Stadium classroom helps pro football players earn degrees

Football was not the only thing going on at Sullivan Stadium this fall, at least not for 14 members of the New England Patriots. Every Wednesday afternoon during the regular season, these National Football League (NFL) players carried notebooks and textbooks instead of footballs. They hurried to class -- not to meet with coach Raymond Berry or one of his assistants, but to further their education.

They were participating in a ``degrees for athletes'' program sponsored by Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. The Patriots are the first professional team to sign up with the Sport Center, a new department designed to promote the education of athletes, not only in college but at high school and junior-high levels, too.

The only football-related face the student players might have seen in front of the chalk board was Brian Holloway, their representative in the NFL Players Association, and not even he talked football.

``I never anticipated pro football as a future; so I attended my classes and graduated,'' says Mr. Holloway, who played and earned his degree at Stanford University. ``I was surprised to find out most athletes don't get degrees.''

Three members of the Northeastern faculty did the teaching -- in speech communication, English, and economics. Players earn two hours of college credit.

Holloway, an all-star pro tackle, coordinated the Patriots' in-season study. He and fullback Mosi Tatupu spent an afternoon last month with high school students, presenting awards to student winners of an essay contest about the value a good education to athletes.

They delivered a basic message: ``Attend classes. Pass your courses.'' They noted that only 33 percent of NFL players have earned their degrees. They emphasized that only 1 of every 12,000 high school athletes succeeds in the pros.

Patriots general manager Patrick Sullivan worked with Northeastern's Richard Astro, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, to bring this program to the Patriots.

The center, the first of its kind on any campus, opened in September. Dr. Lapchick set the programs -- athletes' degree completion, outreach to public schools, a resource center for sports studies, a sports studies curriculum, a center forum series, and publication of two scholarly sports journals.

The 14 student Patriots plan to study full time during the off season, seven of them at Northeastern.

Center Pete Brock, for example, has asked the University of Colorado to send his transcript to Northeastern.

``My family encourages me to stick to it and finish college,'' says the smiling Mr. Brock, who needs 19 credit hours to earn his degree. ``I love football, but my career is coming to a close. What do I do next? Returning to college is my first step for return to `civilian' life,'' he says.

Reserve quarterback Tom Ramsey will return in the spring to the University of California at Los Angeles to finish his studies. ``I left school with only one semester to go,'' he says. Before joining the Patriots, he played in the United States Football League (USFL), which plays in the spring, thus missing his final semester of study last year.

``I gave UCLA four years of blood, sweat, and muscle,'' quarterback Ramsey says. ``I have a second chance to get my degree. One day I'll have to return to the real world to make a living. This is one way to prepare myself.''

``This is my chance to finish school,'' says David Windham, who also played in the USFL last spring, missing his final term at Jackson State University in Mississippi. ``I'm still looking forward to a career in mass communications.''

Jackson State assists former varsity athletes by hiring them as assistant coaches or in other capacities while they complete degree requirements. ``That's a help, because we have to pay for our study,'' Mr. Windham says.

``Athletes need balance -- in the classroom and in the gymnasium,'' says Thomas (Satch) Sanders, an assistant director of the center. Mr. Sanders, a former pro and college basketball coach, acts as a counselor to students and a fund raiser for the center. He is also a former New York University basketball all-American and, before coaching, starred with the Boston Celtics.

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