Getting an education and playing the sport you love while giving back to others is what describes Devon McPeek's journey at Northern Arizona University. The Tucson native arrived on the Flagstaff campus in 2013 with the intention of walking on to the Lumberjack football team. Coming out of high school McPeek did not have any football offers. Actually, the only offers he did have were to play baseball, but that's not the path that McPeek chose to take.
"I had chances to go to other schools to play baseball, but I wasn't recruited for football," McPeek said. "I had a lot of academic scholarships to go to NAU and I knew this was my best shot if I was going to play Division I football so I took the chance on coming here and I got the walk-on spot."
McPeek took on the task of committing himself not only to football, but to his studies as well.
"As a student I really found what I was passionate about in the classroom. It changed a couple of times, but at the end of the day I found out that a job in the medical field is what intrigued me."
McPeek's passion for the medical field led him to pursue a bachelor's degree in exercise science. Between his academics, rigorous football schedule, and outside activities it's amazing to see him doing so well this close to graduation.
Last week, McPeek was one of 21 graduating seniors to receive the prestigious Gold Axe Award. The award recognizes seniors who have made outstanding contributions to the university in the areas of academic performance, service, leadership and participation in activities.
"It's great to be honored for something like the Gold Axe, because it's not just an academic award. It's also about what you do around the community. It's not always what people see, so to have someone point out what you've been doing over the last 4-5 years has been really nice. Volunteering at the hospital and doing multiple things around the community is something nice to get recognized for."
Someone who is always in McPeek's corner is NAU defensive secondary coach Cha'pelle Brown.
"I tell the guys all the time that academics comes first," Brown said. "I can't guarantee any of them that they're going to go to the NFL. They have to have something to fall back on and be successful in it. A guy like Devon can do anything he wants to do. He can be a doctor or coach. Whatever he wants to do, he's going to have opportunities to do it. It's a special award for me as a coach to be able to be a part of that. He put in all the work, but I get to be his coach and be excited for him."
Although McPeek enjoys what the medical field has to offer, about two years ago he took a special interest in the coaching side of football and would like to explore that opportunity.
"I did want to go to med school, but about two summers ago when I was helping out at camp with Coach Brown, I decided that coaching is what I want to do," McPeek said. "I did want to be a surgeon for a long time, but coaching is now what I hope to do."
McPeek is drawn to sports and the game of football because he sees that it's not always just about the wins and losses. It's much more. He knows that, "the memories that we share with each other is what we're going to cherish 10 years from now."
Supporting McPeek has been Brown, a mentor to the senior during his time at NAU.
"When he first came in, he brought the same passion and love for the game that I had," McPeek said. "We were able to connect over that. Over time he really took me under his wing and showed me the right way, every day type of mentality. He treats everyone the same; no matter if you're a walk-on or a scholarship guy, you're a football player to him. He treats you like a man. Listening to him and his passion for helping young athletes really made me think that this is really what I want to do with my life. He's really changed how I've viewed the game."
When speaking about McPeek, Brown said that, "I think that everyone assumes because you're a walk-on and you don't play much that you don't have a role. I told him last year at the banquet that he would be one of our leaders and that didn't mean by how much he played but by leading by example. Academically he does it. He works hard. He does everything you ask him to do. It's been a pleasure to have a guy like him in the program and to be able to coach and mentor him and see how far he's come."
In less than 30 days, McPeek will be walking across the commencement stage and receiving his undergraduate degree.
"It's scary," McPeek laughs. "I forget the countdown exactly but the real world is coming. Learning how to actually do things on my own is going to be a big test. When you're on your own you just got to do it."
Four years ago, McPeek was a freshman trying to prove that he was worthy of being given a shot. He has succeeded at that task, showing anyone out there who believes in themselves and their dreams that as long as you put in the work, anything is possible.
"You have to see the big picture," McPeek said. "When I first walked on, there was maybe 80 guys in the meeting. Me and one other person made it into the spring. You had to see the future and realize that it wasn't going to be right away. You have to be the workhorse. What you're striving for is not easy. If it was, every single walk-on would be accepted. Not everyone has the mentality to be able to push through certain things and just keep going even when they tell you you're not good enough. Eventually it will change and they'll start to see that 'hey this guy can contribute.' When I had that transition here at NAU it was a really good feeling."
Don't give up on your dreams. Put in the work on-and-off the field, and just know that if you believe it, you can achieve it.