You’d see them on TV on any given Saturday (or Sunday) during football season: Brandon Rice, an all-conference wide receiver at UC Davis who was drafted into the United Football League, and Patrick Hill, a fullback at the University of Miami, who won awards for academic excellence and leadership and went on to play with the Tennessee Titans.

But both had their gridiron aspirations cut short — Rice by long-term knee issues, and Hill by having his position cut from the team. Yet neither had thought much about life after football. “The average NFL career is only three years,” Rice says. “Then what?”

Both found the answer in nursing school at UCLA.

Rice’s next chapter began when he took a job in an assisted living facility. “I was telling one of the residents that I was thinking about trying to go back to football, and she said, ‘No, you need to become a nurse. You’re good at this.’ Then I got a job as a unit secretary at Resnick Psychiatric Hospital and saw firsthand how hard the nurses worked.”

For Hill, it was his aunt, a nurse, who inspired him. “During college, I found myself gravitating to volunteering in hospitals,” he says. “I earned two degrees at University of Miami, but I wasn’t interested in pursuing either [field].” When he applied to nursing school, three football teams had expressed interest in him. “When my 6-year-old son realized that getting selected by a football team was not guaranteed, and that he would not be going on the road with me, he told me to choose nursing.”

The former athletes, now second-year students, say their early interactions with nursing made the job look so easy. But they soon learned that the truth was very different.

“It wasn’t until I started classes that I realized how much knowledge is needed to take care of patients,” says Rice, who “gained a newfound respect for the intellect behind nursing.”

Hill and Rice liken their experience on the field to their experience in hospital units. “I thought nurses were kind of like the water boys of football, but [they] are the backbone of patient care delivery,” says Hill. “Nurses are the ones the patient spends ample time with, and if something isn’t working, [it’s the nurses who] call the audible [i.e., a change of strategy].”

Rice mentions another football similarity: What Peyton Manning is to the huddle, the charge nurse is to the floor. “If they respect you, they’ll follow you, and everything will run smoothly.”

Both men say the dedication they put into sports benefits them as nurses. “I am applying the same hard work and dedication to nursing that I put into football,” Rice says. “The experience of helping another person is the most rewarding thing I have felt in my life.”