The relationship between academics and sports has long been a rocky one. Take the NBA, for example. Up until 2005, basketball players were free to declare for the draft after they finished high school, prompting much consternation over players who were neglecting a college education in favour of immediate NBA paychecks. As soon as the league changed the rules to limit NBA eligibility to those who have been out of high school for one year or more, the public hand-wringing focused on the unfortunate trend of ‘one-and-done’ college athletes, who were simply biding their time before the pros came calling.
Indeed, for young, 20-something athletes with professional ambitions, it is tough to have it all. The pursuit of a four-year college degree is a noble one, but it also leaves the possibility of leaving pro money on the table while exposing the athlete to the risk of a career-threatening injury. Turning pro without a college education leaves athletes without a fallback option, but the chance to cash in immediately offers significant financial security.
Given how easy it is to take the professional route and to leave academic life in the rearview mirror, it makes the dedication to the education of these 15 athletes all the more remarkable. Each of these athletes has made enough money in their careers to remain comfortable without the need for any further career training. However, with motivations that range from familial pressure to mother’s wishes to interests that lie beyond their sport, these 15 talented people made it big… and then went back to class.
15. Jeff Green
Drafted fifth overall in 2007 by the Boston Celtics, Jeff Green was a rarity among young NBA hopefuls in that he hadn’t jumped ship to the pros after one year of college. Green spent three years at Georgetown before becoming draft-eligible, serving as one of just two top-five picks in 2007 to play more than one year of NCAA hoops. Green wasn’t entirely done with his education, though, as he finished a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Theology at Georgetown in 2012.
14. Marcus Stroman
When the Toronto Blue Jays recently added ace hurler David Price, injured Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman took to Twitter to express his elation. There are, however, better times to be tweeting than in the middle of a lecture as you work towards completing a Sociology degree at Duke University (he’s taking classed during his rehab). To be fair, Stroman was quick to apologize.
13. Troy Polamalu
On top of being a force on the gridiron, long-time Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu is actually a big-time history buff. Eight years after being drafted out of USC in 2003 by the Steelers, Polamalu returned to campus in order to complete his history degree. His return to school was hardly a surprise to those who saw how he wore his love of USC proudly. “I believe God named me Troy for a reason,” he said, referring to the ancient capital of the Trojans. “I was born to come here.” Having retired in April, Polamalu now has plenty of time to catch up on his passion for history.
12. Eric Karros
Since arriving in the majors as a 23-year-old in 1991, Eric Karros has spent his life connected to Major League Baseball, first through a 14-year playing career and then as a broadcaster for Fox Sports. In other words, the former Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman and one-time Rookie of the Year wasn’t exactly someone who needed a degree to fall back on. Give Karros credit, though, that he opted to return to school anyway, making the 35-minute drive from Dodger Stadium to UCLA in order to complete his economics degree.
11. Vince Carter
Vince Carter left the University of North Carolina in pursuit of an NBA career in 1998, but Chapel Hill was never far from his heart even as he embarked on a sensational start with the Toronto Raptors that took the league by storm. Carter continued his schooling in the off-season and ultimately earned a degree in African-American Studies. His academic and pro basketball careers came to a head, however, in 2001, when fans and media in Toronto questioned his priorities after Carter left the team on the eve of a critical playoff game in order to be present for his graduation ceremony.
10. Ben Roethlisberger
An early surge of NFL success for Ben Roethlisberger saw the quarterback lead his Pittsburgh Steelers to two Super Bowl titles within his first five years in the league. However, that didn’t deter Big Ben from following through on his previous commitments to Miami (Ohio) University. Roethlisberger slowly chipped away at completing his education degree, earning about one credit per off-season and ultimately finishing up his schooling in 2012, nine years after he was drafted.
9. Venus Williams
Tennis star Venus Williams can be counted among the few athletes who is actually applying her academic background to help further her career endeavours. When she has been busy racking up seven Grand Slam titles, the elder of the famed Williams sisters has followed her passion for fashion and style. She earned her associate’s degree from The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in 2007, the same year that she won her fourth of five Wimbledon trophies. From there, she put the degree towards starting her own fashion line and interior design company.
8. Mike Komisarek
Early in 2015, the National Hockey League Players’ Association launched a program to help current players return to school as part of a broader effort to prepare players for their lives after retirement. In building the program, NHLPA representatives met with recently retired NHL defenseman Mike Komisarek, who had been one of the few players enrolled in classes while active. Komisarek had re-enrolled at the University of Michigan during his playing days, making him a rarity in a league where most of the top players have never had any post-secondary schooling.
7. Chris Paul
“Off-season” isn’t a phrase that really applies to Chris Paul, who fills the period between the end of one NBA season and the beginning of another with a multitude of responsibilities and pursuits. First, there’s precious catch-up time spent with his wife and two children. Then, there are his charitable efforts and an on-going commitment to representing Team USA at international competitions. If that isn’t enough, Paul has been working towards his degree at Wake Forest after leaving school for the NBA following his sophomore season in 2005.
6. Bo Jackson
Injuries derailed the career of multi-sport superstar Bo Jackson, but that wasn’t what prompted him to return to Auburn University. Jackson was actually fulfilling a promise that he made to his mother when he re-enrolled to complete his Bachelor of Science degree in family and child development at the school where he had starred as both a baseball and football standout. Since earning his degree, Jackson has served as president of the HealthSouth Sports Medicine Council.
5. Kevin Durant
A known lover of video games and a regular backpack-wearer, Kevin Durant can still look the part of the student despite his 6’9″ frame and his NBA superstar status. Maybe it’s because Durant, despite boasting over $100 million in the bank and a huge windfall contract forthcoming, still is a student. After entering the NBA as part of the one-and-done generation, Durant has continued taking classes from his University of Texas alma mater, where he has already gotten his jersey retired after just one year in school. Despite what Durant may say on Twitter, that schooling doesn’t include a real law degree.
4. J.J. Putz
J.J. Putz enjoyed a lengthy 12-year career in the majors as an MLB reliever, reaching his peak during an All-Star 2007 campaign. He never, however, completely left behind his days at the University of Michigan, where he shared a dorm room with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. In 2010, 11 years after originally being drafted by the Seattle Mariners, Putz made his way back to Michigan to complete his undergraduate degree in kinesiology. With 189 career saves, he’s always been a guy who knows how to close things out.
3. Michael Jordan
If there is anyone on this list who had little use for a college degree, it has to be Michael Jordan. It’s a credit to His Airness, then, that he remained determined to earn his diploma from the University of North Carolina. In the summer following his Rookie of the Year-winning 1985 campaign, Jordan made his way back to UNC to finish up a bachelor’s degree in Geography. Doubly impressive was his chosen major, given that the institution recently acknowledged years of academic violations surrounding athletes being enrolled in phoney classes to remain eligible to play. Geography was never one of those phoney programs.
2. Leon Lett
When you think of Leon Lett, you don’t necessarily think of an intelligent, educated individual. Fairly or not, the Dallas Cowboys legendary defensive tackle is best remembered for a pair of boneheaded misplays during an otherwise Pro Bowl career. Despite the reputation, Lett is actually one of the brighter minds in the history of the NFL. He graduated from UNLV with a degree in University Studies eight years after retiring from the game so that he wouldn’t be the only person in his family without a diploma.
1. Shaquille O’Neal
After a dominant college career, a hugely successful NBA tenure, less than stellar rap and acting pursuits and a strong start to his broadcast career, it’s easy to forget that the colourful big man known as Shaq was originally a pretty good student. O’Neal played two years at Louisiana State University before leaving for the NBA but returned during his playing career to earn a bachelor’s degree in general studies, as well as an MBA and a PhD in education. He would later enrol in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Reserve Academy and become a reserve police officer.