Athletes with College Degrees: 18 Examples of Sports Stars That Went Back to School

Like many young kids growing up, you may have dreamed about becoming a professional athlete. It’s a great dream that is reproduced across scores of local courts, diamonds and fields.

And while becoming a professional athlete is one path that can help you live out your dreams and alleviate any future financial concerns, in reality, most college athletes go pro in something other than sports – that’s why earning a college degree is incredibly important.

But just because someone had the unique talent to play pro sports, a good number of athletes demonstrated their own commitment to earning an education as well.

There are many athletes like Brett Favre, Tim Duncan or Mia Hamm who completed their college education and then went on to pursue successful careers at the professional level. But this list is a little different.

This is a list of professional athletes from the MLB, NBA and NFL with college degrees that even after finding success on the playing field understood the long-term value of earning a degree and for either personal or professional reasons went back to school to finish their degree.

While we found 18 impressive stories of pro athletes and their commitment to education, let us know if we missed anyone in the comment stream below.

NFL players that went back to earn a college degree

1. Ben RoethlisbergerBen-Roethlisberger

After playing for Miami University (Ohio) from 2001 to 2003, Roethlisberger was the 11th overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft. Over the next five year he went on to become a two-time Super Bowl champion in 2006 and 2009. And after several years of taking college courses during the off-season, he earned a degree in education nine years after entering the NFL. 

2. Brandon JacobsBrandon-Jacobs

Before becoming a two-time Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants, Jacobs was an All-American who attended three different schools during his time in college. And even though he was drafted in 2005, prior to graduating from school he was committed to going back to earn a degree. Over the course of four off-seasons Jacobs completed a bachelor’s degree in sociology and became the first member of his family to earn a college education.  

3. Emmitt SmithEmmitt-Smith

You may remember this Hall of Fame running back from when he won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. But what you may not know that after he left the University of Florida after his junior year in 1989 he returned six years later to complete a bachelor’s degree in public recreation, while still playing in the NFL! 

4. Leon LettLeon-Lett

As an NFL linemen and three-time Super Bowl champion, you might think Lett has accomplished a lengthy list of career achievements. But as the only member of his family not to have a college degree, he returned to school and graduated with a degree in sociology and history in 2009 – eight years after retiring from football. 

5. Troy PolamaluTroy-Polamalu

While Polamalu is well known for his flamboyant hair and the two Super Bowls he won with the Pittsburgh Steelers, many are unaware of that after leaving the University of Southern California in 2003 he vowed to return and complete his degree. In 2011, he fulfilled that promise and earned a bachelor’s degree in history.

NBA players that went back to earn a college degree

6. Antawn JamisonAntawn-Jamison

Upon leaving the University of North Carolina after his junior year to enter the NBA draft, Jamison knew that one day he would finish what he had started in the classroom. He quickly returned a year later to complete his degree in African-American studies.

7. Damon StoudamireDamon Stoudamire

Prior to his 13-year career as a player in the NBA, Stoudamire completed four years of school at the University of Arizona but fell short of graduating. But before retiring from the NBA in 2007, Stoudamire completed his degree and is now help players develop on the court and in the classroom as a coach at his alma mater.

8. Don NelsonDon-Nelson

Nelson won multiple champions with the Boston Celtics as a player in the 1960's and 70's. As a coach he has amassed 1,355 wins over 31 seasons. But after all of that he still wanted more. He returned to college after 50 years to complete a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 2012.

9. Jeff GreenJeff-Green

Three years after enrolling at Georgetown University, Green left school and was the fifth pick in the 2007 NBA draft. And while you might expect the offseason for professional athletes to be filled with vacations, Green in fact spent the first 4 summers of his career taking classes to earn a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in theology.

10. Jerry StackhouseJerry-Stackhouse

Upon entering the 1995 NBA draft after just two years at the University of North Carolina, Stackhouse was 50 credit hours short of earning a degree in African-American studies. During his first four years in the league, he took summer classes to complete the degree in 1999, fulfilling a promise he made to his mom and coach.

11. Juwan HowardJuwan-Howard

As part of the University of Michigan’s “Fab Five” it was clear that Howard was bound for the NBA and, like his fellow freshman superstars, left school short of earning his degree – but not for long. He made history by working around his NBA schedule to earn the credits needed to graduate on-time with his class at Michigan with a degree in communications.

12. Michael JordonMichael-Jordan

Almost everyone knows the story of how Michael went from being a University of North Carolina student athlete to becoming perhaps the best NBA player ever. But you may not have known that one year after being drafted by the Bulls, he returned to school in 1985 to complete a bachelor’s degree in geography.

13. Shaquille O’NealShaquille-ONeal

As a person large in stature and personality, “Shaq” as he is widely known, has an impressive list of both athletic and academic achievements. Upon completing three years at Louisiana State University and going on to a 19-year NBA career he earned a bachelor’s degree in general studies, an MBA and PhD in education.

14. Vince CarterVince-Carter

While many people remember him for his high flying dunks in the NBA, you may not know that after leaving the University of North Carolina after his junior year in 1998, he promised his mother that he would return to complete his degree in African-American studies – which he did.  He even attended his graduation ceremony on the morning of a playoff game in 2001.

MLB players that went back to earn a college degree

15. Bo JacksonBo-Jackson

Considered by many to be one of the greatest athletes of all time, Jackson enjoyed professional careers in both football and baseball. But after a hip injury sidelined his career in sports, he went back to school to finish a degree in family and child development – thereby fulfilling a promise that he made to his mother before she died of cancer.

16. Curtis GrandersonCurtis-Granderson

Besides batting with his left hand and throwing right, Granderson is part of a very elite group of professional baseball players. As of 2012, he was one of only 34 MLB players – out of 917 – that had completed a four-year college degree. Granderson left college after his junior year to play baseball in the minor leagues but was committed to finishing a business degree – a feat he accomplished in 2003.

17. Eric KarrosEric-Karros

As the 1992 National League Rookie of the Year you might imagine that Karros was completely focused on baseball, but that wasn’t the case. While preparing for the upcoming season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Karros attended UCLA and finished his economics degree in 1994. He played baseball until 2004, before transitioning to a career in broadcasting.

18. J.J PutzJJ-Putz

After earning Mr. Baseball honors as a high school student, Putz attended the University of Michigan for four years and was drafted in 1999, having never earned a degree. More than 11 years later, however, he finished a degree in kinesiology while throwing 90-mile-an-hour fastballs for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

 

Have you ever considered going back to school to finish your degree?

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As an Inbound Marketing Manager at Rasmussen College, Grant creates helpful, student-focused articles to educate, encourage, and motivate current, past, and future students in an effort to promote a learning culture that changes and builds lives.

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