Tommy Hatton vividly remembers the day when University of North Carolina doctors told him he should end his football playing career. He had sustained four concussions, among other injuries, and what he thought were NFL aspirations had ended.
But he has found a different journey to success -- one that still has him involved in football and one that more and more coaches are using in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Hatton and two other UNC students, Sasha Seymore and Andrew Powell, helped found an interactive, educational platform designed to help football and basketball players more effectively learn their teams' schemes and playbook called Learn to Win.
"There's really not a tool out there that lets you teach and communicate with your players like Learn to Win," Hatton said. "People have been responsive to it, because they've been seeing this as the only option right now with the restrictions and because of the effectiveness to actually learn through our platform."
The platform is now being utilized by more than 100 football and basketball programs across the college and high school levels. It gives coaches the opportunity to build lessons, quizzes, installs, playbooks and diagrams all in one place to help their athletes learn the concepts. Beyond handwritten quizzes on plays and game plans, as well as tip sheets that coaches had been using for years, those concepts weren't able to provide real-time feedback on what the players were actually absorbing and what they were missing.
A coach can go into the software, build their lesson or quiz however they'd like, adding in video or pictures and ask specific questions to different players. They are able to use it in the spring when installing an offense or defense, in fall camp or even the week of a game to make sure the players understand tendencies of the opponent, concepts they'll use and positional roles.
Seymore had the athletics background, while Powell had experience in education, working with tertiary universities in Africa and spending time in Silicon Valley working with tech companies. The two came up with an idea to combine educational tech with athletics to help players learn the complexities of their playbooks in a more modern way. They developed it into a potential business after pitching it to then-football coach Larry Fedora.
"The days of three-ring binders and lectures for 45 minutes, it just doesn't work anymore. I've seen so many kids with wasted talent who just couldn't figure it out mentally." Tommy Hatton
"We got a meeting with Coach Fedora and we said, 'Hey Coach, here's what we have,' and put it in front of him in a power point," said Seymore, a former walk-on basketball player. "'If we built something like this, would you use it?' And he said, 'Holy cow, absolutely. This is something I've never seen.'"
Neither Seymore nor Powell had a football background, and that's where Hatton came in. He heard what they had built and knew he could add value.
The three developed the software and app for UNC's basketball and football teams, and eventually launched it to the public in January 2019 at the Under Armour All-American Game. In pitching it to high school coaches in attendance, they immediately knew they had a hit.
Though they didn't have much proof of concept, Hatton was able to get a few college coaches to buy in. He spoke with then-Michigan safeties coach Chris Partridge, who had been seeking an opportunity to stray away from handwritten tip sheets and quizzes because today's generation is taught differently with phones and tablets.
After testing Learn to Win with his safeties that spring, Partridge offered feedback on the software, allowing Hatton, Seymore and Powell to polish their product.
"What happened was the players started liking it because it's so easy to use, it goes right to their phone or iPad, they can watch video, you can ask different questions and put lessons on it," said Partridge, who has since taken on the co-defensive coordinator position at Ole Miss but plans to roll it out to his new defensive players. "They actually started competing with each other, because you can grade it out. It's a different way to teach, and I think it's the way the young generation now, it's the way they learn."
Learn to Win has had multiple FBS programs reach out and sign up, and it has also expanded its reach into the military. Two Air Force bases have tried the software so far to help train pilots in emergency situations, and the company hopes to expand that number to 59 bases next year.
"We started talking with the folks at the training support squadron in the Air Force, who essentially handle all the fighter pilot training across the whole Air Force," Powell said. "They said, 'We haven't really changed the way we train pilots in 40 years. We're seeing a pilot shortage, could you guys help increase the output of our training? Could you reduce costs and improve outcomes in some way?'"
For coaches who are no longer allowed to conduct any football activities with their players amid the coronavirus pandemic, the program is even more relevant now. It gives them a real teaching tool while not being with the players in person.
This wasn't exactly how Learn to Win intended to roll out its product when Hatton, Seymore and Powell began, but then again, this isn't what Hatton planned when he started his own journey either.
Hatton was a four-star high school offensive line prospect who felt he was overlooked and underrated. He was undersized but thought he made up for it with his effort and will. He broke his ankle at a camp in spring 2014 before his senior season, then worked his way to full health to return to play with his high school team in six weeks instead of the doctor-recommended 10.
He committed to North Carolina in his junior season, enrolled with the Tar Heels and ultimately had injuries plague his career. Another ankle injury was part of it, as were concussions.
In 2017, he woke up in the hospital after suffering his fourth concussion, unable to leave a dark room for two months. Through networking and a mutual friend, he connected with Seymore and Powell.
He knew he would find success, because in his mind there was no other way. But instead of it being directly on the football field, it's with a tech startup that helps players and pilots more effectively.
"The days of three-ring binders and lectures for 45 minutes, it just doesn't work anymore," Hatton said. "I've seen so many kids with wasted talent who just couldn't figure it out mentally. I didn't get an opportunity to finish my career, but maybe this will help someone learn the right way and make the most of their career."