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For USF tight end, a future with 2 paths: Teach classes or catch passes?

Hillsborough teacher-in-training Gunnar Greenwald is a college football player with NFL dreams and a gentle touch in the classroom.
 
Djimtry Gerard, 16, center, makes a lab observation as South Florida Bulls Tight End Gunnar Greenwald, right, assists him during a biology class at Wharton High in Tampa on Monday, Oct. 9, 2023.
Djimtry Gerard, 16, center, makes a lab observation as South Florida Bulls Tight End Gunnar Greenwald, right, assists him during a biology class at Wharton High in Tampa on Monday, Oct. 9, 2023. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 23, 2023|Updated Nov. 24, 2023

Gunnar Greenwald might walk out of college and into a career as a professional football player.

Or he might teach science to students like the group he assisted on a recent Monday at Wharton High School, puzzling over a lesson about cell membrane structure and function.

Either outcome will be celebrated. With science teachers always in demand, the Hillsborough County school district would love to see 21-year-old Greenwald join their ranks.

But make no mistake, said Greenwald, now a tight end for the University of South Florida Bulls:

“My number one goal is to make it to the NFL.”

‘Busiest person ever’

Standing 6 feet, 4 inches tall with a gentle manner as he moves through the classroom, Greenwald is in an unusual position as he navigates the two worlds.

Typically, his contemporaries major in business or communications. A few are engineering students, and Greenwald wonders how they handle the work.

Education majors like him are required to spend time with K-12 students.

“I’m probably the busiest person ever, honestly,” said Greenwald, whose days are sometimes booked solid from 5:30 a.m. until close to 10 p.m.

The older of two siblings from a beach town in Brevard County, Greenwald was raised by teachers whose friends were teachers.

While both parents inspired him, the more direct influence came from his father, who taught physical education and now is retired.

“He’s just a fun, energetic guy,” Greenwald said. “Everybody loved him. He’s kind of the same size as me, just like a big dude, and he’s just a loving guy. And it kind of inspired me to see how all of my friends, when I was in his class, loved my dad so much.”

Greenwald played baseball and basketball until he settled on football while in eighth grade. He started putting on weight during high school. He can deadlift as much as 600 pounds.

He had plenty of scholarship offers, he said. But he chose to stay in Florida so his parents could come to his home games. And, he added, “there is no better place to live than Tampa.”

He said he sometimes has to defend his career choice to other athletes. One such conversation stands out: “He was, like, ‘Why, dude? That’s such a waste of your scholarship.’ And that honestly just floored me that he would say that,” Greenwald recalled.

“Everybody has this idea that I have to make a lot of money,” he said. “And I just feel like there’s just so much more to life than just a whole bunch of money. I would rather be there to be able to build these connections with my students and have fun.”

‘A gentle giant’

Home is an apartment in Temple Terrace, where he starts his day with a breakfast that typically includes a four-egg omelet, a bagel and cream cheese.

Monday is his busiest day. There is practice, then weightlifting, then treatments, then meetings with coaches.

After a pasta lunch, he zips over to Wharton High at the northern end of New Tampa. He helps out in Karen Gentzel’s biology class for about two hours.

“Gunnar is a gentle giant who connects and interacts well with high school students,” Gentzel said. “He has such a warmth and caring demeanor that it immediately puts the kids at ease.”

After Wharton, it’s back to USF for his own classes, more football meetings, and time studying both course work and football plays.

South Florida Bulls tight end Gunnar Greenwald (87) and tight end Jayson Littlejohn (0) react to a play in the second quarter of the Bulls' home opener against the Florida A&M Rattlers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023.
South Florida Bulls tight end Gunnar Greenwald (87) and tight end Jayson Littlejohn (0) react to a play in the second quarter of the Bulls' home opener against the Florida A&M Rattlers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Weekends are all about the games.

“We have scouts coming all the time,” Greenwald said. “I just go out on the field and make the best plays I can for the film, just try to better myself every day and hopefully that does lead to the NFL.”

In the off-season, he gets time to relax. He enjoys the beach and has started a side business selling surfing attire.

Looking ahead

School district officials have made some modifications to Greenwald’s schedule to fit everything in. They allowed him to work some of his practicum hours at Wharton in advance to make up for the days when football makes him unavailable.

Similarly, he will work in split shifts at his upcoming internship at Pizzo K-8 on the USF campus — teaching early in the day, then working with extended-learning students after school.

Biology teacher Karen Gentzel talks with teaching intern Gunnar Greenwald, a USF Bulls tight end, during a class at Wharton High School on Monday, Oct. 9, 2023, in Tampa.
Biology teacher Karen Gentzel talks with teaching intern Gunnar Greenwald, a USF Bulls tight end, during a class at Wharton High School on Monday, Oct. 9, 2023, in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Christie Gold, who works with education students as a member of the district human relations staff, said Greenwald’s situation has led to conversations about other potential teaching recruits. Single parents, for example, might require schedule adjustments to help them fulfill their requirements.

Greenwald’s path will take form after the 2024-25 football season. He’ll enlist an agent who will communicate with pro scouts. He’ll train for a campus exhibition event called “Pro Day” in March.

“That training, I heard it’s pretty hard and it puts you in the best shape of your life pretty much,” he said. “I’ll perform for these scouts for the Pro Day and then I just hope to hear a call after and see what’s going on.”

Long-term, he sees numerous opportunities. He would like to coach. He would like to be a trainer. And if someday he enters the school system, he wants to be the best teacher possible.