Getting a graduate degree is no easy feat, even for those who are able to study full-time – so imagine trying to earn a master’s while playing in the NFL. The following 10 pro football players went about achieving their graduate degrees in different ways, but each of their stories is an inspiration to those with various different talents and seemingly divergent dreams. Hard work, dedication and perseverance served each of these men well. With post-NFL job roles including athletic director, mathematician and justice of the Supreme Court, these players prove that you don’t have to take a conventional path to be successful.
10. Myron Rolle
New Jersey native Myron Rolle excelled on and off the field from an early age. During his two and a half years at Florida State University, Rolle not only played safety for the college football team; he also completed all his pre-med requirements, maintained a 3.75 grade point average and received a bachelor’s degree in exercise science in 2008. He also won the Rhodes Scholarship in 2008 and spent the following school year earning an MSc in medical anthropology at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford University in the UK. In 2010, Rolle signed a four-year contract with the Tennessee Titans, the same year that Sporting News ranked him as the second smartest athlete in sports. Then in 2012 he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Nevertheless, Rolle soon announced his retirement from the NFL, stating that he was going to spend 2013 at the Florida State University College of Medicine. In an interview with The New York Times, he said, “I want a young boy or girl in inner-city Chicago or wherever to see a guy who took a year off, got smarter, got a master’s degree and came back. I want to show that you can have options.”
9. Ron Mix
In the beginning, NFL Hall of Famer Ron Mix didn’t want to play football; he didn’t even like it. Still, he secured a football scholarship at the University of Southern California. Mix is one of the earliest players to have stressed that weightlifting could help with athleticism in football. He kept on working out during his college years and continued to improve his play. In fact, he gained 70lbs and worked so hard that he became a great player. By the time he graduated, Mix had become team captain, and he was made an All-American in 1959.
In 1960, Mix joined the newly formed AFL, where he played for the Los Angeles – later San Diego – Chargers. His coach with the Chargers, Sid Gillman, said, “Ron Mix is one of the greats of all time… I think he’s the greatest tackle who ever lived.” What’s even more impressive is that Mix studied law at night, eventually earning his Juris Doctor degree. His teammates nicknamed him the “intellectual assassin,” a moniker based on his combination of physical play and brains. Mix played for the Oakland Raiders for a year before retiring in 1972 and going on to become an attorney.
8. Greg McElroy
In 2006, quarterback Greg McElroy won a full scholarship to the University of Alabama, where he played for the Alabama Crimson Tide. He said in an interview, “The university was going to pay for it, obviously, so I was going to try to get everything I possibly could from the university as far as degrees were concerned.” In 2009, McElroy graduated with an undergraduate degree in business marketing, and he earned a master’s degree in sports administration the following year, maintaining a 4.0 grade point average. He was also a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship.
The New York Jets drafted McElroy in 2011. As for what he plans to do in the future, McElroy has said, “I have a genuine love for sports and I just want to be involved in sports, whether that’s in the broadcast booth, whether that’s working for ESPN, working in a front office [as a general manager], or on the players’ side. Who knows? I kind of like it like that. It’s very much open-ended and I just don’t have to have every answer yet.”
7. Blaine Nye
Offensive lineman Blaine Nye graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in physics, but he was pretty smart on the football field as well. He was drafted in 1968 and went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys for nine consecutive seasons – first as a defensive tackle and then as an offensive guard.
Despite his on-field success, Nye remained dedicated to his education, which he worked towards during the off-seasons. He received a master’s degree in physics from the University of Washington in 1970 but eventually decided he wouldn’t have many career opportunities in physics, so in 1974 he earned a second master’s degree, this time in business administration from Stanford University. Amazingly, Nye achieved all this while playing 125 games, participating in three Super Bowls and two Pro Bowls. After retiring in 1976, he began work on his PhD in finance at Stanford Business School, completing it in 1981, before going on to found the Stanford Consulting Group Inc.
6. Bill Lenkaitis
Bill Lenkaitis graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a pre-dental degree. He was drafted into the San Diego Chargers set-up in 1968 and was then picked up by the New England Patriots in 1971. Yet Lenkaitis continued to study dentistry at the University of Tennessee College of Dentistry during the off-season. He graduated in 1974 and became an associate at a practice in Boston. After only two years, however, Lenkaitis opened his own practice near Schaefer Stadium, where he treated the occasional teammate.
In total, Lenkaitis played 14 seasons as center and guard, but he said he was ready to retire when the moment came, recognizing that an injury could bring his career to an abrupt halt at any point. “A young guy coming out of college now knows what he wants to do with his life when his football career is over. And if he doesn’t, he will after he plays a year or two and sees a terrific athlete get injured or a 10-year veteran dropped because somebody decides he’s too old,” said Lenkaitis. He played his last game for the Patriots in 1981.
5. Steve Young
In 1985, soon after he completed his undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted quarterback Steve Young. Young played for the Buccaneers for two seasons before being traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 1987 as a backup for the legendary Joe Montana. Young claims he was “bored to tears” as a backup, so he decided to spend his extra time getting a graduate law degree, the subject being one in which he had had an interest in since childhood. It wasn’t easy, but Young managed to pull it off. He said of his experience, “I’d finish the Super Bowl, and literally the next day, I’d be in class a month late. Then I’d have to sprint to catch up. I think the professors kind of relished punishing me for that.”
In 1994, Young graduated from BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School with a Juris Doctor degree. And having picked up two NFL season MVPs as well as being named MVP of Super Bowl XXIX, he retired from football in 1999 and went on to work in private equity. “My law degree has been invaluable because now I’m in the private equity world, and even though I’m not practicing law, I’m certainly using my law degree daily,” said Young.
4. Alan Page
The NFL’s Minnesota Vikings drafted defensive tackle Alan Page in 1967, the same year he graduated from the University of Notre Dame. Coach Neill Armstrong said of Page, “He created havoc. He just exploded off the ball.” Armstrong added, “For a defensive tackle to make the plays he made was unheard of. He was unique, an exception to every rule.” Yet a busy football schedule didn’t keep Page from his education, and in 1978 he graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School with a Juris Doctor degree, passing the bar exam on his second try. He signed for the Chicago Bears in 1978 and began working for a law firm in Minneapolis during the off-season. After he retired in 1981, Page went on to become Special Assistant Attorney General, Assistant Attorney General and, eventually, a justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
3. Charley Johnson
Charley Johnson graduated from New Mexico State University in 1961, earning a bachelor’s in chemical engineering. He was named Sun Bowl MVP in both 1959 and 1960 and remains the only player to win the award two years in a row. Johnson went on to play as a quarterback in the NFL over 15 seasons, for the St. Louis Cardinals, the Houston Oilers and the Denver Broncos. What’s more, while playing football, he earned both a master’s degree and a doctorate degree in chemical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Johnson attained his master’s in 1963 and went on to spend two years on active army duty. During his time with the US Army, he worked at the Langley Research Center in Virginia, where he was assigned to NASA. Somehow, Johnson also managed to return to St. Louis on Sundays to play quarterback for the team. He earned his doctorate degree in 1971 and continued to play football until 1975. Johnson went on to become a professor at New Mexico State University in 2000, eventually retiring in 2012.
2. Frank Ryan
Quarterback Frank Ryan obtained a degree in physics from Rice University before being drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1958. In the beginning, Ryan wasn’t sure that he wanted to play professional football. However, being able to enroll at both UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley in pursuit of his PhD helped convince him. Later, Ryan transferred back to Rice University to complete his doctorate. After being forced to play for the Rams in a reserve capacity for four years, Ryan demanded to be traded, and in 1962 he signed for the Cleveland Browns. What’s more, he helped lead the Browns to a decisive NFL title victory over the Colts in 1964. And only six months later, he became the first pro football player in the league to hold a PhD in mathematics.
While Ryan insisted that there is no obvious connection between football and mathematics, his degree did give him some perks during the off-season. For example, instead of working in construction like his teammates, he was an assistant professor and researcher at Cleveland’s Case Institute. “It’s absolutely false to pursue any sort of notion that football and mathematics are related. The thing is, the world outside has no conception of what higher mathematics is about. The heart and soul of modern mathematics is very abstract symbolism,” said Ryan.
1. Pat Haden
Pat Haden may not have completed a master’s degree during his time as an NFL quarterback, but he certainly pursued academic excellence with fervor. In 1975 he graduated from the University of Southern California magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English. Awarded a Rhodes scholarship, Haden went on to study at Oxford while concurrently playing for the Los Angeles Rams, which is quite an impressive feat in itself. At Oxford, he achieved a second bachelor’s degree in 1978, this time in philosophy, politics and economics. After retiring from football in 1981, Haden became a sports commentator and completed his law degree at the Loyola Law School in 1982. He went on to become a general partner at a private equity firm and is the current athletic director of USC.
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