By Herb Benenson
Strolling through Berkeley nearly 12 seasons since he last suited up for the Golden Bears, Tully Banta-Cain recalls the familiar sights and sounds of the University of California campus and the surrounding area.
The view from the Lawrence Hall of Science high above the bay, the boats docked at the Berkeley Marina on the waterfront and even certain smells trigger memories from his days as a Golden Bear more than a decade ago when he prowled the gridiron as an All-Pac-10 defensive end on the football team.
But Banta-Cain is back at Cal for more than just reminiscing. He is here to finish something he started when he first enrolled in the fall of 1998. Following an eight-year NFL career that netted two Super Bowl championship rings while with the New England Patriots, Banta-Cain wants to earn his college degree.
“I felt like it was something I had to finish,” Banta-Cain said. “Leaving early for the NFL was an opportunity for me. I felt like it was something that was lingering on my to-do list. Why not get it done while I’m still young and in a mode of transitioning careers from the NFL to whatever I do next? I felt like it would be a perfect opportunity to get back in and finish.”
Banta-Cain is not alone as a former student-athlete in the classroom. He, along with dozens of others, is taking advantage of Cal’s Degree Completion Program (DCP), a coordinated effort that includes support from the Athletic Study Center, Cal Athletics, the Office of the Registrar, college and major advisors, and, of course, the student-athletes themselves.
The focus of the program is the conclusion of the degree process for former student-athletes who, for one reason or another, had their academic careers interrupted.
“I fully believe from a moral and ethical standpoint that we need to commit ourselves institutionally back to them,” said Derek Van Rheenen, the director of the Athletic Study Center who oversees the Degree Completion Program. “Not in the short run, not just while they’re participating in sports, but in the long run. If someone is not ultimately graduating while they’re here and eligible, that offer continues to remain throughout their lives. They decide when it’s the right time to come back.”
Among those currently on track to finish after time away are more than half a dozen football players. Besides Banta-Cain, the list includes former running backs Jahvid Best and J.J. Arrington, as well as receiver Nyan Boateng and linebackers Ryan Davis and Devin Bishop.
Beyond football, many others are taking advantage of the opportunity to earn their degrees years after leaving Berkeley. Former soccer star Megan Jesolva and former basketball Pac-10 Player of the Year Sean Lampley, for example, are also close to completing their requirements.
In recent years, three of the more high profile student-athletes to pass through the DCP are Shareef Abdur-Rahm (basketball), Todd Steussie (football) and Anthony Ervin (swimming). All fulfilled their requirements more than 10 years after departing from Cal and enjoying long careers in sports. Today, Abdur-Rahim serves as director of player personnel for the Sacramento Kings and general manager of the Kings’ Developmental League team in Reno, while Steussie is a management consultant in St. Louis after earning an MBA at Northwestern. Ervin is back in the pool after a period out of the water and earned a spot on the 2012 USA Olympic team in the 50 freestyle.
But for every well-known student-athlete, there are many more lesser-known individuals who more quietly return to school. The reasons why they left early vary widely and not all were to play professionally.
“Some of these students have already had successful careers,” Van Rheenen said. “They are ultimately transitioning from one profession, and they’ve decided now that it’s time to ultimately get done what they weren’t able to get done.”
Once back on campus, the former student-athletes often have a fresh perspective on their studies. Older, more mature and unburdened from the commitment to train and compete, they often find more satisfaction the second time around.
“Your time management is better,” said Arrington, who led the nation in rushing in 2004 and was a second-round draft pick by the Arizona Cardinals before a series of knee surgeries ended his playing career. “This is my first time going to school without playing a sport. Part of the reason I signed (with Cal) was for the education. Like the NFL was a dream, to finish school was a big dream, too. I’m going to be the only male in my family to graduate from a four-year college.”
From the moment Sonny Dykes took over leadership of the Cal football program in December 2012, improving the culture around academics has been a major focus. Results for the present players can be seen in significantly higher GPAs and Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores over the past year. But part of his philosophy extends to former student-athletes, offering them an invitation to be a valuable part of the Cal football family.
“One of the most important things we do in our program is to welcome former players back and make them feel at home,” Dykes said. “They’ve invested a lot into this program and this university. It’s a credit to them for wanting to come back, and it’s a credit to our administration for encouraging them to come back.”
With the average NFL career about 3 1/2 years, many players who first earn their place in the professional league are on the outside by the time they’ve reached their mid-20s.
“What are you going to do for the next 50 years?” Dykes said. “That’s why it’s so critical in today’s day and age to get that degree.”
Take Jahvid Best, for example. A first-round draft pick after a record-setting career at Cal, Best left school following his junior year for the NFL. But after parts of two seasons with the Detroit Lions, injuries ended his playing days and by January of 2014 – just before he turned 25 – Best was re-enrolled at Cal and working on his degree requirements.
“The first couple of weeks were the toughest, just waking up and getting back into the routine of going to class and taking notes,” Best admitted. “I kind of forgot what that was like. I came back to finish my degree. That was the first thing I wanted to do after my football days were over.”
In addition to his schoolwork, Best is also giving back to the football program, working with the coaches as a student assistant. Banta-Cain and Arrington are also helping as mentors to the players in the program, offering advice on how to handle themselves and setting expectations for their careers after college.
“The message really radiates with our players,” said Ron Coccimiglio, director of career development for Cal football. “It’s great when somebody has walked in the path previous to them. To see them come back really confirms the importance of getting the degree.”
That sentiment certainly extends throughout Cal’s 30 intercollegiate programs. Jesolva was an All-Pac-10 performer for the Bears’ women’s soccer team in 2010, then left school during the spring of her senior year to try her hand at the pro game, a chance of a lifetime, she said. But by the next fall, the league had folded and she came back to school to take care of her degree requirements.
“Soccer had been a big deal for me – it got me into Berkeley – but my education is what is going to get me through the rest of my life,” said Jesolva, who is now working as a personal trainer and manager of a sportswear shop in Manhattan Beach.
Similarly, Demetrius Omphroy had a choice to make after his senior soccer season in 2011 when he was drafted into Major League Soccer. Over the next couple of years, he played for Toronto and DC United, as well as for the Filipino National Team. In 2013, he had a chance to return to Cal with a scholarship to help defray the costs, and he took full advantage of the opportunity.
“One of my bigger goals was to get my degree,” Omphroy said. “Playing professional soccer and traveling around was a huge accomplishment, but getting a degree from UC Berkeley is worth a lot more in my opinion. You hear so many stories about guys who leave to play pro and never go back. I didn’t want to be one of those kids.”
Under the Degree Completion Program, which was created with a gift in memory of David Paul Ross (Class of 1984) and continues to receive financial support from the Ross family, the number of “those kids” has the potential to drop dramatically over the upcoming years. Through improved tracking, partly as a result of recent NCAA academic reforms, advisors, coaches and athletic department administrators have a better idea where each student-athlete stands in relation to their degree requirements every semester. The athletic department also helps with outreach and financial resources to encourage former student-athletes to return to school.
As a result, it has become easier to work with students to finish their final steps – whether it’s a full semester in Berkeley, a specific class or assignment or even an online course. Van Rheenen and his staff at the Athletic Study Center are ready to help navigate the terrain to ensure all of the necessary measures are taken. The list includes such areas as registration, advising, tutoring, career counseling and simply learning how to fit in again on campus. Additionally, a supportive team culture within each sport program is important to let the former student-athletes know that they are welcome any time they want to return.
“A lot of these individuals will never count in terms of graduation rates,” said Van Rheenen, noting the six-year window student-athletes have to finish their degrees in order to be considered in NCAA graduation rate data. “Is it the right thing to do? Yes. Is it important that we’re still here to support them? Absolutely. It’s a matter of doing what should be done.”
Given that they possess more life experiences than the typical college student, those in the completion program often make time to help guide current student-athletes through the difficulties and decision-making process that come with being an undergraduate at the world’s No. 1 public university.
“What has been most successful is when they find their place back on campus, how incredibly valuable they can be as mentors to young student-athletes, regardless of what they went on to do, whether they had successful career in the pros, whether they took a break because of financial reasons or family issues,” Van Rheenen said. “They come back and they’re more mature. They’re coming back with a different engagement level oftentimes into their institutional academic work. They become very good role models and are respected by young student-athletes.”
Banta-Cain, as with many of the former student-athletes on campus, fits that precise description. Not only has he stood before the Cal football team to offer his perspective on life in the NFL with all the pressures and obligations that come with it, but he has found that he enjoys school far more than he did the first time around.
“I’m a lot older now, so some of the things that are going on in class are a lot more relevant to me than they were just after high school,” Banta-Cain said. “I’m enjoying all my classes. I’m sitting in the front. I’m answering questions. It’s good to be more interactive with the whole educational process.”
Through the Degree Completion Program, more and more former student-athletes are getting the opportunity to experience just that.
This feature originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of the Cal Sports Quarterly. To subscribe, email email@example.com.