"This type of business has been growing and growing and growing due to the astronomical growth in salaries," Lerner said. "It continues to grow, especially with high school basketball players going straight to the NBA. It used to be, we couldn't look at writing high school guys. Now, we can look at 10th and 11th graders."
The NCAA pays for insurance to cover all athletes at member institutions for catastrophic injuries such as a severe head trauma or spinal cord damage, Sheely said.
The NCAA also offers Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance (ESDI). That program, underwritten by Massachusetts-based ASU International, is available to football and men's hockey players who are projected to be selected in the first three rounds of the NFL or NHL drafts. Basketball and baseball players projected as first-round picks in the NBA, WNBA or major league drafts also qualify.
Some 80 to 100 athletes each year participate in the ESDI program. About 75% to 80% are football players.
Sheely said football players can purchase from $500,000 to the maximum of $3 million in coverage. Men's basketball players are eligible for up to $4.4 million in coverage.
The NCAA offers a loan program that allows athletes to secure financing through U.S. Bank in Cincinnati for the exact amount of the policy premium, including fees and interest. The loan can be secured without a parent's signature or collateral, and repayment is not due until the athlete signs a pro contract, exhausts his eligibility or collects a payout after suffering an injury.
But the 30-month payout provision, along with other restrictions such as those regarding previous injuries, causes many athletes to seek insurance elsewhere.
Athletes, however, still must follow NCAA compliance rules if they secure insurance -- and loans to pay for it -- through private companies and banks outside the NCAA program. Though the NCAA does not require it, compliance officials at member schools usually require athletes to submit documents for review, Sheely said.
Like the NCAA program, private underwriters must project where the player might be drafted. They often use pro scouting services to help make evaluations.
"It's not an exact science by any stretch of the imagination," Lerner said.
Players who are not projected as top-round picks can obtain insurance during the season if their performance elevates them to that status. McGahee, for example, was unable to secure insurance before his redshirt sophomore season because he was not even projected as a starter. By the Fiesta Bowl, he was regarded as a top-five pick.
Bill Palmer, the father of 2002 Heisman winner Carson Palmer, said he purchased policies for his son in 2001 and 2002 from Lloyd's of London.
But Bill Palmer said the decision was not easy because improved medical science has made it possible to recover from what in the past would have been considered career-ending injuries.
"I wrestled with whether or not it was worth it," Bill Palmer said. "We did do it because he wanted to. I told him it was a loan."
Ed Chester knew the chances of suffering a true career-ending injury were small, but he still took out a $1-million policy through Lerner for less than $12,000 before his senior season at Florida in 1998.
Chester, a defensive tackle, suffered a knee injury that ended his chances for a pro career. He collected his payout roughly a year later.
Chester still lives in Gainesville, Fla., and works at a Boys and Girls Club helping area youth. Not surprisingly, he advocates purchasing insurance.
"That policy allows me to do a job that I enjoy," he said. "I think guys are dumb if they don't do it."
To help athletes and parents make educated decisions about insurance and other issues such as agents, many universities have put together advisory bodies.
Alabama's Professional Sports Counseling Panel, for example, comprises several faculty members and athletic administrators who are specialists in sports law, financial planning and career counseling.
Last season, the panel sponsored seminars for parents and guardians of players at the stadium before each home game. Topics included the advantages of staying in school, insurance, how to select an agent and the transition to professional sports.
Robert McLeod, a professor of finance who serves as chairman of the panel, said parents often need help with insurance issues.
"Most of them are at least familiar that there is a disability policy available, but they are not very knowledgeable of the terms and provisions and limitations," McLeod said. "They think if you blow out your knee and you're out for a year, you get $2 million. It doesn't work that way. We try to tell them that all the policies aren't written the same."
Bob Leinart discovered as much after his son announced last month that he would forgo entering the NFL draft and return for a final season. Initially, Bob Leinart said he would probably seek a policy in the range of $5 million.