Eric Connor, The Greenville News
Last October, University of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney witnessed firsthand how the seemingly limitless promise - and certainty - of a professional football career could be lost in an instant.
Teammate and fellow Gamecock star Marcus Lattimore lay on the playing field in what looked like more shock than pain, his knee torn to shreds in one violent, aberrant collision.
The junior running back could have been one of the first players selected by an NFL team this year - but instead he lost millions of dollars on his first contract as pro scouts feared he might never be able to play again.
Leading up to this season, calls grew for Clowney, a junior, to put an early end to his college career for fear that he had nothing left to prove and little to gain from playing as experts have labeled him as potentially the first selection in the 2014 NFL draft.
Saturday, Clowney is expected to play against Arkansas, returning from a nagging rib injury that kept him out of action last week.
However, the player heralded out of high school as a transformational athlete is competing with a backup plan - one that ensures that a catastrophic play won't cost him future millions.
It's a route more and more star athletes in recent years have taken: insurance borrowed against potential future earnings.
Earlier this year, Clowney told the media that he had secured a $5 million insurance policy that would pay out only in the event of a career-ending injury.
The policy is facilitated through the NCAA's "exceptional student-athlete disability insurance program," which is offered to athletes in football, baseball, ice hockey and men's and women's basketball.
The NCAA's program allows players to take out a loan that is payable once they safely make the pros. The NFL requires athletes to wait three years after they graduate high school to enter the draft. NBA players must wait one year.
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd - who decided to return his senior year despite himself being considered a potential first-round selection - has taken out a policy worth at least $3 million, a university spokesman said.
Boyd joins Texas A&M sophomore quarterback Johnny Manziel, who opted for a $5 million policy under the NCAA.
Lattimore secured a $1.8 million policy through the NCAA before his sophomore season two years ago - when he suffered a season-ending injury to his other knee - and renewed it last year before the second knee injury in a game against Tennessee on Oct. 27, The Associated Press reported.
The typical premium on insurance for athletes projected to be selected high in the draft can be $20,000 or more, said Joe Galbraith, Clemson's assistant athletic director for communications.
"If you get drafted and nothing happens, then part of your first paycheck goes to cover that policy," Galbraith told The
If players want to protect against the financial impact of slipping in the draft because of an injury - which is what happened to Lattimore when the San Francisco 49ers waited until the fourth round to draft him after his injury - separate policies are available and are more costly, he said.
The decision to pay for career-ending insurance is one that players must make on their own, said Steve Fink, the University of South Carolina's assistant athletics director for media relations.
"The institution does not encourage or discourage student-athletes from applying for the program," Fink said, "but rather provides all pertinent information and assists in facilitating an application if a student-athlete is interested in learning more about the type of coverage for which (he or she) might qualify."
The NCAA governs how players can buy insurance and first set up the exceptional program in 1990, the first year the NFL allowed college juniors to turn pro, which was also a period when contracts in pro sports began to balloon.
"The program was created so student-athletes could obtain this type of coverage without risking their eligibility by seeking funding from a third party," NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn told The News.
The NCAA program, managed by ASU International Inc., allows players to take out a loan through U.S. Bank and pay the premium once they have been drafted.
The program has a $5 million cap, the amount Clowney elected to sign up for. The NCAA consults professional scouting services to determine who is eligible and for how much.
Players can select a higher payout by going through a private insurer, which the NCAA must clear for eligibility.
Louisville junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who many project to be the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft next year, went through a private insurer to secure $10 million in coverage, according to a USA TODAY report.
Universities provide coverage to protect players in all sports, whether they are classified as exceptional or not.
The secondary coverage insurance pays on top of what a player's primary insurance pays, though neither Clemson nor USC require undergraduates to have health insurance.
"We cover related costs for up to two years after the student leaves college," Fink said.