It's tipoff time in the premiere men's college basketball tournament of the year. But while you're prepping your brackets, those teams and players you're pulling for are prepping for a profoundly personal experience, with help in preparation from their coaches and mentors.
He's not a coach in the traditional sense, but former Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Duke Preston is part of such an athlete prep team at the University of Notre Dame. You might call him a life coach.
"We help athletes think through the preparation that tournament life entails in a personal way, which translates athletically to taking care of business and performing up to their abilities," said Preston, the Program Director at Notre Dame's Student Welfare and Development Office.
A collegiate athlete at the University of Illinois who made the jump to the NFL, Preston knows a thing or two about the importance off-the-field preparation for athletic competition on a grand scale. Whether providing guidance for the men's hockey team or the women's rowing team, he can relate.
"I resonate with busted-up fingers and a high ankle sprain and sprained AC joint and still going out to practice, much like these ladies do with cut up hands and sore backs and quads and everything else," he said. "It's neat to have my life experience and the road that I traveled impart some guidance on these guys."
That road he traveled to the NFL began in California, as he grew up watching and learning from his NFL dad, former Cowboys linebacker Ray Preston. From Illinois, he was drafted by the Bills in the 4th round of the 2005 Draft as a backup center, projected to fill the hole then-center Trey Teague would leave behind. After what he says were a few years of ups and downs, position changes, and a successful 4th year for the Bills when he started in a majority of the contests the team played, he entered free agency and headed to Green Bay. He describes his time in Buffalo as one of "severed fulfillment" on the field, but a wonderful personal experience.
"I loved Buffalo. I loved that city. I loved that team," he said. "I had so many great relationships that I still have to this day with guys that I played with there. It was difficult to leave a team after building four years of ties with a lot of people in the community. I wish I could have been a bigger part of the story but I don't look back on it and wish for much more, because it was truly a great experience."
After the move to Green Bay and then to Dallas, Preston left the NFL on his own terms in 2010 and continued work on community initiatives as well as his Master's Degree in Christian Education from the Dallas Theological Seminary, which he'll earn this May. He and his family – wife Lisa and two young children with another on the way – made the move to South Bend, Indiana just this January when he began his work at Notre Dame.
Humble as he is accomplished, Preston says he doesn't wave a metaphoric banner advertising that he made it to the NFL. But with a collegiate and NFL career of frustrations and successes in his pocket, he strives to use shared experience and relatability to help his athletes navigate their sometimes turbulent worlds athletically, personally, professionally and spiritually.
"There's an instant credibility that comes with having been in Division I sports," he said. "The professional side is a cherry on top for a lot of athletes. My role entails trying to develop the whole person as a student athlete as opposed to just their athletic prowess."
He's been there, he's done that, and now - with a greater level of grace than you'd expect a former NFL lineman to posess - he's helping others do the same, and do it well.