Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Life after NFL: Ex-Players Go Back to School

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Life after NFL: Ex-Players Go Back to School

Article excerpt

"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. …

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