BETTER LATE THAN NEVER NEW FLORIDA GRAD EMMITT SMITH IS AMONG A GROWING NUMBER OF ATHLETES WHO HAVE GONE BACK TO COLLEGE TO EARN THEIR DEGREES

May 12, 1996

Welcome, all of you, to this special graduation weekend. I am
honored to deliver the traditional commencement address that no
one listens to, following the traditional baccalaureate ceremony
that no one stayed awake for. I will try to make my remarks
brief, but remember, it could've been worse--the second choice
for speaker was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose favorite subject
is the World Court.

We have assembled a very special group of graduates, but I guess
you know that, judging by how many of you are tugging at Emmitt
Smith's gown. We'd like all of you to let go and take your
seats, including the dean of students. Thank you.

I think I can dispense with some of the obligatory platitudes,
the ones about, let's see, this ceremony marking a beginning,
not an end, and how you should reach for the stars and be true
to yourselves. We are gathered here today because of the news
that Mr. Smith--he of the $3.4 million-a-year NFL salary,
several million more in endorsement income, the three Super Bowl
rings and the three successful companies--was returning to the
University of Florida to receive his degree, six years after he
left Gainesville as the Dallas Cowboys' first-round draft
choice. A long time ago Mr. Smith promised his mother that he
would earn his degree, and from where we sit that's as worthy a
reason as any. We can see Mary Smith right now, in fact, waving
a white sign that reads PROUD MOM. You should be, Mrs. Smith.
And we'd also like to acknowledge the award that Emmitt has
received from his classmates: Most Likely to Have Already
Succeeded.

But Mr. Smith isn't the only graduate being honored today. We
did some checking and discovered that this
going-back-for-the-sheepskin thing isn't as rare as you might
think among pro athletes. True, the headlines over the past few
weeks have been about young men such as Allen Iverson and
Stephon Marbury, who have left college early to play pro
basketball, and about Kobe Bryant, the lad from Lower Merion
[Pa.] High, who no sooner finished his Montessori training than
he declared himself ready to dunk on Michael Jordan. Those
stories have made us a bit more cynical about athletes' interest
in education, but when we introduce some of the grads in the
audience, perhaps that cynicism will begin to dissipate.

Toward the back of this grand hall is Michael Jordan, who two
years after leaving North Carolina to turn pro in 1984 earned
his degree in geography. I'm sure Dean Smith's carping at him
about Carolina's graduation rate had something to do with
Michael's decision, but lots of collegians need motivating to
finish their studies. Right next to His Airness is Isiah Thomas,
who produced another proud Mary in 1987 when he got his degree
in criminal justice from Indiana, thus fulfilling a promise to
his mother. By the way, it's nice to see you guys sitting
together, but your trash talking is a bit distracting. And
there's Bo Jackson--can I call you Bo? Congratulations on
getting that Auburn degree in family and child development last
year.

There's another familiar face, the Washington Bullets' Juwan
Howard, who left Michigan a year early but still graduated with
the class of '95--a degree in communications, wasn't it,
Juwan?--with the help of a load of correspondence courses. I see
lots of others in the NBA section too. There's a Tar Heel with a
degree in communications--Coach Smith get to you, too, Mr. J.R.
Reid? And stand up, Avery Johnson. Oh, you are standing? Sorry.
You still should be proud of that degree in psychology from
Southern. I see you're chatting with Doc Rivers, who went back
to Marquette for his prelaw degree in 1985, and Terry Porter,
who earned his communications degree from Wisconsin-Stevens
Point 10 years after he left in '85. John Salley, kudos on your
return to Georgia Tech for an industrial management degree in
'88. Perhaps you could have a word with young Stephon?

I'm not surprised to see one of pro sports' most intelligent
men, Buck Williams, who got a business administration degree
from Maryland in '88, but I must confess that Dale Ellis's
appearance here surprises me. Nevertheless, Mr. Ellis, who once
had a reputation as something of a bad boy, finished his degree
in sociology from Tennessee in 1985, two years after he left.

Let's take a look at the pro football section. There's Rocket
Ismail, fast with the ball, slow to get his degree from Notre
Dame. Nevertheless he got it, in 1994, three years after he
bolted to Canada. There's Jimbo Covert--not often you get to use
the word jimbo in a commencement address--who got his English
literature degree from Pitt in '92 after eight seasons with the
Chicago Bears. Our best, Mr. Covert, and would you please
unstrap the dean of students from the blocking sled. And though
we're honored to have former Pro Bowl receiver Ahmad Rashad, who
earned his sheepskin in sociology in 1995, 24 years after he
left the University of Oregon as Bobby Moore, we wish he'd put
down that microphone and conduct his interviews after the
ceremony.

In the NFL Class of '96 section, the gentleman sitting with
Emmitt Smith is the Arizona Cardinals' Clyde Simmons, who picked
up his industrial distribution degree from Western Carolina 10
years after he left. Next to them is a special section for the
NFLers scheduled to graduate this summer, Eric Zeier of the
Baltimore Ravens and Dan Saleaumua of the Kansas City Chiefs
among them.

The number of NFL players who return to graduate has swelled
greatly since 1991, when the league contracted with the National
Consortium for Academics and Sports, an alliance of more than
100 colleges dedicated to continuing education. There may be
more than 350 NFLers pursuing degrees by the end of this year,
about 25% of the league's players. It makes a lot of sense. The
average NFL career lasts less than four years, and many players
actually have to work for a living when they hang up the pads.
That so many football players are making progress toward degrees
sends an important message to all those young people who pin
their hopes and dreams on the slim chance of making it in pro
sports: Even if you do make it, you had better be prepared for a
second career, because sports offer no guarantee of long-term
security.

Remember when baseball players thought a campus was something
where us camped when us went hunting? Even players like Christy
Mathewson and Lou Gehrig, who were known for their smarts, did
not get their degrees from Bucknell and Columbia, respectively.
But now baseball players are going back to school, some to
complete their degrees, others to start college because they
were drafted right out of high school. Jack McDowell got his
degree from Stanford, and Derek Jeter is still taking courses at
Michigan.

Look, I don't want to be naive. Hopelessly optimistic and
relentlessly uplifting, yes--but not naive. So I will not
overstate the academic achievements of our distinguished
graduates. One of the courses Mr. Smith took along the way to
earning his B.S. in public recreation from Florida's College of
Health and Human Performance was called Leisure Services for
Older Adults. Shuffleboard, anyone? And I'm sure some of you
Florida Gators in attendance recall one tale of Mr. Smith's
rematriculation. It seems he was missing from class one day when
he was scheduled to give a presentation. When the professor
asked where Mr. Smith was, he was given this immortal answer:
"Oh, Emmitt's on tour with Hammer." Call it work-study.

But these athletes who return to get their degrees deserve no
small measure of praise. They demonstrate that you can't put a
price on everything, that some things transcend endorsements and
fame. Our jaded world has more reason to listen when an athlete
who jawbones about the value of education has something besides
a prepared script to back it up. As Mr. Smith said today, "I
always felt a little hypocritical talking to kids when I hadn't
accomplished my academic goals myself. Now I won't be lying."

Well, thank you for listening. And I've been asked to make one
special announcement: After the graduates file out, Florida's
director of alumni fund-raising would like to schedule an
appointment with Mr. Smith.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT ROGERS Pomp and Circumstance Cowboys superback Emmitt Smith, who left school early to go pro in 1990, returned to Florida last Saturday to pick up his degree (page 72). [Emmitt Smith wearing cap and gown--T of C] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS To the delight of Florida president John Lombardi, Smith practiced what he preaches. [Emmitt Smith, wearing cap and gown, and John Lombardi]
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