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From Jocks to Docs: How Football and Medical School Inspired Service

Elias Lugo-Fagundo, first year medical student at Duke University, and former teammate at the University of Miami, Ryan Rizk, who recently got accepted at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, went from jocks to docs...literally.

Around a year ago, Elias and Ryan founded Jocks2Docs, a non-profit with the purpose of cultivating sports and wellness in low-income areas and mentoring pre-med student athletes. The Hidden Opponent (THO) talked with Elias and Ryan to hear more about their organization!

Elias and Ryan at graduation

Tell us about Jocks2Docs and what your goals are for the organization?

Ryan: During our time as collegiate football players at the University of Miami, we understood the responsibility that came with playing for one of the most historically decorated college football programs and our obligation to give back to our communities. We would always speak about hosting football clinics in Puerto Rico, Elias’ birthplace, or Lebanon, where my parents are from, while taking breaks as we studied for Organic Chemistry; unfortunately, COVID-19 came along and while we were able to host a series of smaller community outreach events in Miami during the pandemic, we were not able to see our dream come to fruition, yet.

Ultimately, several years later, as our athletic careers came to an end and the pandemic slowly subsided, we sought ways to organize our first football clinics in Puerto Rico. We started our nonprofit, Jock2Docs, with the goal of providing free football clinics in areas that lack adequate access or opportunities to receive high level football coaching. In January 2023, after years of planning, we held our first free football clinic in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This two-day event attracted over 150 participants and featured coaching from our former teammates, including some who are currently in the NFL.

Now, as I begin my journey as an MS1 at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and Elias wraps up his first year of medical school at Duke University School of Medicine, we are starting the next chapter at Jocks2Docs, and focusing on guiding others facing the demanding path of medical education. As former pre-medical student-athletes, a role that often left us without relatable mentors, we noticed a need for targeted support. It's challenging to fully understand unless one has experienced the rigorous balance required between athletics and pre-medical studies firsthand.

Through our initiative, we've assembled a team of former collegiate athletes who are currently in medical school at some of the top institutions in the country and are committed to sharing our insights, strategies, and tips. Through a series of virtual conferences, our goal is to help prospective medical students effectively utilize their collegiate athletic experiences to dominate the medical school application process. The first Jocks2Docs pre-medical student-athlete conference is on May 9th, 2024. 

Two athletes playing football

How has being premed and now med students affected your views on athletics? What about on mental health?

Ryan: My experiences as a pre-med and now as a medical student have deeply influenced my views on athletics, especially in the development of resilience and the vital importance of mental health. Athletics has been instrumental in shaping my ability to persist through any challenge

On the field, I learned the significance of determination, teamwork, and strategic thinking, all of which are vital to every sport. These values have not only led me to a career in medicine but continue to guide me as I aspire to become the best physician I can be. The discipline and resilience required in sports are directly applicable to the medical field, where perseverance in the face of challenges is a daily reality.

Mental health is an area that student-athletes, including myself, often struggle with, given the immense pressure to perform academically and athletically. The demands of maintaining a competitive GPA, alongside commitments to volunteering, research, and clinical shadowing, can be overwhelming. However, athletics has taught me the critical importance of utilizing support systems. Recognizing that you are not alone in your journey is crucial. Whether it's family, teammates, coaches, or medical staff, leaning on others for support and advice not only helps alleviate some of the mental burden but also reinforces the concept of community and collective resilience. Encouraging open discussions and seeking help should be normalized, as these actions are signs of strength, not weakness, in managing one’s mental health effectively.

What are your goals in the medical field that could be related to student-athlete mental health?

Ryan: With Jocks2Docs, our mission is to ease the journey for pre-medical student-athletes aspiring to enter medical school. We understand firsthand the unique challenges they face—balancing rigorous academic and athletic schedules while preparing for a future in medicine. Our goal is to let them know they are not alone; there are mentors who have navigated the same path and succeeded. We aim to provide the guidance and support necessary to help them realize their medical school aspirations. We recognize the reality of feeling isolated in such a demanding journey, and are dedicated to using our experiences as athletes and aspiring physicians to help alleviate some of that burden. It is a privilege for us to share our journey and insights, and hope to provide a supportive community that uplifts future medical professionals. 

Do you have any experiences with mental health in sports that you would like to share with us? 

Elias: During my sophomore year of college, I had an unfortunate accident in practice where I tore my posterior cruciate ligament (PCL). My immediate reaction at the time was to recover as quickly as I could in order to get back on the field. After months of tedious rehabilitation, recovery, and strength and conditioning, I was ready to start practicing again; however, little did I know that the true struggles were just about to begin. I became so hyper-fixated on recovering my physical health that I completely disregarded the toll that my injury had on my mental and emotional health. For months I struggled with not feeling like myself physically. I would get frustrated from still feeling pain, or not being able to jump high enough, run fast enough, or perform at the level I did prior to my injury. I tried ignoring my continuous pain because I couldn’t bear the idea of having to take a step back from the sport I loved once again. However, it wasn’t until I acknowledged the pain and I opened up to my doctors, trainers, coaches, teammates, and family about my physical, emotional,  and mental struggles that we were able to fully resolve the ongoing injury.

What have you learned from your experiences engaging with pre med students in low-income areas?

Jocks2Docs football camp group photo

Elias: Our two-day football camp in San Juan, Puerto Rico, provided us with a tangible lesson about using our platforms to give back. While the participants were not pre-med students, the experience reinforced our belief in the significant impact we can make. Having had the privilege of playing collegiate football, we recognize the wealth of knowledge and experience we've gained, as well as the friendships we have made. Sharing this with others not only allows us to give back, but also inspires participants to believe that they, too, can achieve similar or greater successes.

Growing up and playing football in Puerto Rico, my dream of playing Division I college football seemed unattainable for much of my childhood. With very few born and raised Puerto Ricans playing football at a high level, I didn’t have guidance nor the mentorship to know what was required of me in order to reach my dreams. Consequently, as a sixteen year old, I transferred to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida with the hope of being recruited. Although I do not regret my decision to leave Puerto Rico and attend boarding school, my goal is to be that source of inspiration for kids back home who share the dream I once did, and provide the guidance and support needed so that they’re not left with the obligation of moving hundreds of miles away from home to pursue their passion. For this exact reason, Ryan and I plan on continuing to host our free of charge Jocks2Docs Borinquen Football Clinics. 

How can groups like THO support your mission and cultivate an inclusive environment?

Ryan: Athletes frequently face intense pressures that can lead to mental health struggles, yet the culture of high-level sports often discourages open discussions about such challenges. This silence can exacerbate feelings of isolation and misunderstanding, especially when balancing multiple high-stakes roles. Elias and I, both former collegiate football players, have personally experienced these challenges. The dual pressures of excelling in a physically demanding sport while meeting rigorous academic requirements in pre-medical studies have often left us feeling alone in our struggles.

THO has stepped up to advocate for and bring awareness to the mental wellness of student-athletes, and has been instrumental in shining a spotlight on these challenges while fighting to change the narrative around mental health in sports. Your advocacy helps break down the barriers of silence and stigma, and encourages athletes to speak out and seek help. At Jocks2Docs, we seek to address the unique pressures faced by student-athletes aspiring to enter the medical field. Our goal is to create a supportive network that offers resources, mentorship, and guidance, making the daunting journey to medical school more navigable. We look to use our experiences along with those of our members to show pre-medical students that not only is it possible to get into the medical school of your dreams, but that our uniqueness and intangibles as collegiate athletes gives us an advantage. We hope that our initiative will reduce the mental burden and provide a clearer, more supportive path forward. With THO, we hope to reach student-athletes who are going through the challenging journey of balancing high level coursework with the demands of athletics and empower them to manage their mental well-being proactively.  

Is there anything else you would like to share with us about yourselves or your group?

Ryan: We aim to use our experiences and platform as former collegiate athletes now in medical school to guide those who feel overwhelmed in the process, as we once did. We understand the challenges of managing both elite sports and the rigorous medical school application process, and hope to ease the process by sharing tips and strategies from those who have successfully navigated similar paths. By building a community of guidance and support, we at Jocks2Docs seek to enable pre-medical student-athletes to feel confident that their application will effectively stand out from the rest of the application pool and set them up for success in their future medical careers. 



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