Pads and grads: Celebrate those athletes who make extra effort for diploma after turning pro

A big portion of players don’t want anyone knowing that they were working as hard in a classroom as they were on the field.

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Timothy Trainor, left, president of Mount St Mary’s University, shows three fingers for the number of Super Bowl rings that Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Todd Bowles, right, has as he introduces Bowles at the 215th commencement exercise for Mount St Mary’s University on May 13.

Timothy Trainor, left, president of Mount St Mary’s University, shows three fingers for the number of Super Bowl rings that Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Todd Bowles, right, has as he introduces Bowles at the 215th commencement exercise for Mount St Mary’s University on May 13.

AP

I get really emotional when graduation season arrives. My students have become used to the end-of-quarter sobbing session that I have in front of them. It’s meant for all of them because of how hard they work. It’s amazing to see the transformation from when the quarter started to when it ends. For those who are heading toward commencement, it’s a stronger feeling, knowing what they have achieved.

It has been a joy seeing so many athletes post pictures of their graduations this season. Buccaneers coach Todd Bowles, 59, walked across the stage last week at Mount St. Mary’s more than 40 years after starting his education there. It was because of a promise he made to his mom. Justin Fields walked across the stage to applause at Ohio State, and Cole Kmet proudly posed with his degree from Notre Dame.

As they say on the internet: “You love to see it.’’

This must be normalized. When I was covering NFL locker rooms, I knew of plenty of players who were finishing their undergraduate work in silence. There were a few more who were earning post-graduate degrees and MBAs in their spare time. You’d be surprised at how many of your favorite Bears are accomplished academics. You’d be surprised because a big portion of those players didn’t want anyone knowing that they were working as hard in a classroom as they were on the field. There were still too many coaches who believed that a player with a split focus is not all-in for the team.

It’s a myopic view.

I always thought it allowed these players to be more well-rounded and connect with fans in a way that is difficult for most professional athletes.

Athletes are gaining more agency at the college level. Last week, I was talking with Northwestern guard Boo Bouie about returning to Evanston instead of going pro. It’s wonderful that with the rise of name, image and likeness (NIL) deals, players such as Bouie can make some money, return to school and get a post-graduate degree or certificate.

Now it wouldn’t be right as the GOAT of uncles if I didn’t brag about my niece, A’Jah Davis. She finished her career at Northern Illinois as the career leader in double-doubles (54). In fact, she was top five in the country in that category last season. It broke my heart when A’Jah chose Seton Hall over my alma mater, DePaul, for her extra year of eligibility, but I appreciate the courage it took for her to make that choice.

I think a lot about what has happened over the last three years. The impact on all of us is still being measured, but the impact on our educational system has been up close and personal for me.

What we asked our students to do was impossible. Yet they adapted. Teaching online was clunky and messy, but somehow they persevered through that. Seeing the effort that these students put in to get their education was remarkable. Their ability to adapt is inspiring. They were, of course, bolstered by caring family members and teaching professionals who were just trying to survive the new normal, but the students are the ones who deserve the credit. They could have punted on the whole idea, but they didn’t.

Which is why I need you to do me a favor.

Celebrate your student this graduation season. Go crazy at the ceremony and the graduation party. I don’t care if it’s kindergarten, high school, community college, trade school or someone getting a PhD. The achievement that we’ve witnessed over the last three graduating classes is unprecedented, and our students should be told that.

So be extra! Tell your student that you understand the sacrifices they made to their social life or how you noticed them coping with some of the weaknesses in our technological infrastructure. Post those happy pics online. Toast a glass. Let them know how proud you are of them. Because they did the impossible.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to have a good hard cry in honor of what our students accomplished. Feel free to join me.

You can hear Laurence Holmes talk Chicago sports Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 670 The Score with Dan Bernstein.

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