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NFL program helps to a degree

Don’t you love it when a pro athlete carries a textbook with as much pride as a football? Or studies something other than a playbook? Or hears a teammate say, “Me and him played good today” and knows to throw grammar’s yellow flag into the air?

The NFL loves it when those hard-plastic-shell helmets prove to protect something more than skulls.

Super Bowl XXXVII closed another NFL season Sunday and opened a new semester for many pros who have stopped hitting the sleds and started hitting schoolbooks to complete their college degrees.

In the past 10 off-seasons, more than 3,400 players – present and past – and their spouses have gone back to school.

At least 150 players have earned their degrees. Tennessee Titans running back Skip Hicks, who majored in history at UCLA, got his diploma in 2002, and 22 players are on schedule to graduate this year.

“The reality that a lot of football players don’t want to face is that they’re eventually going to have to make a decision about their life off the field,” said Mike Haynes, the Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback who is NFL vice president of player development. “Some athletes equate life after football to death. It’s scary and unavoidable.”

The average NFL career lasts three years, a snap relative to all those seasons of Pop Warner ball, four years of high school, even the years in college it took to get to the pros.

“So we tell them to go to school, get a job or internship, develop life skills, do something in the off-season to get yourself in a good position because football and the salary isn’t always going to be there,” Haynes said.

In 1991, the NFL began its Continuing Education Program as part of its player development department. Advisers coordinated plans for players, former players and their spouses.

This off-season, the NFL is selling its players on a tuition reimbursement program that picks up the tab for college classes, books and course material for up to $15,000 per player.

“These players understand that they need the degree to stay competitive in the workforce,” Jon Harris said, manager of the Continuing Education Program.

“They learn that they have to be as serious about their studies as they are about football.”

The NFL says only 30 to 40 percent of incoming rookies have earned four-year degrees.

Of those who haven’t graduated, 75 percent are within a year of completing the coursework to fulfill graduation requirements. And of the active NFL players who participate in the program, 50 percent graduate.

Two off-seasons ago, Tampa Bay cornerback Dexter Jackson returned to Florida State and earned his degree in human and family science.

Jackson was the fourth-year pro who arrived at the Super Bowl as the skinny cornerback behind microphone-grabbing defensive tackle Warren Sapp and left San Diego as the show- and pass-stealing Most Valuable Player.

Jackson, 25, prepared himself for the inevitable football afterlife, which arrives sooner than most players think or ever want.

“Getting a degree is part of an insurance plan for their futures,” Harris said. “Education lasts. Football doesn’t.”

On the AFC champion Oakland Raiders, future Hall of Famer Jerry Rice returned and earned his health and human performance degree from Mississippi Valley State, and Raiders running back Tyrone Wheatley still chases a kinesiology degree at Fairleigh Dickinson.

On the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, linebacker Derrick Brooks spent his 1996-99 off-seasons completing his communications degree at Florida State, and safety John Lynch, who attended Stanford, has started the paperwork to enroll in classes.

For many, a career ends suddenly. It’s a blind-side tackle, something they never see coming and can strike before they have played a Pro Bowl or collected a Super Bowl bounty.

Each Buccaneer receives $17,000 for beating San Francisco in the Divisional Playoff, $35,000 for beating Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game and $63,000 for beating Oakland in Sunday’s Super Bowl. That brings the champion’s treasure to $115,000, not counting a Super Bowl ring worth $5,000.

With a ring, some Buccaneers might be better football players. But with an education, many realize, they might become better people.

And Buccaneers wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who holds USC degrees in history and sociology, compared winning a Super Bowl to his education, saying, “Nobody can take that away. No matter what you say, you can’t take that away from me.”