Penn State

Penn State football players tackle tough subjects off the field

Penn State football player Kyle Carter practices using a foam roller during a demonstration with classmate Matthew Schroeder in his Kinesiology 457 class (Exercise Prescription and Case Studies) on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014.
Penn State football player Kyle Carter practices using a foam roller during a demonstration with classmate Matthew Schroeder in his Kinesiology 457 class (Exercise Prescription and Case Studies) on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014. CDT photo

The dumb jock. The guy who can throw a football but probably can’t read his own diploma. Har har.

It’s an easy stereotype, a cheap joke. And, at Penn State, at least, it’s wrong.

Penn State has long prided itself on the fact that its players didn’t just come to play as a gateway to the NFL. Its players have earned double degrees (defensive end Matthew Rice), law degrees (kicker Chris Bahr, defensive back Adam Taliaferro), Phi Beta Kappa keys (quarterback Todd Blackledge), and the Campbell Trophy for the nation’s No. 1-football-playing scholar.

The 2013 recipient, guard John Urschel, earned a math bachelor’s degree with a 4.0 average in three years while a Nittany Lion, completing his Penn State career with a master’s in math that he finished in one year, moving on to a second master’s in math education, still maintaining a perfect GPA, while teaching classes in trigonometry and calculus, authoring papers and planning to get his doctorate.

Jocks. What can you say?

This month, Penn State was named in the top 15 of the 128 schools that play in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, not for yards rushed or passes completed. This was for a different kind of score, graduation success rate. Narrow that list to public universities, knocking out the Stanfords and Notre Dames, and Penn State rises to No. 5, with a graduation success rate of 87 percent.

Mike Hull is a linebacker at Linebacker U. He is playing as a senior this year, but really, he’s a graduate student now. Hull, who had a father and an uncle letter at Penn State, graduated in May with a 3.3 average in finance. Dumb jock jokes don’t sit well with him.

“People that have that opinion about the experience at Penn State don’t know all that goes into it, and they need to reconsider,” he said.

He points toward Todd Kulka and the Morgan Academic Support Center staff as being key to balancing the needs of an athlete training and playing in season at the same time that there are classes and papers and tests.

“The hardest part is time,” he said.

That’s why tackle Andrew Nelson looks at taking a redshirt season as freshman as a bonus. Now academically a sophomore with a 3.44 average, he has adjusted to college and the team while still having a little breathing room.

“I think I was pretty grateful,” he said. “I took a couple classes toward my major. I’m taking two more this year. With redshirting, one of the good things is you have that opportunity to focus more on academics. I took that opportunity to get that good GPA base.”

His major? Kinesiology. He picked it for its broad possibilities when football is over, because he is realistic about the lifespan of a gridiron career.

“It’s a huge umbrella. I can go into physical therapy, medical school. I like that option of being able to choose later on,” he said. “At the end of the day, the most important thing is getting that degree.”

That’s why he picked Penn State. Like Hull, he has Nittany Lion blood, with five other family members attending the university, and says the education drew him as much as the chance to play in Beaver Stadium.

“At Penn State, you get the whole package. Academics, athletics, tradition,” Nelson said. “A lot of other schools, you go just for the coach, just for football. Pepole come here because of the school, because of what that means.”

For years, plenty of guys came just for Joe Paterno, who had a reputation as an academic stickler. He was fired amid the Jerry Sandusky scandal in 2011 and died in 2012, replaced by Bill O’Brien, who spent two years at the helm before leaving the program for the NFL. James Franklin is in his first year as head coach.

“Joe Paterno set the bar,” said Hull, crediting his successors with doing “a great job holding Penn State to a high standard.”

University President Eric Barron said Thursday that the academic success of the football team was a “wonderful story” about the institution’s commitment to its students, and vice versa.

In 2014, Penn State football players have graduated or will graduate with degrees in advertising, public relations, criminology, energy business and finance, finance, finance and psychology, human development and family studies, kinesiology, recreation, parks and tourism management, secondary education, sociology and philosophy. There are 95 members of the team, with 30 declared majors among them.

None of them should have trouble reading their diplomas.

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