ENGLEWOOD — One class stands between Broncos defensive lineman Darius Holland and his sociology degree.
It’s taken him 14 years to get to this point, and not a day has gone by when he didn’t wonder if pursuing his degree from the University of Colorado was worth the effort. After all, the quest for higher education has meant time away from family, friends and social activities.
But every offseason, Holland has made the trek back to the CU campus.
“I can’t lie: It’s been difficult,” Holland said.
Why go back? Holland has gobs of money in his bank account; he doesn’t need a degree. He won’t have to send out résumés once his career is finished. What’s his motivation to earn his degree?
Easy: his 8-year-old son, Isiah. Whenever Holland thinks about throwing in the towel on college, Isiah pops into his head.
“I can’t tell him to do something if I don’t follow through,” Holland said. “I do this for him.”
The league is loaded with players who have returned to school to earn their degrees, whether it’s to fulfill a promise to a family member, personal pride or just a thirst for knowledge. This spring, 18 players went back to school and graduated.
And we’re not talking about fringe players, either. Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis (business degree from Maryland), New England linebacker Mike Vrabel (biochemistry, Ohio State) and San Francisco quarterback Tim Rattay (general studies. Louisiana Tech) all hit the books and graduated.
Many of the players earned those degrees through the NFL Player Development’s Continuing Education Program, created in 1991 by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to help players complete their academic endeavors. In the past five offseasons, more than 200 players have earned their degrees through the program.
Lewis went back to fulfill a vow. He promised his mother, Sunseria, he’d graduate after he left the University of Miami following his junior season in 1995. This May, Lewis delivered on that promise, earning his degree from the University of Maryland.
“This is an idea that you start with as a child, and no one can take it from you,” Lewis said. “It was always important to me.”
Fear of the unknown motivated Denver linebacker Donnie Spragan to go back to school. Spragan wasn’t sure if he’d stick in the NFL, so he needed a contingency plan. Spragan took classes at Stanford University and earned his degree in civil engineering last year.
“The big thing with me is that my family always stressed education,” Spragan said. “It meant a lot to me and my family to get my degree.”
Denver cornerback Champ Bailey made a similar pact with himself. In fact, he and his wife, Hanady, have both pledged to earn their degrees.
“Don’t make it all dramatic,” Bailey pleaded. “We just want to both get our degrees.”
While Bailey has just two classes left to complete his degree in psychology from Georgia, he hasn’t put a timetable on when he’ll wear the cap and gown.
“The school has been there forever. It’s not going anywhere,” Bailey said. “I want it, but it doesn’t bother me that I don’t have it. If I can get it before my career’s over, that would be good.”
Working toward his degree was much easier before arriving in Denver. Curse the Broncos for being a good squad.
“Since I played for Washington and we weren’t making the playoffs, I’d jump right back into class once the season was over,” Bailey said. “I might have to wait now.”
Bailey and Holland would actually take classes on campus — no correspondence courses for them — which led to another sort of problem.
“A lot of people don’t realize it’s you at first,” Bailey said. “They’d be like, ‘That’s Champ; no, it can’t be Champ.’ But all it takes is a couple of people in class to say something, and that’s when everybody knows.”
Dedicating the time to work on a degree scares a lot of players from returning to school. It takes commitment and willpower to earn that piece of parchment to hang over your mantle.
“You’ve got to set your mind to it,” Spragan said. “I wasn’t a first-round pick, and I didn’t make a whole lot of money. It was an easy decision to go back for me.”
Spragan has a philosophical take on going back to school.
“Think about it: You need it,” he said. “Football doesn’t last a long time. Even if you play for 10 years, you’re only 35 years old and you have the rest of your life ahead of you. You want to give yourself as many options to be successful in life as you can.”
A 21-year-old kid leaving school doesn’t realize the importance of a degree. He sees dollar signs, and his eyes get big. That’s what happened to Holland. When Green Bay drafted him out of CU in 1995, his degree was the last thing on his mind.
“I didn’t even think about going back then,” Holland said. “I was like, ‘See ya,’ because I was going to get paid. You don’t have a clue back then.”
Colorado coach Gary Barnett gave Holland a hard time about earning his degree. Barnett — who, as an assistant, helped recruit Holland to CU — still keeps on him about those remaining three hours.
“I push (earning the degree) constantly,” Barnett said. “I don’t ever say hi to them unless they have their degree. It’s always the first thing I bring up when I see (a former player).”
While it’s been difficult to sandwich school between football and family, Holland made it a priority. But he understands why some don’t go back to finish.
“Guys don’t because they have successful careers,” he said. “They don’t figure they’re going to have to do anything else to really make a difference. On top of that, life begins and you have a family. Who has time to go back to school?”
Isiah changed all that for Holland. The father wanted to stress to his son the importance of education.
“I’ve got a son that at one point or another, I want him to do some things I feel are important for his life — important for him to be a man in this society and prosper,” Holland said. “How can I ask somebody to do something that I didn’t do? That’s why I’m getting my degree. That’s why it’s so important to me.”