Former YSU athletes share experiences with NIL

Penguins benefit from opportunities

Correspondent file photos / Robert Hayes. Former YSU women's basketball player Mady Aulbach (left), men's basketball player Brandon Rush (middle) and football player Mitch Davidson (right) are all athletes that have utilized NIL during their time with the Penguins.

YOUNGSTOWN — When the NCAA and state legislatures started passing name, image and likeness legislation in the summer of 2021, it was a watershed moment for college athletes.

For the first time, student-athletes could sign endorsement deals, do commercials, sell merchandise, make money and profit from their athletic success before becoming professionals.

“Honestly, NIL helped me more than I thought it was going to when I first started,” former Youngstown State men’s basketball player Brandon Rush said. “The resources and getting paid to be able to play your sport was actually amazing. You get a chance to experience a different level of professionalism before you actually start your profession.”

Since the arrival of NIL, many YSU athletes, including Rush, former women’s basketball player Mady Aulbach and football player Mitch Davidson, have taken advantage of their marketability,

One of Aulbach’s first-ever deals was with Sam’s Wedge Inn, a popular Austintown restaurant and bar. She and teammate Paige Shy took part in meet and greets at the restaurant, developed social media posts promoting the restaurant and even created their own personalized burgers on the restaurant’s menu. The proceeds from the burger sales then went to charity.

“That was my first one ever, so it’s special to me,” Aulbach said.

Aulbach also had a deal with a local Allstate agency, for which she was in a local commercial and was on a billboard in the Mahoning Valley.

Using those relationships, she’s been able to turn it into a professional opportunity now that her basketball playing career is over.

“For me personally, (NIL) opened up my eyes to a lot of networking opportunities and what I wanted to do after I was done with basketball,” Aulbach said. “The Allstate opportunity turned into a part-time job for me, and now I’m actually working on becoming a licensed Allstate agent.”

While Aulbach was able to personally profit from her NIL deals, she also used them to give back to the local community.

During Thanksgiving, Aulbach — while collaborating with local businesses like Boak & Sons and Valley Industrial Trucking — worked with the United Way of Youngstown to donate 100 Thanksgiving meals to local families in need. A month later, Aulbach partnered with those businesses and organizations again to donate Christmas gifts to 75 local kids.

“I’m very fortunate to be in a position where I have never had to struggle for a Christmas gift or a Thanksgiving meal,” Aulbach said. “My parents have always worked super hard to provide everything I need and could want. So knowing I’m in a space where I’m fortunate enough to have those things, I just really wanted to be able to give back, especially with this extra money.

“Even if I could have just given a small amount of money to make some kids’ Christmas a little better, it’s just super fulfilling. Honestly, it seems generous, but selfishly, I love being around those kids. I love the feeling of knowing that I might have helped someone else, so I just wanted to do what I could, especially in my last year, because I knew it would be one of my last opportunities to make an impact like that while I was still a student-athlete.”

For someone like Rush, who hopes to continue his basketball career by playing professionally overseas, the money he made from NIL taught him valuable lessons about how to manage his finances.

“Playing basketball and getting paid in college, you learn how to take care of your money, save your money and how to act when you get your money,” Rush said. “You get a chance to be more mature at an early age, or least before you start your professional career.”

During his time at YSU, Rush’s deals included one with Boosted, which helped him create and sell clothing and apparel with his name and likeness. He also worked with Youngstown Clothing Co. to help them promote their merchandise.

“They helped change my life my last year of college,” Rush said.

As the face and leader of the Penguins’ football team, Davidson had no shortage of NIL opportunities available to him, especially as a local product from Salem.

Like Rush, Davidson has collaborated with Youngstown Clothing Co., but he’s also had deals with Fred Martin Ford and Mercedes-Benz in Austintown and Gault Heating and Cooling. Davidson even held a youth football camp last summer at Sebo Stadium in Salem as a way to give back to the community. He also partnered with the Rich Center for Autism on YSU’s campus.

“That was my No. 1 favorite deal of all time,” Davidson said of the Rich Center. “Just going and visiting those kids once a week, sometimes twice a week, and interacting with them and hanging out over their lunchtime, that was insane.”

Davidson said that his local ties made him an attractive candidate for local businesses to partner with. He would build relationships and use those connections to reach out to individuals and businesses to try to make deals. Then he would use the Penguin Collective to help him “legalize” the deals and make them official.

“Youngstown lives, breathes and dies Youngstown State football,” Davidson said. “With the boosters and our support system around Youngstown State football, it’s the best support you’ll get in the Missouri Valley (Football Conference). … Having local guys in there, especially as a leader of the team and of the program, people love that. Obviously with me starting as a walk-on and the grind that I went through with my journey and all that — it was that Youngstown grit, never giving up on something you want — and I think people bought into that. They love to see a guy like me be able to jump on this opportunity, and I feel like I did that.”

NIL allowed Davidson to focus on football and not necessarily have to worry about living expenses.

“It allowed me to put more time and effort into my sport,” Davidson said. “Summertime is when everybody’s usually out getting jobs and working eight-hour shifts to try to make some money to put in their pocket. At the end of the day, you might be on full scholarship, but you still gotta eat and live. So it gave me the opportunity to take my time and my summer to work on my craft.”

Since finishing at YSU, the money he made from NIL also has allowed Davidson to pursue his dream of playing professional football. Once his final season at YSU ended in December, instead of looking for jobs with his degree, Davidson was able to spend all his time training for the NFL Draft.

He attended rookie mini-camp with the San Francisco 49ers last weekend, and even though he didn’t make the team’s 90-man roster, Davidson isn’t giving up hope.

“It was amazing — it was a blessing from the good Lord above,” Davidson said of his NFL experience. “That was a dream I’ve had since I was a kid. Just to be able to go out there and be part of that organization for the short amount of time I was, was pretty awesome. It was the experience of a lifetime, for sure.

“I’m still working with my agent trying to figure out if we’re going to be able to get on a team this season. … We just gotta stick to the grind, and hopefully we find a team.”

Have an interesting story? Contact Neel Madhavan by email at nmadhavan@tribtoday.com. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @NeelMadhavan.


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