Paul Quildies and Gabby Little couldn't contain their enthusiasm. Talking to them Wednesday, you might've thought he'd just scored a game-winning goal for the South Carolina soccer team or she had done the same for Ole Miss.
Instead they and 26 other Southeastern Conference student-athletes, two from each school, were participating in Championship Week in Atlanta in a forward-thinking way as part of the fourth annual SEC Career Tour.
The tour's goal is to provide opportunities for SEC student-athletes preparing for life beyond athletics to interact with corporate leaders in the Atlanta area from companies such as Cox Communications, The Home Depot, UPS and NCR.
For Quildies, a fifth-year senior from Germany who's going to graduate from South Carolina in two weeks with a finance degree with a data analytics concentration, there were multiple highlights from the first two days of the three-day event.
"Dinner at Mercedes-Benz Stadium has to be one of the coolest things I've done in a while," he said. "We got the whole stadium basically to ourselves for dinner, which was unbelievable."
That was Tuesday evening. On Wednesday's busy schedule of corporate tours, a trip to NCR headquarters, which included meetings with the company's CEO and chief marketing officer, stood out.
"They're executives of a Fortune 500 company, which is unbelievable," Quildies said. "Those people might seem untouchable to someone like me who's still in school, but they actually took the time to talk to us. It means the world to me. They are where all of us want to be someday."
Quildies already has a job offer in the field of finance but called the NCR visit "so powerful that I'm reconsidering what my career path will look like."
For Little, who's working on her Master of Business Administration degree at Ole Miss after earning her undergraduate degree last May, meeting with the event manager for Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the event planner for the SEC Championship Game was particularly memorable and valuable. She said she plans to work in sports administration and can see herself making a career in the event world.
"That was a great experience," Little said, "learning the ins and outs of what they do there," which also included visiting with officials from the NFL's Atlanta Falcons and the Atlanta United of Major League Soccer.
On Wednesday, Little was impressed by the stop at the Winning Edge Leadership Academy, co-founded by former Georgia student-athlete and ESPN personality Maria Taylor and former Tennessee grad assistant basketball coach Corinne Milien. The Academy is dedicated to "developing the next generation of women and minority leaders in the sports business."
"They gave us really great tips on how to market ourselves and how to be an asset to any corporation and the things we needed to focus on in order to prepare for our lives after sports," Little said.
The SEC Career Tour already has developed a track record of success with four former student-athletes taking advantage of the opportunity to find meaningful work. Former Florida swimmer Natalie Hinds and former Auburn swimmer Beatriz Travalon both found positions with Turner. Former Georgia football player Rashad Roundtree, who was forced to retire from football early after suffering multiple concussions, secured a job with Growing Leaders, the SEC's partner in putting together the Career Tour. Former Tennessee rower Kathryn Cosgrove started her career with UPS.
The stars of those four success stories met with the student-athletes on this week's SEC Career Tour to share advice, which Little called "very impactful."
For Quildies, the tour is just the latest example of the SEC living up to its motto: It Just Means More.
"It means be better in everything you do," Quildies said. "The people in the conference are so enthusiastic about everything they do that they're the best at what they do."
Little, a member of the SEC Student-Athlete Advisory Council and the SEC Community Service Team, said she appreciates the conference having a vision for its student-athletes beyond the playing field.
"The SEC has provided so many opportunities for its student-athletes to be more than just an athlete," she said. "It's great that we get the opportunity to be seen as more than just wins and losses."
After wearing an "SEC Graduate" patch during her final college soccer season this fall - "a great honor," she said - Little is on course to finish her undergraduate and graduate degrees in four years. She said she appreciates that none of the student-athletes on the Career Tour "were selected based on what we did on the field. It's about the time we put in off the field, the way we developed throughout our time in school. The fact the SEC values that is something I appreciate. I'll be able to take this experience with me for the rest of my life."