Life after NFL: Ex-players go back to school

"It was a spooky feeling, just sitting in the [trainer's] room, thinking about my career and seeing it pass before my eyes. It hit me so suddenly...."

That was how football ended for Tony Dorsett back in 1989, when the Hall of Fame running back injured his knee in training camp. Life in the National Football League is like that. Careers can end abruptly, whether by injury or in playoff games that eliminate teams one by one each January.

How long does the average NFL career last? About 3-1/2 years. And although the public often has the impression that all NFL players are multimillionaires, half the players make less than $500,000 per season. In a short career, that's not enough to be set for life.

"Actually, football is an occupation, but I doubt that it's a career," says Billy Thompson, a retired defensive back for the Denver Broncos. These days, Thompson works for the Broncos as director of player relations and alumni coordinator, and his words carry weight. In the course of 13 seasons in the NFL, from 1969 to 1981, Thompson was named to the Pro Bowl three times. He holds a franchise record for coming up with 61 turnovers and intercepting 40 passes.

"When guys get to the NFL, it may seem like they've reached their goal," Thompson says. "But if they haven't finished their college degree, they may not have. You might have a lot of [money] when you quit playing, but if you haven't finished your degree and go see an employer, there's something incomplete there."

Thompson takes an active role in helping current Bronco players complete their degrees by doing the legwork of assembling transcripts, calculating the course credits they need, and locating schools where they can take the needed classes. He works closely with the National Consortium for Academics and Sports, an organization affiliated with DePaul University in Chicago.

Almost half of the players in the National Football League have at least an undergraduate degree, says Jon Harris of the consortium. But among rookies in recent years, the percentage of college graduates has fallen to less than a third. (According to Harris, the rate began to fall after 1992 when college juniors became eligible for the NFL draft.) Yet among the NFL players who lack degrees, half are less than one academic year from meeting their requirements.

Desmond Clark of the Broncos is a prime example. The 6-3, 255-pound tight end is a tough competitor who played half the past season with his arm in a cast, blocking 300-pound defensive linemen with a broken forearm.

But there's more to Clark than football. Two years out of Wake Forest University, he's one course short of a degree in communications. "I wanted to be a sports analyst," he says, sitting in his sweat suit in front of his locker. "That's why I majored in communications. But lately I've been giving some thought to going into business. It'd be back in Florida. Maybe I'll buy a restaurant or a lawn-mowing business." He looks around the Broncos' locker room, his life in pro football. "It'll depend on how much I take out of here."

Thompson, who's working with two other Broncos as well, has lined up a course for Clark at Denver's Metropolitan State College. He'll enroll this summer, and by the time training camp opens in the fall, the tight end should qualify to march down the aisle at Wake Forest.

Each NFL team employs a director of player programs, a la Thompson. They coordinate four kinds of services: continuing education, family education, financial-management assistance, and internships (which enable players to explore alternative careers while still playing - a longstanding tradition in the Canadian Football League).

With the support of the DePaul consortium and academic advisers such as Thompson, 41 NFL players graduated from college during the past year.

Derrick Thomas, the late All-Pro linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, was close to earning his degree when he died in an auto accident last January. In May, Thomas was granted a posthumous bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Alabama, more than 11 years after leaving school. Thomas was active in aiding inner-city youths through his Third and Long Reading Program in Kansas City.

"He made slow but steady progress," says Kevin Almond, his academic adviser at Alabama. "Most of what he had left were electives."

When Thompson entered the NFL, he held a degree in physical education and biology from Maryland State College (now Maryland Eastern Shore). After his playing days, he built a successful career in business after he purchased a McDonald's franchise. Nowadays, Thompson's full-time work is with the Broncos.

"It's difficult for a player to concentrate on life after football," he explains, "because of the economics of the thing.... I didn't have the luxury of the kind of services we're offering. When I left football, I could have used a person like me."

Teams can help themselves, too, by helping players finish school. Pro football can be an intellectually demanding sport, and players with college degrees "can focus better," says Michael Duberstein, director of research for the NFL Players Association in Washington. He cites a study from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s that found that the football careers of players with degrees lasted twice as long as others.

Thompson echoes that point: "Guys who've finished school have a little bit more on the ball. The better persons your players are, the better they'll perform."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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