GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mike Ricketts was like many of his teammates when he first arrived on UF’s campus in the late 1970s.
Talented and strong, he was a celebrated prep football star at Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania. He left Valley Forge as the all-time all-time rusher with career-plus 4,000 yards and was among Pennsylvania’s all-time state leaders along with then-NFL veterans Matt Suhey and Jimmy Cefalo.
But Ricketts was different too, a young African American who, from an early age, was confronted with the possibilities that went beyond the painted lines of a soccer field.
“My education 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 out with payroll at AK&K Construction at age 13 – hence the second “K” in the last iteration of the company’s name.
At a time when opportunities for black business owners were limited, Ricketts attended construction sites and learned about the business as his grandfather and father negotiated deals, applied for loans, bought materials, and built offices and factories.
The experience opened his eyes to another world, and when his football career with the Gators fizzled out due to injuries, he was recruited by a young assistant named Doug Dickey Steve Spurrier — Ricketts was not overwhelmed by the thought that his chances of success had sunk.
He took a job at a correctional facility near Gainesville for a time, and when he returned to New Jersey, Ricketts attempted to open as many doors as possible, using his background in economics to explore his future path .
Ricketts founded Quality Packaging Specialists International (QPSI) in 1992, a company that has grown into an industry leader in marketing services, contract packaging and supply chain management. The company’s success has made Ricketts rich.
Most recently, he made a significant contribution to Gator Boosters to support GatorMade, the player-led and purposeful initiative that empowers UF Football Student-Athletes to learn, serve and lead.
“I had many mentors along the way. It takes a village, and that village for a lot of these people starts at the University of Florida,” Ricketts said. “It’s the last chance you’ll have to make an impact on a young person’s life. Because at this point they’re still looking for a direction.”
Ricketts is a strong believer in the program, a concept he first encountered while touring other standalone football facilities with UF officials when the school was considering building its own. The Gators opened the Heavener Football Training Center in August, which houses the team’s day-to-day operations and GatorMade’s offices.
“I think it can make a difference and it can be a systemic change,” Ricketts said. “Why GatorMade? This program can change people’s lives. It can make a difference in college. That can make a difference in recruitment. That can make a difference for everyone involved.”
Phil Pharr is Executive Director of Major Gifts for Gator Boosters. Pharr and Ricketts were UF teammates, and the two have remained close over the years.
In Pharr’s eyes, Ricketts is the living embodiment of a successful post-football life and a great example for current players.
“He was in her shoes,” Pharr said. “He didn’t continue to play in the NFL, but he had a life plan and he positively impacted so many lives.”
Ricketts has remained associated with the program in various endeavors over the years, whether it be speaking with the team occasionally, acting as a mentor or providing financial support for programs that help players find their way after football. As a black man, Ricketts said he developed a keen interest in GatorMade because he sees it as a tool to shed light on areas that many young black athletes never saw before stepping foot on a college campus to have.
More than 75 percent of Florida’s current roster of grantees is African American, a demographic Ricketts believes is underserved when it comes to 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 minds and smart people we’ve got, and all the money we’ve got, there’s got to be a better way. This is something all-encompassing. We need to teach these guys how to be successful in society.
“I was exposed [to different opportunities] long before I got to university. It was formed in me. Most of the kids that we have in college, especially the black kids, don’t see that. The first chance to see, feel or experience them is at the university. Then we’ll send them off a cliff if they walk out the door.”
As Ricketts reflects on his journey, he is reminded of his good fortune when he meets former college and prep teammates who didn’t have a blueprint for success. They struggled to build a meaningful career when their football career clock ran out.
That’s partly why Ricketts opened his wallet to support GatorMade. He wants future generations to have a better future.
The initiative is led by the director Savanna Baileywho went on to become the head coach Billy NapierAssociate of , having worked with the Tigers’ PAW Journey program for five years at Clemson as Director of Life Skills and Community Service.
“Having Mike Ricketts, who is not only a Swamp alumnus but also an incredibly successful businessman and mentor, endorsing GatorMade is an ultimate demonstration of the leadership and development that we aim to create for all of our student football athletes,” said Bailey . “His support enables us to create more opportunities for experiential learning and application of skills for our young men. We are incredibly grateful to have Mike as a resource for this program and most importantly for our students who continue to become GatorMade.”
While Ricketts last played for Florida more than 40 years ago, he has peace of mind knowing he’s made a far more meaningful contribution off the field than he did on it.
These days he splits his time between New Jersey and his home in Fort Lauderdale. His children help run QPSI, and Ricketts’ father, who taught him what business success looked like, is still around and often visits to enjoy his son’s success.
Ricketts envisions GatorMade helping to shape the cycle of life for future generations.
“I would like every athlete who leaves college to have a lifelong mentor,” he said. “We’re not doing enough to engage our players. You come out of here unprepared. The degree tells people you’re qualified, but it doesn’t prepare you for life. Exposure prepares you for life. You become a product of that environment. You need mentors. You need a support system. You need someone to help show you the way.
“I understand the whole diversity issue in America, but that’s the Gator brand. If this guy is okay, guess what will happen to the Gator brand? It’s just expanded, and then that becomes an ongoing growth cycle.”