Two years removed from his playing days at Ohio State University,
LB Ross Homan, a three-year starter and team captain at Ohio State, is one of the nine going through combine drills. When approached at Lucas Oil Stadium, Homan says that he’s already seen Washington on campus and knows why his former teammate has returned.
Oxford, Mississippi is about an 11-hour drive from Columbus. Home of Ole Miss Football, Oxford produced just two combine participants this year following a disappointing 4-8 campaign.
Coach Houston Nutt’s program produced as many Chiefs last season as it did combine participants this year with team captains
Like Washington, McCluster takes a stroll across his old stomping grounds. Both players go through off-season workouts in their college communities, but this year they are in town for other reasons as well.
McCluster and Washington are back to complete their college degrees. Joined by Kendrick Lewis, who is finishing his final six hours at Ole Miss via an online class in New Orleans, the trio will soon form the Chiefs graduating class of 2011.
On average, between 20 and 25 players complete either an undergraduate or graduate degree over the course of an NFL season. Having three from the same team complete degrees in the same off-season is a significant number.
In fact, heading into the 2011 season, the Chiefs have the highest number of players returning to the classroom of any NFL team. This total includes players who have headed back for college credit, but won’t complete their degrees this off-season.
“It was understood in my family that I was going to come back and complete this,” Lewis said. “I’m planning to walk in the graduation ceremony to give my mom a chance to take pictures and everything.”
Lewis will graduate with a degree in criminal justice, while McCluster and Washington are finishing communications degrees.
The impact of family members, an effective football support system and access to information seem to be key influences in driving players back to the classroom.
McCluster is returning because of a promise he made to his mother and young daughter, DaKayla.
DaKayla will receive a full scholarship when McCluster graduates and joins an Ole Miss alumni program called The M Club. Although Lewis is yet to have any children, he plans to join The M Club as well.
With each player being under 25 years old, the three are living out their dreams, beating long odds to become one of the .09% of high school seniors drafted by an NFL team. Now that they’ve reached the highest level, returning to school is an investment to secure a future beyond football.
The NFL is the world’s most glamorous temp job with the average career lasting just over three years. For the majority of players, unemployment hits before they reach their late 20s.
Ken Ruettgers, a former player and current advocate for NFL players transitioning from professional sports, noted that 78% of all NFL players are either divorced, bankrupt or unemployed just two years after leaving the game.
A critical factor in that alarming statistic is the lack of a college degree when football comes to an end.
That’s where Chiefs Director of Player Development Katie Douglass comes into the picture. She’s on staff not only to assist players in making a positive contribution to the Chiefs and to the NFL, but also to help prepare athletes for a successful post-NFL career as well.
This off-season, Douglass has worked closely with players and representatives from university support staffs. At Ohio State, she’s found a strong system already in place, led by Director of Player Development Stan Jefferson.
It’s Jefferson and other staff members that will help guide Washington through his final credit hours.
“I had lunch with Donald just a few weeks ago and his main thing is that he wanted to come back and finish, just like anything else,” Jefferson said. “His attitude was great and he wanted to finish the fact that he wanted that degree.”
Washington left Ohio State with a year of football eligibility remaining, but just five hours shy of obtaining his degree. He actually participated in graduation ceremonies before leaving campus with the expectation of finishing his final course shortly afterward.
“Finishing college is about finishing what you started,” Washington said. “It’s something that I believe in and that my family believes in.”
Washington’s final five hours will be served through an internship within the Ohio State media relations office. He is working directly for Director of Football Communications Shelly Poe to study a number of skills that are both relevant as a player today and in the future as well.
“The internship will last a total of 120 hours,” Washington said. “Right now I’ve done a lot of shadowing with media people and just trying to get the feel for conducting interviews. You know, it’s a different perspective than being interviewed as a player. I’m learning how people prepare for the interviews and why they are asking the questions the way that they are.
“I’m also going to be doing some things for the website and writing about some of the players as well.”
Additionally, Washington must also perform 50 hours of community while on campus. Its part of a degree completion program offered at Ohio State that allows lettermen from any sport to finish their degree free of charge.
“Our degree completion program is available for any of our student athletes who have been here on an athletic scholarship,” explained Senior Athletic Academic Counselor John Macko. “The program funds their tuition for their last 45 credits as long as the student has maintained a 2.0 GPA and commits to community service work in order to re-pay the university for the tuition.”
Macko has been at Ohio State for over 25 years. He specifically works with the football team as an academic advisor and is in charge of the Buckeyes degree completion program.
“They encourage you to finish your degree and if you leave early, they really help you find a way to reach that goal,” Washington said. “That’s one of the things that really made me feel comfortable when I decided to come out early - the fact that I knew they would work with me and help me to pursue my degree. It’s something that Coach Tressel stressed from the first day I met him.”
At Ohio State, the offer to finish never expires as long as basic entry and exit requirements are met.
Two-time Pro Bowler LeCharles Bentley finished his degree through the program last summer and Alex Boone of the 49ers is currently enrolled as well.
“Our oldest guy was Dick Schafrath that joined us probably about 10 years ago when he was 70 years old,” remembered Macko. “He played at Ohio State in the 1950s and for the Cleveland Browns. He was also a state representative for the state of Ohio, but came back because he promised his mom that he’d graduate and finished it off.”
In this setting, peer pressure is a good thing.
People like Douglass are employed at the league level to educate players on the variety of programs available to better themselves, while aides at the collegiate level, like Jefferson and Macko, offer friendly reminders to athletes when they make return visits to campus.
Seeing former collegiate teammates commit to finishing school helps as well. At Mississippi, the return of a teammate planted a lasting seed within Lewis.
“I played with a player named Jason Cook that came back to start on a second degree after he was cut from the Ravens,” Lewis remembered. “That was something that stayed with me and played a part in committing to come back as well.”
Lewis, Washington and McCluster all hope to have long NFL careers, but family members, development directors and college counselors have helped them understand that a law of averages are in play as well.
Not everyone will be a football analyst for a major network once their playing days are over. This year, the Chiefs have had a record number of players make an investment towards their post-football future.
Lewis, McCluster and Washington are scheduled to be this year’s valedictorians.