By NOAH FLEISCHMAN Daily News-Record
When COVID-19 hit back in 2020, former James Madison quarterback Jake O’Donnell went home like most college students did in March.
But with the unknown of whether or not the Dukes would play that fall, he didn’t want to return.
O’Donnell said he enjoyed his time in Harrisonburg, but for most of his two seasons with the purple and gold, he battled what he called a “crippling” case of performance anxiety.
The Tampa, Fla., native internalized his battle. He told himself to “suck it up” and to push through it.
But when the pandemic set in, he decided to stop ignoring his anxiety. O’Donnell walked away from the sport he’d dedicated his life to since he was eight years old.
“I didn’t really know what to do with myself, I didn’t know how to pivot,” O’Donnell said. “Up until that, my whole life was football. Everything I did was football.”
Although O’Donnell was a two-year member of the U.S. National Team and served as a reserve signal-caller at JMU, hanging up his cleats wasn’t the end of his football career.
His next path in the sport was just beginning.
Fast forward two years later, O’Donnell has an entrepreneurship degree from the University of Tampa and has founded his own sports representation agency, Elite Athletes Marketing Group, boasting a client list of more than 20 college football players.
As O’Donnell began to build EAMG in January, one of his first hires was almost a no-brainer for himself: a performance psychologist.
“[The performance psychologist] meets with our players as often as they need,” O’Donnell said. “Just bringing in that resource to fully support them and create environments where they’re able to thrive and succeed.”
That’s just one piece of what O’Donnell said was a part of EAMG’s holistic approach, focusing on both on-and-off-the-field things with their athletes. The agency helps with personal development, personal branding, social media, marketing and endorsements.
“If our athlete wants to pursue something, we figure out a way to make it happen,” O’Donnell said.
As a football-lifer, O’Donnell said he uses his connections from his playing days to sign current college football players. In just the first year of the company, O’Donnell inked more than 20 athletes to join the agency, something that told him he was doing it the right way.
“We were able to sign so many guys in such a short period of time,” O’Donnell said. “That was the first green flag showing that I understand what I’m doing and we’re having success with it. And it gives me a lot of motivation to kind of keep pushing.”
EAMG’s roster of clients includes a trio of JMU players: redshirt junior safety Que Reid, redshirt junior wide receiver Reggie Brown and redshirt freshman cornerback Antonio Webb.
O’Donnell said the players that EAMG signs are those that they think have the ability to play professionally, but are also marketable and are leaders in their community.
“We want guys that have an amazing story to tell,” O’Donnell said. “What we’re doing is we’re showing that person underneath the helmet and highlighting that through social media and developing that plan so that we can show that there’s more to the player than just the guy who’s on the field.”
The company recently made a social media video highlighting Reid’s goals in football, hit motivations, but as well as what he wants to do when his football career comes to a close.
“My set goal for after college, after football, is to work with kids,” Reid said in the video. “I know what it’s like to not come from nothing, not to have something. … I carry myself differently when I’m around kids.”
O’Donnell hopes to grow EAMG from where it is now in the future, eventually going into the pro football realm on top of college football.
That means working with more than just endorsement deals, but professional contracts too and O’Donnell is ready for the challenge in the future.
“I fully have an expectation of myself to take this agency to the next level,” O’Donnell said. “To a level where most agencies aren’t able to get to.”