The chance to play professional sports is a dream for many young athletes from the time they start competing. However, the chances of making it to the big time though are slim. According to the NCAA, fewer than two percent of NCAA student-athletes go on to be professional athletes and most student-athletes depend on academics to prepare them for life after college.
Former Illinois State baseball star Neal Cotts was one of those student-athletes fortunate enough to land in that two percent. After three stellar seasons on the diamond for the Redbirds, Cotts was drafted No. 69 overall by the Oakland Athletics in the second round of the 2001 draft. He went on to pitch for part of 10 seasons in Major League Baseball with the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins.
He’s best known by baseball fans in his home state for the seven years he spent on the mound in the city of Chicago. White Sox fans will never forget his efforts during the team’s historic 2005 season, when the left-handed reliever finished the season with a 4-0 record and a 1.94 ERA in 60 1/3 innings with 13 holds and a pair of saves. He was a key piece to that White Sox improbable World Series championship, but he also took the mound for the Cubs in the 2008 postseason.
Leaving Illinois State was not an easy decision for Cotts, but the chance to play the game he loved at the highest level was too good to pass up. However, he did vow to his mother that someday he would return to school and finish his degree.
“I left a year early, but was on track to graduate in time,” Cotts said. “I made a commitment to my mom that I would go back and complete my degree someday. Right after I was drafted, I came back to ISU to work out and tried to do some classes then, but it didn’t work out. I later tried to chip away at the remaining credits early in my career, but just didn’t have the time.”
The rigors of a busy professional baseball career and having a young family did not leave much time for Cotts to seriously think about finishing his collegiate studies. When his career eventually came to an end, he figured it was time to get serious about fulfilling his goal of getting a degree.
A conversation at his 2015 Illinois State Athletics Percy Family Hall of Fame induction with Director of Athletics Larry Lyons helped Cotts realize that there was now a potential path to getting his degree from Illinois State after nearly 15 years after leaving campus.
“When I finally finished my baseball career, I looked at avenues to complete my degree and couldn’t figure out a way to get it done. I had looked at some options at other schools like UIC or somewhere closer to where we live here near Chicago, but none of those were great options for me. That’s when I talked to Larry (Lyons) and he told me to get ahold of Julie (Paska) because they had an idea about how I could finish up at ISU. They helped put together a plan where I could stay at home and finish online, which was great because I wanted to limit the time I had to be away from my family and my work.”
With a plan now in place, it was time for Cotts to put on a new hat as a part-time college student once again. He worked closely with Paska, a former ISU student-athlete herself that serves as an academic advisor for Redbird student-athletes, to find classes that were available online that would work towards completing his degree.
For several semesters, he spent time studying and working on projects while his kids were at school and the house was quiet. At nights, he would transition from his studies to go work at his full-time job as an instructor at a baseball training facility and work with local baseball standouts. That was the routine up until the Spring 2020 semester when an internship credit was all that stood in his way before graduating.
“This last semester has been all about completing an internship, which included doing some work with Wilson Sporting Goods and using my experience at my current job,” Cotts said. “I stayed busy and was able to learn some new things about the sports business world, which was very interesting until things got interesting with the coronavirus shutdown.”
With the internship credit now completed, Cotts fulfilled his requirements towards graduation and was set to take part in spring commencement ceremonies on campus this weekend. However, like thousands of other new ISU graduates, he has had to adjust his celebration plans a bit.
“I had planned to come back, more for my mom and my kids than myself. My wife explained to me that it would be a great thing for my kids to see me walk, and I know my mom was pretty ecstatic to get up there and watch, but that will have to wait hopefully until December if we can make it work,” Cotts said.
Despite not being able to come back to campus to fully see his graduation goal fulfilled this spring, Cotts is still happy that this part of his academic journey is over. He can now focus on his career and being a dad, two things he enjoys more than anything.
Weather and health permitting, his kids will get their chance to see their dad walk across the stage at Redbird Arena later this year with pride. Until that time though, they will have to settle for another way to be proud of his accomplishments. Recently, MLB Network ran a series of games that included great walk-off wins and Game 2 of the 2005 World Series between the White Sox and Astros was featured, giving his kids an opportunity to see him pitch in the World Series for the first time.
“We allowed the kids to stay up late to watch it and my daughter, who is in third grade, had no interest in it at all. She stayed up until 10:30 or so and I finally came on in the ninth to pitch. I think I only threw five pitches to get the final out of the inning and she looks up at me and says, ‘That’s all you did?’ I think she was expecting a little bit more, but it was still fun to experience that through her eyes.”
Fifteen years have passed since that win for Cotts in the World Series and over twenty years have passed since he first stepped foot on the Illinois State campus from his home in Lebanon, Illinois. It’s been a journey filled with ups and downs for Cotts, but it is one that he cherishes and certainly does not regret.
“Ultimately, there was always a part of me that wanted to complete my journey here at ISU. I’m embedded here from my time playing baseball and I cherish my relationship with ISU Athletics,” Cotts said. “Some of my fondest memories and friends were made at ISU. It holds more meaning for me to have a degree from the place where it all started. ISU helped me mature a lot both on and off the field and the experiences gained in Normal helped me have the type of career I wanted.”
Over the years, Cotts has amassed quite the resume and can list several honors on it including: All-Missouri Valley Conference First Team selection, MVC Scholar Athlete, MLB Draft Pick, World Series Champion, MLB.com Setup Man of the Year, ISU Outstanding Young Alumni Award, and Illinois State Athletics Percy Family Hall of Famer. Now, he can add another bullet point to that impressive list: 2020 Illinois State University graduate.