GVSU athletic adviser leaves strong impact

GVL / Courtesy - Damon Arnold
Damon Arnold

GVL / Courtesy – Damon Arnold Damon Arnold

Adam Knorr

When current Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Charles Johnson was at Grand Valley State, he was worried about making a speech in class.

So he went to Damon Arnold.

Current New Orleans Saints guard Tim Lelito couldn’t understand why he kept getting hurt during his first two years at GVSU.

So he went to Damon Arnold.

Current Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Dan Skuta was worried during the 2011 NFL lockout. He didn’t have his degree, but wanted to come back to GVSU and get it.

So he went to Damon Arnold.

Johnson nailed his speech. Lelito used his time injured to focus on classes, and earned his degree before heading to the NFL. Skuta finished his degree that summer.

These stories are high profile because of the names involved, but are far from the only of their kind.

Arnold is the Director for Academic Services in GVSU’s Athletic Department. 2015 is his 11th year at the post, and his influence and ability to connect with Laker student-athletes has left a profound effect on more than a few.

“I’d say very confidently that we hit a home run when we hired Damon Arnold,” said GVSU Director of Athletics Tim Selgo. “He has experienced some adversity in his life and has gone on to obtain three degrees, which is a tremendous tribute to him.”

Arnold primarily advises the football and men’s basketball teams – in academics, campus involvement and, when it calls for it, the issues life throws at his athletes.

“We’re not just an advising center,” Arnold said. “We’re a student success center. If student-athletes come in with different issues, we talk to them about everything from experiences they’re having in the classroom or family issues back home. Our main role is to make sure we’re empowering our student-athletes.”

The road Arnold has taken to his current career plays a key factor in connecting and earning trust from his student-athletes.

The Cleveland, Ohio native was kicked out of two different high schools, and eventually graduated from a continuation high school. He then moved on to Citrus Community College in California. Arnold kept climbing the ladder, and went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s of arts in sociology while playing football at Chico State University, also in California.

After picking up a master’s of science in sports psychology at the University of Idaho, Arnold’s education culminated when he earned his doctorate in education administration from Washington State University.

“I’ve been at both ends of the continuum,” Arnold said. “I’m Dr. Damon Arnold now. In undergrad my senior year I got disqualified from the university because my GPA was too low. You had to have a 2.0 going into your senior year. I fell below that 2.0 mark so I was disqualified. For me, that was a wakeup call. I said ‘I love football.’ I had one more year of football but it was taken away from me because I wasn’t performing up to my capability in the classroom and I wasn’t getting help. Once I got help that summer to pass math, the light switch kicked on.

“Don’t be so prideful that you get yourself in a situation where you’re ultimately not doing that thing that you love.”

A short conversation with Arnold reveals just why he has been so successful at his post for the past 11 years. He has a knack for making connections with those who come into his office – and will be the first to admit that this is what he does for a reason.

“I think we all have that thing we’re good at and this is my thing that I’m good at,” Arnold said. “My ability to talk to someone and empathize and sympathize and get them to believe they can go to places they’ve never seen.”

The connection Arnold is able to make with his student-athletes is so ubiquitous and comes with so much ease that it could appear staged or forced. Talk to him, or talk to others about him, and it becomes obvious that’s far from the truth.

“Damon has been my supervisor in the office since last August when I started at Grand Valley,” said Laura Klinger, a second-year graduate assistant academic advisor. “He’s an amazing person to work with. Those connections are really genuine. He’s a really caring, authentic individual and he’s able to build a connection with anyone.”

Arnold estimates that he keeps in touch with 80 to 85 percent of his student athletes over his tenure.

And that’s after he badgers them to study for years.

“I tell them, there’s going to be times where you can’t stand me because I’m on you and telling your coach when you’re not going to class. I don’t care. They all know I don’t care,” Arnold said. “I have a 12-year-old son and if he’s not taking care of business, I’m on him. So why would I not be on my guys if they’re not taking care of business?

“We can laugh, we can joke, we can high-five on the sidelines, but if they’re not taking care of business, I’m going to be on them.”

Arnold’s academic history and background in sports gives him a unique platform from which to connect with his student athletes. His first published book, “It’s Not a Secret, It’s Just Life,” strays from the fantastical belief, ‘If you imagine it, it can happen.’ Arnold is a man of action, and preaches that to those he works with. Imagination without action, for Arnold, is like trying to rush without an offensive line – fruitless, and bound for disappointment.

Arnold is one of the many behind-the-scenes workers that have helped to make GVSU athletics so successful in recent years. The players and coaches put in work in practice and on game day, and student advisors don’t tend to show up in the box score.

But for most athletes, a box score won’t be part of their future. A degree, however, doesn’t disappear from week to week.

“In this office we never lower the bar. Yeah we want them to go on and have their heart’s desire and go on the play in the NFL, but 99 percent of our athletes won’t get a chance to do that,” Arnold said. “That’s why that degree is so important. I’ve watched so many guys who come from high schools where they weren’t prepared to be here, but because of my staff and the faculty members that we have on campus being able to provide the resources that we have has helped them to achieve a degree.

“When they go back to their community, they’re saying to other young men and other young women, ‘If I did it, you can do it.’ So they see my transcripts and say, ‘Dang, you had a whole lot of bad grades.’ But then I look at (my degrees) and say, ‘Go look now.’ Because my thing I tell them is, ‘It’s not how you start, but how you finish that counts.’”