GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mike Ricketts was like many of his teammates when he first arrived on the UF campus in the late 1970s.
He was talented and strong, a celebrated high school football standout at Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania. He left Valley Forge as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 4,000+ career yards, ranked among the Pennsylvania state’s all-time leaders with then-NFL veterans Matt Suhey and Jimmy Cefalo.
But Ricketts was also different, a young African American who was introduced at a young age to possibilities beyond those defined by the painted lines of a football field.
“My training started before I went to college,” he said.
Ricketts grew up in New Jersey in a family of business owners. His grandfather, Albert Ricketts, founded a construction company that was later operated by Ricketts’ father, Kenneth Ricketts. Ricketts, whose full name is Kenneth Michael Ricketts, started helping with payroll at AK & K Construction, hence the second “K” in the final iteration of the company’s name, when he was 13 years old.
In an era when opportunities for black business owners were limited, Ricketts accompanied construction sites and learned the business as his grandfather and father negotiated deals, applied for loans, purchased materials, and built offices and factories.
The experience opened his eyes to a different world, and when his football career fizzled out with the Gators due to injuries, he was recruited by a young Doug Dickey assistant named steve spurrier — Ricketts was not overwhelmed with thoughts that his chance at success had been dismissed.
He took a job for a while at a correctional facility near Gainesville, and when he returned home to New Jersey, Ricketts tried to open as many doors as he could, using his experience as an economics student to figure out his future path.
Ricketts founded Quality Packaging Specialists International (QPSI) in 1992, a company that has become an industry leader in marketing services, contract packaging and supply chain management. The company’s success has made Ricketts rich.
He recently made a significant contribution to Gator Boosters to support GatorMade, the purpose-driven, player-driven initiative that empowers UF soccer athletes and scholars with opportunities to learn, serve and lead.
“I’ve had a lot of mentors along the way. It takes a town, and that town for a lot of these guys starts at the University of Florida,” Ricketts said. “It’s the last chance you’ll ever have to make a mark on a young man’s life. Because at that point, they’re still looking for a direction.”
Ricketts is a strong believer in the program, a concept he first came across when touring other independent football facilities with UF officials when the school was exploring building its own. The Gators opened the Heavener Football Training Center in August, which houses the team’s day-to-day operations and the GatorMade offices.
“I think it can make a difference and it can be a systemic change,” Ricketts said. “Why GatorMade? This program can make a difference in people’s lives. It can make a difference in college. It can make a difference in recruiting. It can make a difference for everyone involved.”
Phil Pharr is Executive Director of Major Giving for Gator Boosters. Pharr and Ricketts were teammates from UF, and the two have remained close over the years.
In Pharr’s eyes, Ricketts serves as a living embodiment of a successful life after football and a great example for today’s players.
“He’s been in her shoes,” Pharr said. “He didn’t go on to play in the NFL, but he had a life plan and has positively impacted many lives.”
Ricketts has stayed connected to the program over the years in various endeavors, whether it’s speaking to the team on occasion, serving as a mentor, or providing financial assistance to programs that help players trying to find their way after football. As a black man, Ricketts said he developed a deep interest in GatorMade because he sees it as a tool to illuminate areas that many young black athletes have never looked at before setting foot on a college campus.
Florida’s current roster of scholars is more than 75 percent African-American, a demographic that Ricketts sees as underserved in business and entrepreneurial opportunities.
“There has to be a better way,” Ricketts said. “These guys, it’s the same thing over and over again. All the talent, all the smart minds and people we have, and all the money we have, there has to be a better way. This is something that encompasses everything. We need to teach these boys how to be successful in society.
“I was exposed [to different opportunities] long before I got to college. He was molded into me. Most of the kids we get into college, especially black kids, don’t see that. The first opportunity they have to see it, feel it or experience it is in college. Then we send them off a cliff when they walk out the door.”
As Ricketts reflects on his journey, he recalls his good fortune meeting former varsity and prep teammates who didn’t have a plan for success. They struggled to carve out a meaningful career when the time for their football careers ran out.
That’s part of why Ricketts opened his wallet to support GatorMade. He wants future generations to have a better future.
The initiative is led by the director savannah baileywho joined the head coach billy napperafter working at Clemson for five years as director of life skills and community service with the Tigers’ PAW Journey program.
“Having Mike Ricketts, who is not only a Swamp alumnus but also an incredibly successful businessman and mentor, support GatorMade is an ultimate demonstration of leadership and development that we want to create for all of our academic soccer athletes,” he said. Bailey. “Your support allows us to create more opportunities for experiential learning and skill application for our youth. We are incredibly grateful to have Mike as a resource for this program and more importantly for our students as they continue to become GatorMade”.
Although Ricketts last played for Florida more than 40 years ago, he takes comfort in knowing he made a far more significant contribution off the field than he did on it.
He currently divides his time between New Jersey and his home in Fort Lauderdale. His children help run QPSI, and Ricketts’s father, who taught him what commercial success looked like, is still around and visits often, enjoying his son’s success.
The Circle of Life is one that Ricketts imagines GatorMade will help create for future generations.
“I would like to see every athlete who drops out of college have a mentor for life,” he said. “We are not doing enough to engage our players. You won’t leave here prepared. The title tells people that you are qualified but it does not prepare you for life. The exhibition prepares you for life. You become a product of that environment. You need mentors. You need a support system. You need someone to show you the way.
“I understand the whole issue of diversity in America, but this is the Gator brand. If that guy is doing well, guess what happens to the Gator brand? It just expanded and then it becomes a cycle of continual growth.” “.