Jovany Ruiz had seven knee surgeries in three years.
Max Michel ripped his groin off the bone and tore his labrum in the same season.
Combined, they’ve had nearly a dozen surgeries and over $300,000 in medical bills. They’ve experienced the highs and lows of college sports.
Motivated by their circumstances, Ruiz — a former UB wide receiver — and Michel — a defensive end entering his sixth season — joined forces in late 2022 to create a nonprofit, Sport of Life, dedicated to helping other athletes find an identity outside of sports.
But there’s so much more to their stories.
Ruiz comes from a Puerto Rican town of 2,400 people. He grew up without running water. His mother was the only person he knew who could read and write.
Despite this, Ruiz says he was always grateful.
“What we lacked in money, we [made up for in] mental [strength]. We were very positive people,” he said. “I feel like we were always on the other side of a mission trip… we always got help from the government or people just volunteering… giving us food and stuff. I got to a mindset of gratitude and a mindset of giving.”
In 2017, Ruiz took the opportunity of a lifetime and walked on to UB’s football team. But when injuries piled up, he began to lose sight of his identity and self worth.
“I was feeling bad for myself, I was feeling sorry,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got injured multiple times… I had a lot of time to just reflect on myself and see who I truly was beyond an athlete, and I went back to my old [mindset]. I am so grateful to be here.”
Ruiz confided in one of his football coaches, who suggested he visit a “rough area” of Buffalo to open his eyes to the struggles of others.
“I went to this park, and I could feel the stress on these houses, kids walking around with no parents… syringes on the ground,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m truly blessed. People care about me, even though I’m not producing on the field right now.”’
Michel had a similar feeling of “depression” while recovering from a “freak accident” groin tear, among other injuries. He went from a team leader and starter to “the shadows.”
“The show keeps going on without you,” Michel said. “You’re so used to being in the spotlight and being that guy, it takes a toll on your identity.”
Michel focused on service to remind himself that there’s more to life than football. He particularly found purpose in community work with the UB football team, where he organized a coat drive to benefit the Buffalo City Mission.
Like Ruiz, Michel credits his upbringing — especially his mother — for his giving nature.
Michel grew up in New Jersey, where his mother founded a nonprofit daycare called Harmony Education and Life Partners (HELP) that specialized in harboring underprivileged children.
“She would make it so that these kids had just a better opportunity… There were kids that had never been to the zoo, never been to the beach, and she would take them there, and take them to museums,” he said. “You would see these kids’ faces light up, their grades will start getting better, all that stuff.”
While recovering from their injuries in the training room, Ruiz and Michel realized that they weren’t alone in their search for meaning beyond football. Drawing on their own experiences (and those of their peers) they embarked on a journey to help other college athletes become more well-rounded, confident and prepared for life after athletics. What began as The Perspective Project, an initiative to get college athletes involved in community service to improve their mindsets, grew into Sport of Life. Its mission statements are “helping athletes find an identity outside of sports” and “the more you give the more you gain.”
Ruiz and Michel founded Sport of Life in early 2023 and have since worked to flesh out ideas for community service trips and educational seminars for college athletes. They plan to partner with universities around the country — starting with UB — to teach athletes mental health, professional and financial skills. They hope to host their first service trip next spring.
In April, Sport of Life received a $1,000 microgrant from the Good Neighbor Fund (GNF), a Buffalo organization that helps “under-resourced entrepreneurs.” Michel and Ruiz got in touch with GNF through UB Blackstone Launchpad and earned the grant through an “elevator pitch” competition.
“What appealed to us most about the Sport of Life was the passion that the founders have for this mission,” GNF co-founder Susan O’Rourke said, adding that Ruiz and Michel are working to solve “a problem that thousands of student athletes face.”
According to an International Olympic Committee report, 45% of former athletes suffer from anxiety and depression after transitioning out of sports.
78% of NFL players and 60% of NBA players face serious financial hardships after retirement, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute.
“Sport of Life was a no-brainer for us,” O’Rourke said. “[GNF] is focused on businesses that give back to the community… and [Sport of Life] has that built into their program.”
Like Ruiz and Michel, the GNF saw that there was a lack of resources for college athletes. While many universities emphasize a balance between athletics and academics, the reality is that sports dominates the lives of student athletes.
“I spend around eight hours plus in the facility, just to take care of my body, practice and do all that stuff. And then I have class after that, and then I have my own personal stuff,” Ruiz said. “So we never have a true chance in terms of a fair playing field.”
Michel echoed that sentiment, saying, “I don’t think it’s the fault of any athletic programs or the NCAA… that athletes might be feeling a little unprepared… but I do think something needs to be done about it. So that’s exactly why we’re doing what we have to do.”
Ruiz and Michel expect Sport of Life to gain 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in the coming weeks, and have already begun marketing and pitching their idea to community partners, including Operation Hope, which teaches financial literacy skills.
Michel plans to return to UB for his sixth season in 2023, and Ruiz is currently training in Tampa, Florida with hopes of making a professional football roster. All the while, the two are focused on helping other athletes and filling the gaps they see in college sports.
Ruiz and Michel hope to reach athletes from around the nation to unite under a mission of self discovery and improvement.
“Yes, we all have our individual sports, but we all play the sport of life,” Michel said.
Ryan Tantalo is the senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org