With their competitive playing days behind them, former Hurricane student-athletes are returning to the Coral Gables campus to complete their degrees, earning the one tool that will help them succeed for their rest of their lives.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (September 16, 2014) – As much as Earl Little knew that football was a way out of Liberty City’s crime-ridden James E. Scott housing projects, he also understood that a professional career in the sport would be fleeting and that he would need something more tangible to sustain him long after his playing days in cleats and shoulder pads had ended.
So when the final whistle blew on a nine-year NFL career that included stints with the New Orleans Saints, Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers, Little, who played a position—safety—regarded as the quarterback of the defense, made the call of his life. He telephoned the University of Miami, where he starred as a defensive back from 1993 to 1997, to find out what it would take to complete his degree.
“God blessed me with incredible athletic talent,” said Little, who, coming out of North Miami High School in 1992 was recruited by college football powers such as Notre Dame, Michigan, and USC. “But knowing the attrition and injury rate of the NFL, I knew I couldn’t play in the league for very long. I needed to have that piece of paper.”
It turned out Little was just one course shy of earning his degree. He quickly reenrolled at UM, registered for a statistics course, and graduated in a semester, fulfilling a promise he made to himself and his mother, Mamie Morris, who had always stressed the importance of education to her six children.
Little is now the head football coach at Jackson High School in Miami’s Allapattah community. He is also among a growing number of former UM student-athletes who, for various reasons, left school without completing their degrees but are now returning to finish what they started. Helping them accomplish that goal is the University of Miami Athletics Degree Completion Program, an initiative that invites former scholarship athletes to return to the U to complete their degrees, providing them with tuition reimbursement.
“While we want our student-athletes to compete at the highest level, we also want them to achieve academically, whether it’s going for a Rhodes scholarship or trying to get into medical or law school,” said David Wyman, associate athletic director for academic services and assistant dean of undergraduate education. “A future in professional sports is guaranteed to no one. Only a select few make it, and when they do, it doesn’t last forever. They must be able to transition into something else, and a college degree gives them that opportunity.”
Octavia Blue, who left UM in 1998 to play in the WNBA, knows that better than anyone. After her professional basketball career ended, Blue wanted to go into coaching, but she needed a college degree to land a job with a Division I program. She emailed UM President Donna E. Shalala for help. “She stepped right in and helped make it all happen, making sure the right people got in touch with me about finishing school,” Blue said of Shalala’s assistance.
Today, Blue has her sociology degree and a position as an assistant on the Miami women’s basketball squad, working with head coach Katie Meier to inspire young women to use education as a tool to advance. “I didn’t go to UM just to play basketball, and obviously for me to attain some of the goals I wanted in life I needed a degree. So that was always the plan,” said Blue. “The WNBA is great, but it’s not a league where I was going to be filthy rich and wouldn’t have to work again. I owed it to myself to get my degree.”
Since Shalala began enthusiastically supporting the athletic degree completion program in 2006, at least 18 other ’Canes like Blue and Little have come back to complete their studies. Many have been baseball players, like catcher Charles Johnson, who departed early for the Major Leagues, eventually helping the Florida Marlins win a World Series. But they come from all sports, from football and basketball to tennis and track and field.
Wyman said the program solidifies UM’s already strong reputation as a school committed to the success of its student-athletes on and off the playing field. Last year, Miami recorded a 92 percent graduation success rate for its athletes, placing it in a tie for third among Atlantic Coast Conference schools and tenth overall among FBS institutions.
Director of Athletics Blake James calls the initiative a trendsetter at a time when the NCAA and schools are being criticized for not doing more for student-athletes. “We’re definitely at the forefront,” said James. “Given everything that is going on publicly regarding scholarships, potential pay for play, and all the things playing out in the court system, we’re seeing more and more institutions step up and provide this opportunity for their student-athletes, which again I think is such a great credit to the vision and commitment President Shalala has had for student-athletes at the University of Miami for so many years.”
It was Shalala who helped Audra Cohen return to UM to finish her degree after the former NCAA singles champion and No. 1-ranked collegiate women’s tennis player in the U.S. left Miami to turn pro in 2007. “Without her initiative in helping me, I would be three steps behind in life,” said Cohen.
Little doesn’t use stories of his NFL career to motivate the high school players he coaches. He uses his college degree, which he says made his mom happier than the day he bought her a house with some of his NFL earnings.
“Even if I had lost everything I earned through the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears expended in the NFL,” said Little, “I knew I always had my degree to fall back on.”