OAKLAND -- Former University of Alabama football star Tyrone Prothro remembers the packed stadiums, a state-of-the-art players' lounge stocked with flat-screen TVs and video games and a game-clinching catch so instantly famous that it earned him an ESPN "ESPY" award in 2005.
But in testimony Wednesday in federal court here, Prothro also recounted the 40 hours a week spent on football during a season, a shattered leg that ended his career and hopes of playing in the NFL and the $10,000 in student loans he's still trying to pay off.
Those dueling portraits of life at the top of college football for a student-athlete were the latest evidence submitted to Chief U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, who is reviewing a challenge from current and former Division I football and basketball players to the NCAA's ban on compensation beyond scholarships in college sports. Prothro's testimony came in the third day of a trial expected to continue for another two weeks.
Prothro is one of the lead plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit that seeks to overturn the NCAA's rules and permit athletes to share in the multibillion-dollar college sports financial boom, including the right to some of the profits from the lucrative television contracts for major college football and basketball.
Echoing former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon, who testified earlier in the week, Prothro told the judge that his mission at Alabama was to play football.
School, he said, was secondary, even though he eventually earned his degree.
"I definitely didn't think of myself as a student first," the stocky former wide receiver said. "It felt like we were an athlete first, a student second."
NCAA officials maintain that college athletes such as Prothro have unrivaled opportunities, gaining a free education and the chance to play in legendary sports programs such as Alabama's.
The NCAA argues that the former players are relying on a legal theory that has never been supported in the courts and that allowing student-athletes to be paid would undermine the central reasons for amateur college sports, including the emphasis on education.
Pressed by NCAA attorney Glen Pomerantz, Prothro testified that he doesn't necessarily support paying student-athletes while they play, suggesting some form of trust fund for the end of their college careers might be an alternative.
Prothro told the judge he took out the $10,000 in loans to pay bills and other needs in school, figuring it would be easy to pay off if he made it to the NFL -- but the broken leg in his junior season ended his football days.
"I'm not saying they should be paid," Prothro said. "I'm saying something fair should be put in place for them."
Protho testified after Stanford University economics professor Roger Noll, who spent two full days on the stand as the plaintiffs' chief expert to back the claim that the NCAA's rules violate federal antitrust laws.
The trial resumes Thursday, with Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports president, expected to testify for the NCAA.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.