a certain environment, and in football, you’re in an environment with peers and you’re all trying to get the exact same result,” he says.
That understanding can also help one know how to diffuse high-stress settings, and Fells has found himself acting as a “therapist” to some teammates over the years, lending an ear or offering advice when he sees someone who needs it.
“It’s an every day, every game situation, but once you do understand a person’s mindset, it’s easier to pick up on when they may be off their game and understand what you need to do to get them back focused to help the team out. ”
His studies in sociology didn’t just help Fells with him teammates. His interest in the subject extends to interest in other cultures, and he even credits his UCI courses for inspiring him to sign the contract that sent him to play basketball overseas following his time on campus.
One introductory sociology class in particular, which required the students to choose one ethnic group to study and then present to the class, sticks out in his mind.
“During the group presentations I remember thinking how interesting all these other cultures were,” he says. “I was jealous of the other groups. That’s one reason why I ended up going and playing basketball overseas—so that I could experience different cultures for myself.”
And experience other cultures he did. Fells played in Belgium, Finland, France, Mexico, and Argentina before finally deciding that his heart was with football. So he moved back to the U.S. to pursue a spot in the NFL. It was a tough change, but he says that the biggest challenge was adjusting to the language and game culture more than the physical aspects.
“Skipping college football and going from playing basketball into the NFL, I definitely missed a huge step in learning,” he says. “To use a math analogy, it’s like going from addition straight to statistics.”
But the reward of playing a game that he loves definitely makes up for the difficult transition.
“Football was one of those things I always knew I loved and wanted to do,” he shares. “Even now, coming out of the tunnel and hearing the roar of the crowd during home games, it’s pretty intense. Every time I come out of that tunnel, it still feels like a dream.”
For now, Fells’ focus is having as long of a career in the League as possible, and enjoying time with his wife and baby daughter—but he is hoping to start researching a master’s program in counseling soon.
“I just love helping people,” he says. “I love understanding why they think a certain way and helping them figure out their problems. I’m also considering going into guidance counseling back in college, or maybe marriage counseling. There’s so much to choose from, just choosing the right one is the hardest part.”
-Bria Balliet, UCI School of Social Sciences
pictured: (top) Darren Fells, #85, squares off against the Eagles’ Malcom Jenkins (courtesy of Arizona Cardinals). (top right) Fells (with the ball) takes a shot during a UCI basketball game (courtesy of UCI Athletics). (bottom right) Fells and his family pose for a portrait (courtesy of the Fells family).